A Rare Treat

Blog post
Published: 16.05.2012

UNEXPECTED PLEASURES : The Art and Design of Contemporary Jewellery

is an exhibition curated by Susan Cohn and organized by the Design Museum, London,
on view at the National Gallery of Victoria from April 21 to August 26, 2012 and the Design Museum, London from December 5, 2012 to March 3, 2013.


The conglomerate we call Contemporary Jewellery is an untidy beast ― heads of a Hydra, more arms than a Hindu God/dess, more legs than a millipede, and the propensity for transmogrification of a mythic creature, especially when worn. (A brief prowl around the klimt02 web-site confirms this.) It slips the categoric noose time and time again. However, when exhibited en masse, a curatorial strategy needs to be developed in order to assist the viewer of a multitude of objects which normally would be seen singly, and worn. (Such an undertaking might seem like herding sheep ― when attempting to pen five sheep, they inevitably appear to run in six different directions.)

The curator, Susan Cohn, has approached the task of crafting the exhibition with meticulous, if idiosyncratic, particularity, combining her own agendas as a maker, wearer and connoisseur with the strategic policies of the Design Museum, London. These, in common with many museums, are founded on the premise that they are educational institutions with a mandate to instruct those attending exhibitions and to guide them towards an informed experience of whatever they are viewing. And there are constant reminders that this exhibition and accompanying book were developed under the auspices of such a museum ― from the assertive graphic design aesthetic of the didactic presentation to the industrial demeanour of the showcases with their shiny bolt-heads.

The viewing of an exhibition as particularly crafted as Unexpected Pleasures in its curatorial premise and approach evokes the work of taxonomists, where phenomena are categorized according to various criteria, which may follow traditional patterns or be developed for the exploration of a particular thesis. But, of course, classification is a familiar human trait. We do it all the time in order to make sense of our world. Our practice of it ranges from everyday division of food into meats, fish, dairy, nuts and grains, fruits and veg; or, for the more nutritionally minded, protein, fats, carbohydrates, etc. (Of course, for professional dietitians, it’s a science in which meticulous and exacting stringency is employed, and imposed.) We distinguish between olive oil and bathroom cleaner, between tea and coffee, between beer and wine, further ― between red and white and rose, still and bubbly, grape variety, terroir, climate, season. We sort our undies and sox, our trousers and skivvies and jumpers, our coats, gloves, scarves, hats.

Exhibitions of contemporary jewellery are not common, so curatorial decisions about selection and classification, rather than being taken for day-to-day-granted, inevitably lead to discussion, particularly among those working in the genre. Experts abound; opinions proliferate. Curatorial strategies vary considerably: the chronological/historical approach according to generations or ages of jewellers, or according to country of origin; some classify work according to perceived approaches or schools, or according to the whim of the curator ― sometimes demonstrating apparently quite gratuitous relationships between objects, or according to what looks good with what, what dialogues can be developed between objects, or, more pragmatically, according to size ― quite simply, which objects fit within which showcases.

In Unexpected Pleasures, which is an exceptionally bountiful feast featuring 186 works from 126 exhibitors, the conglomerate is divided into manageable portions ― bite-sized chunks ― deployed and arranged in categories. Some works are privileged with individual show-cases, others are displayed in clusters, cohered with the support of didactic material. The impression is that of a smorgasbord, and for those prepared to take the time and avoid the distractions of the next then the next then the next showcase, the invitation to linger and savour the samples ― to degust ― is clear.

The categories into which the works are grouped are numerous ― potentially innumerable, for, once one adopts the role of taxonomist, possibilities increase exponentially. Some, which look at the relationship, both physical and physic, between jewellery and the body are familiar, as are those linking the jewellers’ art to specific approaches to material; others invite a particularly idiosyncratic and imaginative view of the work. It is no easy task, to tease out what it is in their world, and in the poetic and material potential of their chosen medium that leads these jewellers to make the things they do. The use jewellers have made of photography since the sixties is well known and explored with insight and wit. Throughout, the educational focus, though playful, is unrelenting. Perhaps appropriately. It is clear that few people have the opportunity to view works such as these. The examples that exist in gallery and museum collections are inevitably relegated to small discreet showcases in out-of-the-way corners, if they are displayed at all.

