The Flower in the Wound: Situations & Reflections Part 1

Article  /  Debates   CriticalThinking   MargaretWest
Published: 03.01.2007
Margaret West Margaret West
Margaret West
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Lecture during the workshop SITUATION, a 6-day workshop for international jewellery artists at Konstepidemin, Gothenburg Sweden, August 30 to September 4, 2004.

Many things can incite an artist to make jewellery, irrespective of its potential role as a social catalyst. It is often prompted by existing situations, though it is not necessarily directed towards subsequent ones. What happens happens (or mis-happens). But, like all jewellery, it is haunted by the presence or the absence of a wearer.
Forge-welding is a metal-working technique. Some of you may be familiar with it. Two pieces of (usually similar) metal are heated to bright red, then held in tongs one over the other and hammered. The process is repeated until the two meeting surfaces diffuse and become as one. When executed with sufficient skill, this process gives one a remarkable sense of alchemical accomplishment.

I have been asked to speak to you today about my work which is on exhibition here in Götenburg, specifically within the context of this event called SITUATION (1). These are two different metals. Their welding was undertaken with considerable heat and more than a few hammer blows.

I will first share with you a little of my present thinking about the role of jewellery today as a potentially situationist (2) agent of parabiosis, which is the natural or artificial joining of two individuals — not quite as forceful as forge welding, however, there are similarities — then I will tell you something of the background to my work in Galleri Hnoss.

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Much has been said of the “crisis” in which craft is perceived to exist at present. The debate, perennial since the Industrial Revolution, acquires urgency from time to time. From evidence provided by the abstracts of three lectures from your Craft-in-Dialogue seminars it appears topical.
The situation is familiar. It is clear that this sense of urgency partly arises out of a concern with the manner in which educational institutions have latched onto innovations in design technologies in their rage for economic rationalisation. The crafting of art is intensive (thus expensive) of labour and material and, most essentially, time. Their teaching no less so. However, part of the larger debate may be a response to changes in the way in which human beings communicate one with another. Through the agency of the internet we converse without seeing the face of the other person, or even hearing their voice. We seldom hold the paper on which a letter is written, which may have taken days or weeks to travel from its sender via surface, air, or pigeon post, knowing that same paper was smoothed under the writer’s hand as they wrote, was folded and placed in an envelope by them, the stamp licked by their tongue. Aspects of physical reality, of actual physical contact, are being reduced to the infinitesimal dit of a microchip, which coruscates invisibly with information and is too small to see with the naked eye.

The irony of this situation is that we humans endure on this earth as fleshly entities — of bone and blood, of tendon and muscle, of viscera. We are no less substantial than we have ever been. Perhaps the development of virtual/digital technology is potentially a transcendental project; but we continue to be of matter not ether. Indeed, in some cultures (such as ours in Australia) there is a heavy emphasis on the physicality of individual being, sometimes at the expense of other human qualities. In the global context of human history, this adulation of physicality is not new; but for us today it may in part constitute an attempt to affirm the actuality of our presence in the face of the virtual — our embodied confrontation with the disembodied (a ancient pious concept which for the most part has been thrown out with god and the bath water).

Whether we observe its advance with dismay or join with delight in the exhilarating roller-coaster ride, technological progress, with its enabling and determining endowment, will continue to abscond with our sense of the substantial and our understanding of what it is that constitutes the evanescent present in which we dwell. Our disaffection will not abate for, in spite of genetic manipulation and other more primitive attempts to modify — to modernise our bodies, our physical evolution is much slower. People are still people — corruptible organisms which engage one with another as physical and social entities; beings who employ a range of strategies in order to negotiate their way in situations where they meet.

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We arrive naked into this life. The cord of attachment to our mother is severed and then tied in what is our first mark — our first jewel of situation. Each navel is unique — both individually and culturally specific. Midwives have their idiosyncratic methods of “tying the knot”; and the raw material varies considerably. In sub-tropical Sydney with the recent fashion amongst the young for hipsters at any time of year, it has been fascinating to observe the range of belly buttons and indeed the piercings and adornments to which they lend themselves. Belly button. See — we even call it a button, rather than navel or umbilicus, endowing it with the role of a jewel in preference to that of an innate body part. When we depart this life our mortal remains may be clad in sumptuous regalia, decked out in our Sunday best, wound simply in white cloth, or thrown, naked again, into the ground. In the intervening years of our lives we clothe ourselves, for many reasons, and some of us wear jewellery. We supplement or accessorise ourselves and consequently activate situations where we meet with others of our species.

Any thing worn by an individual person, carried by them, or obviously closely associated with them, acts as an agent of qualification — determines the nature of interaction between individuals in a situation of meeting. We are creatures of classification. Even in an unclothed situation, our idiosyncrasies of physiognomy perform a similar role, in the absence of specifically selected qualifiers, although our observation of them may be more discreet. In our clothed lives, so filled with dissemblance, it is the selection of the particular agent of qualification, in this case the jewel, which creates the newly invented, re-invented, or re-enforced identity or persona of the wearer.

