The Body Layer; semblance and self // Essay

The Body Layer; semblance and self: Exhibition essay by Simon 

“The reasons why people make jewellery derive from the reasons why people want to wear jewellery” Marjan Unger (1946-2018)

This comment from a 2017 interview with noted Dutch art historian Marjan Unger, hints at the personal intimacy and plurality of meaning at the very foundation of jewellery. It also highlights jewellery’s most fundamental imperative, the action of applying an object to one’s own body as a signifier. This highly specific action is at the absolute core of ‘what is jewellery?’  

Afterall, the only physical property that is universal to all jewellery is a means to enable connection to the body. Yet, not only to the physical body of the wearer, but also through proposing connections to viewers of the wearer and beyond. For example, even by simply referring to an object as being ‘jewellery’, most of us will then, immediately imagine that object in relation to our own body and what it might mean to ourselves. This inherent connectivity is the activator of all jewellery’s social/cultural possibilities.

This exhibition presents the works of 11 significant Australian and International artists who each explore broad and distinct propositions of the semblance of human self-identity through jewellery. These artists push beyond the familiar constraints of conventional physical jewellery formats. And, toward outcomes more precisely aligned with the specific communicative possibilities of jewellery.

Within the physical jewellery works of Kristina Neumann, Halie Rubenis and even Cara Johnson, the ‘body of a wearer’ that is implied is potentially and primarily the viewer's self. 

With the less conventionally wearable, or image-based works by Jing He, matt lambert, Tiffany Parbs, Lauren Kalman, propose applied details onto other bodies, that are relatable to ourselves, via our own imagined sense of bodily self. 

Within the work of Zoe Brand, Liesbet Busche, Claire McArdle, Roseanne Bartley the direct visual reference to familiar jewellery types/systems, gently initiates the viewers bodily connections by conditioned associations.  

These artists have ‘unpacked’ the semblance of self through jewellery, as a highly focussed activity of visualising, materialising and articulating self-knowing. Communicating extremely diverse liminal qualities, traits, or viewpoints of what it is to be a living social human. Once wilfully applied to the relationally active body of a wearer, the nuanced signifiers within these works contribute to a communication of self, on self.  

Through their expanded propositions of self-identity, each of these artist’s works also hints at what may be missing from the dominant globalised preconception of ‘jewellery’ as merely a trend based decorative object, i.e., that conveying one’s true self through jewellery can be a means of heightening compassionate understandings of each other. Moreover, that the action of socially acknowledging the breadth and diversity of human identity can enable a more equitable and cohesive society.

Two important questions follow on from this: How might an acknowledgment of the social importance of understanding the breadth and diversity of human identity assist us to re-frame jewellery more precisely as an interpersonal social cultural action?  And, how might considering jewellery as an action, as the central priority of jewellery, enable the creation of work that more broadly fulfills the reasons why people want to wear jewellery?  

Simon Cottrell, Lecturer/Researcher
ANU School of Art and Design.

Image: Kristina Neumann, Boxed Sill, 2019. 925 silver, Canberra red brick, polymer clay, stainless steel, glue 25x75x23mm. Photo: Simon Cottrell