Liesbeth den Besten
This lecture was given on the occasion of a one-day seminar Reconsidering Identity in Göteborg, Sweden in September 2009, and up-dated in October 2010. In this lecture I talked about my New Zealand experiences, and what I learned about jewellery in New Zealand. Besides that I showed some work of the youngest generation and I tried to figure out if there was something in this jewellery that identified it as ‘typical New Zealand’ and how this relates to global jewellery.
It was a privilege to be invited as a visiting guest to New Zealand in 2007, on a two-week program full of visits, discussions, exhibitions and lectures, drawn up by Warwick Freeman. I travelled with my Swedish colleague Love Jönsson.
In September 2009, on the occasion of Warwick’s exhibition and visit to Sweden, it was Love Jönsson who organised the one-day seminar titled Reconsidering Identity. At that time Lisa Walker was there also, because she had just finished a workshop with the students of the art school in Göteborg. I came, as the one and only ‘Dutch ambassador of New Zealand jewellery’
It is only when you travel to a country as far away as New Zealand that you start realizing that living there must be quite different from living in the Netherlands which is kind of ‘the centre’ of Europe. You have to pass continents and oceans before you arrive in New Zealand. Arriving there is a strange experience: looked upon as a dangerous species you are first sprayed while still in the plane, then questioned and inspected – woe betide the one who forgot to clean the profiles of his hiking boots. New Zealand seems obsessed with illegal exotics – at least it seems from a European point of view.
On the other side of the globe I learned many things about New Zealand, not only about how far and how isolated, but also about their very special culture. Because I had been in Australia twice, I kind of thought New Zealand would be basically the same. But that was wrong. I was - it was clear - completely ignorant of the Polynesian - Pacific connections of New Zealand, and bit by bit I learned more about its unique bi-cultural character. While globalisation is inevitably affecting every country in the world, New Zealand seems pretty self- confident in a cultural sense. While on the one hand issues of identity, ownership and appropriation influence art and applied arts, politics and daily life, on the other hand there appears to be a rich communal ground for all kinds of artistic expression: indigenous materials, traditional Maori techniques, patterns, and ornaments, and a sense of place, of being connected with a place. A basis which is unique, and binds together – a foundation that is missed in Europe, at least in my country the Netherlands. A way of life by the way, that is now ardently argued against by an extremist right wing politician with cultivated blond hairs at the expense of immigrants, especially Muslims.
Whether a piece of jewellery is made in Spain, Finland, Sweden, Holland or England is difficult to say – European jewellery is dipped in a global sauce. Individual voices, individual personalities, are discernable though, but there is no national common ground underneath. National identities are a difficult topic, perhaps we have had too many wars because of that. Therefore we invented the European Union, which now all of a sudden seems to be one of the reasons for the re-discovery of a rather harmless nostalgic, provincial folklore as well as the manifestation of a rather dangerous politically extreme nationalism.
Compared to Europe New Zealand seems an exotic place in many ways. In New Zealand an ornament will be analysed as a symbol and a material can have a political implication, in Europe these connotations are not as obvious, though they may be there. An international audience will have difficulties in reading this idiosyncratic language. Warwick Freeman has been the only New Zealand jeweller for a long time, who has succeeded in appealing to a global audience while maintaining a typical New Zealand syntax. Now that more and more New Zealanders try to conquer the world this may be the dilemma in the next few years: will there be enough potential in the New Zealand identity or will New Zealand jewellery be smoothly modified and end up, in the fusion kitchen of global jewellery?
Living together with 4 million people in a spacious country like New Zealand (which is nevertheless quite small as compared to nearest neighbour Australia) outside of the nucleus, and in the periphery, will affect your thinking, making and doing. New Zealanders are very much aware of their isolation and they try to tackle this problem in different ways. I have tried to analyse the kiwi-strategy in this.
1. Splendid Isolation
We should start with the tactics of ‘splendid isolation’. They have concentrated on the creation of their own identity and cherishing what is particularly theirs. In jewellery this brought about New Zealand’s own new jewellery: the Bone Stone Shell movement of the 1970s. The history of contemporary jewellery in New Zealand starts in the early nineteen seventies and becomes a serious business when six young jewellers rented premises in Auckland to establish a gallery called Fingers. It was 1974. The gallery still exists today as a flourishing cooperative and is one of the oldest specialised jewellery galleries in the world. The history of the gallery reports of countless one-person exhibitions and theme exhibitions with titles such as the “Guaranteed Trash Punk Show” (1976), “Fimo Jungle Jewellery” (1978), “Bone” and “Paua Dreams” (1981). Especially note-worthy, the last two shows about bone and paua shell as a material for jewellery, showed how there was a growing awareness among the kiwi jewellery makers of their place in the South Pacific and its rich indigenous jewellery tradition.