The diversity of jewellers represented in the exhibition is considerable, determined by the curator’s informed choice and predilections, as well as the availability of certain work. Its historical ambit ranges from Alexander Calder in the 1940s to work made in the last year, and embraces both long-established and younger practices. Geographically, it covers the majority of countries in which artists have engaged in the genre we call Contemporary Jewellery. Its categorical range, from uniquely consequential exhibition pieces to production work, exhibits sentiments which are ernest and profound, playful and irreverent, joyous, sombre, inquisitive and exploratory, didactic, dramatic, modest, outspoken, subtle, intense, diffuse. There is something for everyone ― to delight in, to be intrigued by, to be amused by, to be provoked by, to be outraged by. I would have said “to be puzzled by”, but confusion can be at least partially allayed by reading the accompanying texts.

Here, I must indulge in sharing with you a few of my favourite pieces: the Alexander Calder piece, of course ― so masterfully direct (I was fortunate to handle examples of his work from a private collection in Paris some years ago); a glorious gold and paint neck ornament by Robert Smit, which I covet, unashamedly (would steal); Bernhard Schrobinger’s haunting bracelet commemorating the Cambodian “Killing Fields”, which I had only ever seen in reproduction ― so poignant in the spare economy of its form and execution; Herman Jünger’s multiple pendant, an absolute validation of his position as the grand old man of contemporary jewellery; the austere linen brooch-dresses of Monika Brugger; and the singularly affecting images by Annelies Strba and Bernhard Schrobinger.

I spent an entire Saturday afternoon in the exhibition. While there, I also watched other visitors viewing and discussing the work, reading the copious didactic material, and moving around the displays, in some instances to view the back of the pieces ― always interesting, especially to other jewellers. I was delighted to indulge in the rare treat of experiencing at first hand so many works seen, either long ago, or only as images, and so many unfamiliar items, to discover jewellers and works unknown to me, and to renew acquaintance with works which, over the years, have become like old friends. This klimt02 web-site is a wonderful resource, but an image can never replace the almost visceral experience of viewing work “in the flesh” ― the sense of texture, of weight, of rustle, clink or clank, the warmth of tool-mark, the in-the-round persona of the piece.

The book published on the occasion of the exhibition, also titled UNEXPECTED PLEASURES The Art and Design of Contemporary Jewellery, edited by Susan Cohn, for the Design Museum, London and published by Rizzoli International Publications 2012, is a comprehensive and valuable document. Although dominated by an assertive graphic design aesthetic, it is a worthy memento and complement to the exhibition, containing a generous selection of fine images and essays which further explore and expand upon the exhibition and its curatorial premise.

I was privileged to walk around the exhibition with the curator, who told me some of the story behind the exhibition’s development. Her undertaking in the selection and classification of Unexpected Pleasures brings to mind the butterfly-hunter-come-taxonomist. Susan Cohn, is such a hybrid creature, whose taxonomic enterprise has been executed with passion and wit. Whatever opinions viewers and readers may have about the exhibition and the book (the “critics”, as always, will be out in force) it is appropriate to thank Susan Cohn, the Design Museum, London, the National Gallery of Victoria, most particularly the jewellers who have so generously loaned their work, and all who have contributed their effort and expertise, their time and their passion, to give us the opportunity to view such an exhibition as Unexpected Pleasures ― indeed a rare treat!

UNEXPECTED PLEASURES : The Art and Design of Contemporary Jewellery can be viewed at the National Gallery of Victoria between now and August 26, 2012
And at the Design Museum, London, between December 8, 2012 and March 3, 2013.

(Images taken in the exhibition Unexpected Pleasures, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)