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ROBERT COOK Seeing beyond the bling

This weekend the latest in AGWA’s street-smart Culture Juice series opens. Beyond Bling! follows on from the immensely popular The Rise of Sneaker Culture, and Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures, this time exploring and celebrating jewellery and adornments. On November 13 the exhibition will launch at AGWA with a full day of planned events, with further celebrations happening throughout the course of the exhibit. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to AGWA Curator of Design and International Art, Robert Cook, about the hidden jewels Beyond Bling! has to offer, and the significance of jewellery to us.

What does Beyond Bling! entail?

I think we’re ultimately going to have around 300 pieces of jewellery from our collection. We’ve been collecting jewellery since around 1900, there’s rather a lot of it. We’ve incorporated jewellery in our collection in shows before, but we’ve not done a survey it, I guess. It became very evident when going through the mass of our collection, that this was something people might like to see together. We thought the scale of it might fit the Culture Juice theme.

That showcase will be both the “old” (a range from the WA State Art Collection), and the very “new” (with the Curtin School of Design)…

We’ve got some Victorian Mourning Jewellery from that period, some Art Nouveau pieces, some early 20th century West Australian pieces (charting a bit of the history of design in our state), some contemporary stuff… onto the more experimental stuff, and to the next generation with the Curtin students, showing a fresh approach.

Jewellery has frequently turned up in burial goods across many civilizations and historical epochs, and has often become a part of our ceremonies. Why has it had such an effect on us?

I guess, as you say, it’s had a ceremonial function, or defines where you sit in a class structure. I tend to look at these matters from a phenomenological perspective. In a contemporary setting they’ll work with your aesthetic. You’ll can also become the canvas. You’ll see people doing this so jewellery is a key part of how people drive their wardrobe.

The other thing it offers you…if people have a favorite ring or something, it’s a sense of reassurance, something between you and the world. It attracts the eye, but is also something that keeps you safe. So there is this strange sense of armour to it. It’s a transitional object (security blanket), it creates that sense of a fantasy world. These things are poetic and subjective as well as a signifier.

Do you delve into that symbolism, associated with jewellery…such as the codes employed in Victorian Mourning jewellery?

A little. Also some of those would be prepared by the person before they were dead, so I am also interested in those sort of stories. That you are lurching to the long world, and sort of passively aggressively making people remember you. I think these things are quite interesting – what does it mean to carry around a little bit of the dead on you? These things are quiet weird when you take them out of context, I guess. In a gallery you decontextualize things a bit.

What are the pieces that draw your attention? Do you have a favorite piece?

I’ve kind of got my favorites, There is a David Beilander Python (2011) that’s maybe a meter and a half, made of titanium and articulated. You wear it as a necklace. Weirdly enough, when we were going back through the collection we came across this collection of articulated snakes from the late 1800s, so they were nice to see. It’s great to construct these conversations between the very contemporary and the older stuff, and to show those synergies.

What has Culture Juice allowed AGWA to do differently?

It’s allowed us to speak directly to an audience. It is not just “sneakers in a gallery” It’s allowed us to look at the design, the aesthetics, the social aspects, and the power dynamics (in both the production and wearing) – all those kind of things. All those elements are everything artworks have in them. As contemporary art has progressed, if you look at things in a particular way …..everything is kind of an artwork. But not everything is artful. We look at things that are carefully thought out, and beautifully thought out, and we get wonderment from. It is breaking down the barriers to show everyday artistic experience.

How has Culture Juice been received?

Ridiculously great. People have been super interested. The sneaker show was fascinating-I’ve never seen people squeal and run towards an artwork before. On the opening morning I saw two guys see the first Reebok Pump prototype and just bolt towards it. Seeing people forgetting about themselves, overcome by what we are showing…it is great to see it hitting people.

Beyond Bling! will likely be more personal and private effect on them.

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