Actually Bone Stone Shell was not a movement as such but was the title of an exhibition that toured Asia and Australia in 1988. The same goes for the New Jewelry, by the way, which cannot be described as a real movement with shared manifestos and aims, but was the title of a publication by Peter Dormer and Ralph Turner, in 1985. However, it is not only laziness to use these titles again and again as indicators of a certain attitude in jewellery, in a certain formative period in New Zealand, Europe and America. Both titles were well chosen and, in their three word conciseness, they – unintentionally - exactly express the opposite positions of New Zealand and Europe. New Zealand, the country where jewellery makers were dependent on their own talents (there were hardly any schools at that time) and their own indigenous found materials. Europe and America, the self-acclaimed centre of the world where The New Jewelry was developed and defined. Because of their isolation the New Zealanders took a far more modest position than the Europeans and Americans. They knew there was much more going on in other parts of the world, while we – the Europeans – remained completely ignorant for some decades to come.
The Bone Stone Shell exhibition involved 12 artists:
Michael Cooper (1949) who worked with greenstone and paua shell, stones and shells ‘to celebrate our connections to the land Aotearoa’ in his words. Elena Gee (1949), one of the few women artists in the exhibition who collected treasures from the beach and arranged them in boxes made out of metal debris and industrial flotsam. The natural found objects were observed as pristine objects, she only altered them as little as necessary to make them wearable. Gee also had a more weird and loose side as other work from this period shows. Warwick Freeman (1953)who exhibited three concentrated and pure circle necklaces. One made of chicken bones, one made of flakes and one made of paua – bone, stone, shell. Roy Mason (1949) who made a political comment in beautiful aesthetic pieces. And Alan Preston (1941) who used and still uses indigenous materials and forms as a social-political statement. In the catalogue he writes: ‘I give thanks to the people of the Pacific and their ancestors. Their traditions together with mine are a source of ideas and inspiration for my comments about a new Oceania.’ Besides these indigenous forms, he also applied the Western form of badges.
Bone, stone and shell (especially stone and shell) still play a role in New Zealand jewellery – you can find it in every gallery and shop. Now also in a rather metaphorical sense alluding to the found object, is the assembled, the work of the bricoleur. This mentality shapes the work of younger New Zealand jewellers, like the four Weeds-girls, Fran Allison, Andrea Daley, Shelley Norton and Lisa Walker, who had their first European exhibition at the same time as this lecture (September 2009) at Gallery Biro in Munich. Their work may as well be interpreted as a strong and youthful rebellion against the material tradition. The four Weeds artists work with soft and flexible materials, with synthetic and industrial materials, with vibrant colours and urban aesthetics. Away with the pristine minimalism and the painstaking skills, their work is convincingly crafty. And while Bone, Stone, Shell was predominantly masculine, also in its mentality (sturdy forms, the use of strings and knots), Weeds is explicitly feminine (colourful, soft materials, referring to the home rather than to unspoiled nature). The beach was the main site for the jewellery-makers of the 1980s. The city with its shops, markets, litter and household rubbish are the sites for the younger ones. Both generations picked up the detritus and junk, either from the ocean or from the city. The use of found objects seems to have become second nature to New Zealand contemporary jewellers.
2. Collaboration and Infiltration
But actually I was telling you about Kiwi tactics for dealing with their problem of isolation. As I told you, first there was a period of discovering and formulating their own identity, a period of ‘splendid isolation’ represented by the Bone, Stone, Shell jewellery-makers. We can conclude that this was quite a long period – New Zealand remained that remote place that only every now and then attracted a lost jeweller from Europe - Hermann Jünger, Otto Künzli and Karl Fritsch - to do some teaching. Only a few younger jewellers left the nest, most of them went to Australia for their art education, some brave ones went far away, like Fran Allison who studied and worked in England for 10 years, and Lisa Walker who went to Munich and lived there for many years before returning to NZ in 2009, together with her German family. In 2005 they formed the Weeds, together with Shelley Norton and Andrea Daley. Weeds is the embodiment of a new period in New Zealand tactics to combat isolationalism. They adopted the tactics of collaboration and infiltration. The Weeds group is an ongoing collaborative project working on the creation of events and critical discussions. Till now the Weeds have managed to organise four exhibitions at different venues, currently infiltrating the European jewellery scene. Their ‘manifesto’ says “…that each new project is developed out of the previous. The intention is that this would allow time for the critical evaluation of each event to impact on the individual’s studio practice and the studio practice to then reinform the next ‘Weeds’ event.”
