Is the object really necessary
Talk for Jemposium 2012
Today, I am wearing a hearing aid. A hearing aid that doesn’t work; that has no function despite having movable parts. It’s made from silver; it’s a replica/a fake of an actual hearing aid. Why would I make this and what is it saying? I’ll come back to this particular work later.
Firstly, I would like to set forth the following question.
Is the object really necessary?
Necessity is a curious word. It makes us think of a roof over our heads, food on the table, shoes on our feet. But in fact what we need goes beyond these basic considerations to more complex emotional and intellectual sustenance; stimuli that enables us to function and develop.
As humanity has evolved we have become increasingly complex creatures that have an awareness of our selves and our environments. This awareness has led us to attach intellectual and emotional significance to the material.
Here’s a revealing comment from an Apple executive. “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards. And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”
Our desire for objects is entrenched in our societal, as well as individual, psychologies. From the clay pot to the credit card, objects reveal both monumental and ordinary aspects of our histories. Jewellery has a vital role in this story - as a means of exchange and wealth, as an indicator of status, and as a ritual item. The object is always close to us revealing itself.
In several of my projects I have investigated the idea of the object.
One of these projects was HOLE. In this exhibition there were no exhibits. The cabinet was empty, the drawers were locked and some of jewels were deliberately lost. With HOLE I was addressing ideas of absence and memory, but more interesting was the position of the missing object. A void was created which in turn subverted the conventional visual language with which we read art. Responses varied, but many felt cheated without some jewellery to coo over. I like to think that the objects denied their audience. The absence of the jewellery questioned the role of the physical object.
But what is jewellery’s role in our modern and future lives?
There is a question that keeps nagging at me. Why make another ring? Surely there are enough rings in the world. There is enough stuff to last several lifetimes – we are inundated with accessories and gadgets.
Despite the fact that the market still wishes to define itself with the status symbols of jewellery, that is no reason why we, as makers, need to play the same game. We have been relieved of the burden by the advent of a mass industry that churns out every criteria of jewellery we can imagine – traditional, ethnic, funky, cute, and urban-tribal. And society has a new jewel for its mass pleasure – the hand-held gadget.
Jewellery making for the sake of another ring, a pretty necklace and a pair of earrings to accentuate the curve of the neck is unnecessary. This is not a place that contemporary jewellers need to tread. If we make unthinkingly we fall into the traps of tradition which, although valid, do not challenge us.
I am curious about what we can do that not only stretches the possibilities of what jewellery looks like, but also how we approach the process of making and in turn extend dialogue. There are many examples of transgressive jewellery. By this I mean, it looks different, it breaks the rules; but ultimately follows existing patterns of thought and process. It is but a flip-flop – a taking of the negative position. While the end object may seem radical, it does little to extend practice. We need to be inventive rather than transgressive.
Discomfort forces us to examine our behaviour – forces us to wonder whether we have become complacent. It is easy to fall into a pattern of making that works, it is easier to resist challenge at the risk of failure. We need to take risks for it is from chaos that we make our best discoveries.
Sometimes it can be the process rather than the result that sets that challenge.
LIKE was an experiment. The exhibition explored the translation of an object into words and words into objects. The writer had rules to which he had to adhere, as did the jewellers – they were restrained from following their conventional patterns of creating. Their individual habits were disturbed and ultimately their frustration subverted the experimental constraints.
Focal to LIKE was its attempt to refrain from being a show of objects, and rather an exploration into the process of making, and the mechanism of responsive thinking. But more importantly to me it revealed what happens to the creative process through disturbance and discomfort.
When an object expresses an idea, when it is a language, it asks us to communicate. Taking ideas and breaking them down into something that is thought provoking and not didactic is a challenge for conceptual art. A common failing of ideas-based practice is “telling a story”. Once the story is told there is nothing much else to think about. Successful work should keep resonating, not just for the viewer, but also for the maker.
While ideas can be stimulated by choice of material, by accident, by symbolism, by association, I believe that the more potent ideas are deliberate. The trick is how to let the wearer or the audience, join the dots and make the cerebral links to arrive at the idea themselves.
And to come back to my hearing aid. This useless item is part of the Bliss series. Bliss is concerned with apathy. Our society is one where empathy has been eroded by a highly competitive mechanism driven by marketing, false desire and a value system based on money and success. We are increasingly bombarded with branded and internet-savvy companies, with the influence of often-meaningless web-based dialogue and slick commercial politicking. We are told how to think and what to think in a seemingly “free” and “individualist” world. Despite 2011 being the Year of the Protester, we live in conservative times and without doubt art reflects society. Like other art forms, jewellery easily falls under the spell of these patterns of consumption and desirability. It is a danger to allow our egos to be purchased by being wanted.
Jewellery is nothing without its materials, but it is even less if the conversation it generates is bland. It is hoped that art raises questions that encourage deliberation and sometimes confusion. It is from the unexpected and not immediately understood that we can be intellectually stimulated and inadvertently altered. The object isn’t necessary, but what it can communicate is invaluable.