The situation of a meeting between two unique individuals can be stimulated (or stifled) by the appearance — the intercession or intervention of an object, particularly an object (or jewel) worn on the body. Even (or perhaps especially!) mass produced objects, almost irrespective of their design designation, indicate attitudes, affiliations, ambitions. At the very least, they tempt speculation, invite classification, which can appear to be quite a straightforward task once the comparatively familiar object has been slotted into its category.
However, unique objects which are worn perform in a singular manner. Their activation or qualification of a meeting situation is unpredictable. Nothing is given. The ground slips and supposition or assessment must be made in consideration of an unfamiliar “appendage”. When a “known” person is met, they are qualified afresh by an unfamiliar jewel.
When the person is a new acquaintance, the jewel may qualify them, or vice-versa. This reciprocal, self-reflexive relationship between wearer and jewel, whether actual or notional, provides rich pickings for the artist who works in this medium. It is also fraught with complications.
No jewel can ever be an autonomous object, for, whether jewellery is experienced as an object on the body of a wearer or in an art gallery or museum, or whether it is viewed as an image in a journal or on a screen, the wearer is implicit, whether that wearer is the self or another.

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Some jewellery is designed to be worn — “born to be worn”; some merely contrives to be worn; and some may never be worn; but, although it may not be worn, the remembered or imagined potential of its agency as a worn artefact permeates all jewellery, in fact anything that is potentially worn.
Looking through a book on Russian costume in the Hermitage Museum, I was struck, as I have often been, by what I can only call the haunting of garments — by the inescapable presence of a real of imagined wearer. If the garments are worn, as some were in this book in the reproductions of portrait paintings, they are entirely inhabited. Their potential is filled to capacity and they are brought to life. If they are not worn — if they are empty — they are haunted by this very absence. No exorcism will remove the affective presence of a potential wearer. The situation of jewellery is not so different. Its potential to be worn, to have been worn, informs all jewellery. It, too, is either actually inhabited by a wearer or haunted by their absence.

Because of the imposition of human presence upon wearable artefacts — a result of this haunting — when we look at an unworn but potentially wearable garment or jewel, we inevitably find ourselves in an imagined situation of meeting. We are, in imagination, meeting ourselves or an-other as wearer.

With whom do we inhabit these things?
Who, in our imagination, dwells in them?

We meet ourselves as often as we meet others in our illuminated, shining environment. The flipped image of what we recognise as the only us we can see in a reflective surface — the self we greet in the morning mirror or sometimes, quite unexpectedly meet reflected in a shop window — is never the real us; but it is the self we have constant access to. And the self we meet imaginatively wearing an artefact is changed by the projection of the situation. We may posture a little, flirt with the idea of our wearing it. The other person we may imagine as they desire, or otherwise.

We have only to browse quietly through a garment or jewellery shop or an exhibition of wearable artefacts and listen in order to be made aware of these inalienable human qualities of projecting — of empathising and fantasising:
“They must have been wealthy/ strong-necked/ well-guarded to wear that.”
“They must have been quite petite”
“You couldn’t go hiking/ do housework/ play tennis in that”
“Now you could wear that”
“That would suit so-and-so”
“I could only wear that in the evening/ at the races/ at the opera/ with my hair tied back/ with my white blouse/ my black coat/ if I lost some weight”

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When we say you (or vous & tu or ni & du) we speak of an other — one which is not us — is not the first person. Is not I. Is not je. Is not ya.
When we meet an-other — a you or tu or du what is apt?
Who will look directly into my face? Who will look through my eyes into the thinking, feeling, selfless of me? Only an intimate. But, move your eyes from my face and look to your fill at my jewel. Read me through my jewel. By this, you can also “know” me. Or know what I would have you know of me.

Jewellery can be an agent of invitation, of insistence. As an intermediary it can intercede, interject, intervene. It can be a negotiator, an interlocutor. It can be a mouthpiece or propitiator. In its capacity as an attractor, jewellery can fascinate, lure; it can be bait or a decoy. As shield or deflector, it can repel. It can also be a distraction, create a diversion, obfuscation. And it can beguile, equivocate, dissemble, and deceive.
The jewel is a solvent, permitting dissolution into the object — a shared moment of dissipation into its neutrality, abyss, obscurity, delight.
As a surfactant the jewel breaks surface tension spilling the quivering meniscus of identity. It induces a particular kind of permeability into the membrane of individuality. It softens the scabrous crust of self.

We are all the same. We are all different
Everything we do; everything we say; everything we wear joins or separates us. The magnetic properties of jewellery are undeniable.
We have all experienced its push and pull.

1. situation: a place and its surroundings
a position in which one finds ones self
a state of affairs
a critical point or complication in a drama
The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary
Also dilemma or quandary (The Macquarie Encyclopaedic Thesaurus)

2. Situationism evolved in the late 1950s as a critique of passive consumerism. Its artists engaged with concepts of détournement (displacement), dérive (drift), and urbanisme unitaire (integrated city life).
By way of their situations the artists contrived to promote meaningful social interaction.

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About the author

Margaret West is an artist who sometimes makes jewellery; she writes - mostly poetry and essays; she is also a gardener who admires both roses and dandelions. She was born in Melbourne, and studied Sculpture and Printmaking at RMIT in the 1950s, then Ceramics, Painting and Gold and Silversmithing at RMIT in the 1970s. She has also studied philosophy and music - piano, oboe and viola. In 1979 she moved to Sydney to take up a position at Sydney College of the Arts where she taught until 1999. West has exhibited widely in Australia and overseas and is represented in major national and international art collections. Her poetry and essays are published in journals and anthologies and on the internet. She has published several artist’s books which develop a dialogue between text and image. Her work is informed by interests which range through literature, art and music, philosophy, science and technology, archaeology, geology, botany and gardening. Concern about political issues is often a springboard for the development of work.
West employs a variety of materials and processes in her work, as dictated by the matter in hand. These, in turn, play their role in determining the focus and form of the work. Since 2000 Margaret West has been on location at Blackheath in the Upper Blue Mountains of New South Wales.