This idea of collaboration and exchange, as formulated by Weeds is inspired by an intense urge to learn and get on, and an eagerness to present. This need for collaboration is less felt in Europe where individual autonomy is highly esteemed. A situation – by the way - that leads to another kind of isolation, as is often observed by both makers and critics. The collaborative aspect is emphasized in the way Weeds present their work in printed matter as one and the same: colourful and uprooted, growing rampant, the Weeds work shares a similarity. Of course Lisa Walker, their loyal Europe-based sister, is a strong character: her work is so versatile and passionate that no one can beat her. But don’t underestimate the others. Shelly Norton’s playful knitted creatures that represent a clear and colourful craftiness, are firmly based in ideas about body language and inter-human communication. Andrea Daley’s embroidered plastic tops, and typical Weeds works like her flower brooches are just part of her diverse work. Besides that she makes ex-voto brooches and sticking plasters with images that come from religious cards.
Fran Allison’s Weeds-brooches are created out of leftover fabrics. The Vine Corsage, which is a coated piece, is made from cast dead foliage, broken crockery, resin and paint, and aims to combine garden and house, the discarded and the beautiful. Allison’s ‘How to…’ necklace, made from cut out red dots combined with lollipop sticks refers to a traditional Maori lei as well as to the poppy known in the Western world as a symbol of remembrance of those soldiers who died during WW I and II. In Fran Allison’s work Weeds is an important factor, as she writes: ‘I continue to try to use Weeds as an experimental platform, particularly in materials experimentation.’
So Weeds is a playing ground and all these idiosyncrasies, sometimes characterised by an irritating clumsiness, are pretty well in tune with international jewellery. Which leads to the inevitable question – will this kind of work finally end up in the European melting pot of jewellery or will it be able to stand apart as new indestructible exotic? Recently Weeds invited four other artists to join their exhibition Weeds Invites. Three of them were from New Zealand (one of them living in Australia): Renee Bevan, Roseanne Bartley and Sharon Fitness, and the other guest was David Bielander from Munich.
But it is not only the Weeds, there are other initiatives as well, for the moment mainly occurring in New Zealand but they will spread their ideas and work all over the world – there is no doubt about that. When visiting NZ in 2007, we were amazed about the number of places where jewellery was actually taught, made and exhibited. The last couple of months I have been overrun by a stream of invitations and plans for New Zealand exhibitions. There was the group exhibition Handstand, organised by Peter Deckers in Auckland, and the exhibition The Multitude. Right at this moment the Weeds exhibit in Munich, while Warwick exhibits in Sweden. Damian Skinner organised a New Zealand show for an American gallery, later this year. And Octavia Cook will have a solo show in 2010/11 in Amsterdam, while she already had one in Sydney, Australia. It looks as if this country is steaming and bubbling with energy, soon it will erupt. Of course it is not all positive, there is a certain tendency towards maintaining a ‘bread and butter line’. A tendency that is visible in the galleries mixing up ‘bread and butter’ with more experimental designs.
Peter Deckers is a jeweller, teacher and curator of jewellery exhibitions. Born in The Netherlands he emigrated to New Zealand in the 1980’s, and is now based in the neighbourhood of Wellington. During the last couple of years he has organised some quite special exhibitions showcasing the work of emerging jewellers, out of a feeling of responsibility. In his view the official museums and institutions at the present time do nothing to stimulate this group of designers. This used to be quite different in the nineteen eighties and nineties. Now, he says, young jewellers tend to need to conform to popular commercial demands for the purpose of earning money which kills the creative process. Therefore he organised Handstand, showcasing experimental work of 21 recently graduated young people at the New Zealand Jewellery Show in Auckland, an annual fair for fine and experimental jewellery. I will present the work of some of the exhibitors.
Vivien Atkinson uses the intricate and fragile icing techniques of traditional wedding cake decoration to make lush white sugar ornaments directly on the body. In its aesthetics this work may look traditional but Atkinson gives the concept of body adornment a new content by combining conventional ornamentation with cooking materials and techniques, and the human body. The fragility and temporality of the ornaments oppose jeweller’s claim of eternity. Yet the wedding ring, made in 2005, is still in excellent condition and is worn every now and then. At the Handstand exhibition Atkinson offered to meet the buyer and design a set of jewellery, do the icing and take photographs for $600 nz (plus travel costs). There was one candidate from Wellington but, as Atkinson explained to me, with Wellington's cold windy weather this was not feasible. Damp is the enemy of jewellery made from icing sugar.
