March 31, 2023

Unexpected Pleasures: Expectedly Impressive

Unexpected Pleasures is the latest exhibition to grace the National Gallery of Victoria’s important new Contemporary Exhibitions space. The exhibition (a mini museum in itself!) is a comprehensive showcase of the art and design of contemporary jewellery.  It was thrilling to discover this exhibition as it focuses on an exciting, dynamic field that is often left in the shadows of larger, more visible art forms.

Curated by Susan Cohn, Unexpected Pleasures fundamentally questions the role and nature of jewellery today.  Many of the works in the exhibition challenge the common perceptions of jewellery as being beautiful, precious and passive, not to mention a comfort to wear. Traditional understandings of what jewellery is, should be and could be are turned on their head, flipped side to side, kneaded, squeezed, stretched, pulled apart, reassembled and then kneaded once again. Exhausting, I know!  The result however, is a plethora of fresh perspectives from leading creative figures around the world. Not to be missed.

The exhibition was presented as a series of thematic clusters. Circulating the round display cabinets, I was dizzy with excitement; enthralled by the contents of each, yet eager to discover the next. Highlights include works by Nel Linssen, Karl Fritsch, Benjamin Lignel, Marie Funaki, Leonor Hipolito and Ted Noten. In this article, I will touch on but a few favourites.

Nel Linssen creates delicate, yet strong and wearable art objects – all out of paper! Linssen’s necklaces and bracelets weightlessly move with the body.  It is the transformation of such a basic material that makes these works so special. Linssen proves the versatility of simple paper, totally expanding its possibilities as a medium.  Typically, when you think of jewellery, you think of something that is precious. When you think of paper jewellery however, precious is the last word that comes to mind. Linssen makes possible the use of these three words in the same sentence; precious, paper jewellery. Marvellous.

One material that is by no means flimsy is that stuff that cars are made of.  In his series of brooches, ‘Mercedes-Benz E-Classe 210’ (2003), Ted Noten re-works the idea of adornment as a marker of status.  Taking inspiration from contemporary consumer society where you are only as fly as the car you drive, Noten makes it possible for everybody to own their own Mercedes (or at least part of one!).   The artist has even produced commissions for individuals wishing to wear their own car on their chest – thus personalising the jewellery and the car (which is left of course with the empty space out of which the brooch was cut!). Destruction of property or pure genius?

When it comes to personalised jewellery however, it is Noten’s ‘Chew Your Own Brooch’ series (1998-) that takes the cake… or should I say the gum! In this ongoing relational project, participants are asked to chew a piece of gum into whatever form they please. This form is then replicated in silver or gold and transformed into a brooch.  The contrast of chewed gum, typically disgusting, with the beautiful element of gold or silver is provocative – and wonderful! The result is a totally unique, fantastically textured, wearable treasure.

Otto Kunzuli’s ‘1cm of Love’ is minimalism at its best. Kunzli highlights the way in which jewellery is often given as an expression of love, sometimes even taking the place of love.  In this quirky and clever series, Kunzli offers the necklace in varying sizes (eg. ‘2.5cm of Love’).  The work is evocative of the growing pressure felt by many in our image driven, capitalist society, to purchase their loved ones the biggest diamonds and the finest gold. Kunzli comments on the way in which the gift of jewellery is seen as equally a symbol of love as it is of wealth.  The series was developed from a sculpture entitled ‘1 Meter of Love’, produced by the artist in 1995.

To continue to divulge the gems of this exhibition would be to betray its title. Instead, I will leave you with this teaser in hope that you will venture to the NGV and discover the abundance of Unexpected Pleasures, that lay behind glass, screaming to be worn. If only…

(Unexpected Pleasures hails from the Design museum of London and will be on display at the National Gallery of Victoria International until August 26, 2012)

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