Selina Woulfe makes body ornaments at the interface of body piercings and medical skin grafting. The forms of the Silvergraft brooches are based on the mesh pattern of the skin. The metal is treated in a very special way, in her own description: ‘the metal is put through a ritualistic process of fortuitous pattern making, hand sawing and hammering.’ The brooches are attached to the body by piercing the skin with a surgical wire pin. As such these brooches incite the same mixed feelings of pain, horror and fascination as piercings, tattoo’s and scarification do.
Less provocative is the work of Jacqui Chan. Chan’s Exotic Blend is a series of jewellery, made from old English and Chinese tea tin caddies and other packaging. Growing up in a bicultural village and later on in the Pakeha dominant South island, a typical post colonial society, her sense of being half-Chinese became entwined with domestic objects. In outside life there was no room for reflection about her Chineseness. Now she makes use of cheap domestic ware to put together a fabricated material culture of ‘half-caste Chinese-Pakeha or ‘Chinkeha’ and Chinese New Zealanders. Her work is a typical New Zealand reflection on the issue of identity.
Finally I want to show one work of Vaune Mason, an interesting piece because it investigates the borders between private and public in a very special way. She created an old fashioned camera like pendant containing negatives of her own portraits. In this way she ‘forced her mark further into the piece’ as she says herself. The wearer can decide which image is in the front, or how she is viewed. In this way she gives a new turn to the notion of the author of the jewellery, jewellery made by an artist, an author. To what extent can the wearer be challenged to identify with the maker of the piece (s)he wears?
The Handstand show focused on the experiment, on jewellery with guts, breaking through traditions and codes. It gave an opportunity not only to present what happens in this field for a broad audience, but also to encourage new makers to go on and ‘not to compromise their passion by attempting to make an income from it’ as Deckers writes in the introduction to the catalogue. Here Peter Deckers leans on Lisa Walker, who advised his students from Whitireia ‘to locate a simple part-time job instead and to nurture the passion with great independent energy.’
Octavia Cook is one of those New Zealand jewellers who fully concentrates on her work without making any concessions. Cook uses the cameo to explore the possibilities associated with commemorative portraiture, featuring her own portrait with ponytail, that of her cats, Queen Elisabeth, Captain Cook, Tsarina’s, Maharani’s and imaginary characters - all in a classical silhouette. They are confronted with her brand name Cook & Co, which is prominent in most of her designs. Cook talks the language of branding and commercialism, and she does so with a wink – also in her presentations. She wanted ‘to play on the idea of ‘Tiffany & Co’ being an ultraluxe multinational, as Cook is such an unglamorous name.’ Further she sees the company also as a response to all those fashion jewellery lines with fancy names.
In the foregoing I have introduced the work of three ‘kind of generations’: Bone, Stone, Shell, Weeds and Handstand plus Cook&Co. We can all conclude that the latest generation speaks an international language, they are formed and taught under the influence of international social network groups and a never ending influx of information. Perhaps they are fed up with greenstone, paua shell, symbols and emblems, perhaps future generations will find their answers in a new use of indiginous materials. At this moment though, we can conclude that the fusion kitchen of global jewellery has swallowed New Zealand, or we can take a different perspective, one that comes from the periphery of the southern hemisphere.
Then we can say the last phase in kiwi tactics has arrived. Warwick Freeman and Lisa Walker went ahead: they were the first to enter the international jewellery scene and they did it convincingly. Both artists won the honourable Françoise van den Bosch Award for jewellery, Freeman in 2002 and Walker eight years later (the award will be presented in October 2011 in the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amstelveen, the Netherlands). Now other New Zealanders dare to take the step and have set out for Europe to present their work in the European arena. Sign of a new self-consciousness. Living in the periphery shouldn’t need to be a disadvantage anymore, especially when new ways of working and exchanges are developed. And New Zealand can teach the world a lot about discussing identity and being aware of one’s identity and alliance with a place. In no other place on earth have I seen a bigger concern with descent, origin and identity, combined with a feeling of responsibility as in New Zealand. At the of 2009 Lisa Walker was reunited with her Weeds sisters as she settled in Wellington/New Zealand, together with her family. Getting New Zealand’s illustrious daughter back to New Zealand again together with Karl Fritsch, who is one of Europe’s leading goldsmiths, is a big effort. This is how kiwis win the world.