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Research - 25 January 2005
The Flower in the Wound: Situations & Reflections
By Margaret West
Craft Australia Research Centre
Forge-welding is a metal-working technique. Some of you may be familiar with it. Two pieces of (usually similar) metal are heated to bright red, then held in tongs one over the other and hammered. The process is repeated until the two meeting surfaces diffuse and become as one. When executed with sufficient skill, this process gives one a remarkable sense of alchemical accomplishment.
I have been asked to speak to you today about my work which is on exhibition here in Götenburg, specifically within the context of this event called Situation. 1 These are two different metals. Their welding was undertaken with considerable heat and more than a few hammer blows.
I will first share with you a little of my present thinking about the role of jewellery today as a potentially situationist 2 agent of parabiosis, which is the natural or artificial joining of two individuals - not quite as forceful as forge welding, however, there are similarities - then I will tell you something of the background to my work in Galleri Hnoss.
Much has been said of the "crisis" in which craft is perceived to exist at present. The debate, perennial since the Industrial Revolution, acquires urgency from time to time. From evidence provided by the abstracts of three lectures from your Craft in Dialogue seminars it appears topical. The situation is familiar. It is clear that this sense of urgency partly arises out of a concern with the manner in which educational institutions have latched onto innovations in design technologies in their rage for economic rationalisation. The crafting of art is intensive (thus expensive) of labour and material and, most essentially, time. Their teaching no less so. However, part of the larger debate may be a response to changes in the way in which human beings communicate one with another. Through the agency of the internet we converse without seeing the face of the other person, or even hearing their voice. We seldom hold the paper on which a letter is written, which may have taken days or weeks to travel from its sender via surface, air, or pigeon post, knowing that same paper was smoothed under the writer's hand as they wrote, was folded and placed in an envelope by them, the stamp licked by their tongue. Aspects of physical reality, of actual physical contact, are being reduced to the infinitesimal dit of a microchip, which coruscates invisibly with information and is too small to see with the naked eye.
The irony of this situation is that we humans endure on this earth as fleshly entities - of bone and blood, of tendon and muscle, of viscera. We are no less substantial than wehave ever been. Perhaps the development of virtual/digital technology is potentially a transcendental project; but we continue to be of matter not ether. Indeed, in some cultures (such as ours in Australia) there is a heavy emphasis on the physicality of individual being, sometimes at the expense of other human qualities. In the global context of human history, this adulation of physicality is not new; but for us today it may in part constitute an attempt to affirm the actuality of our presence in the face of the virtual - our embodied confrontation with the dis-embodied (a ancient pious concept which for the most part has been thrown out with god and the bathwater).
Whether we observe its advance with dismay or join with delight in the exhilarating roller-coaster ride, technological progress, with its enabling and determining endowment, will continue to abscond with our sense of the substantial and our understanding of what it is that constitutes the evanescent present in which we dwell. Our dys-affection will not abate for, in spite of genetic manipulation and other more primitive attempts to modify - to modernise our bodies, our physical evolution is much slower. People are still people - corruptible organisms which engage one with another as physical and social entities; beings who employ a range of strategies in order to negotiate their way in situations where they meet.
We arrive naked into this life. The cord of attachment to our mother is severed and then tied in what is our first mark - our first jewel of situation. Each navel is unique - both individually and culturally specific. Midwives have their idiosyncratic methods of "tying the knot"; and the raw material varies considerably. In sub-tropical Sydney with the recent fashion amongst the young for hipsters at any time of year, it has been fascinating to observe the range of belly buttons and indeed the piercings and adornments to which they lend themselves. Belly button. See - we even call it a button, rather than navel or umbilicus, endowing it with the role of a jewel in preference to that of an innate body part. When we depart this life our mortal remains may be clad in sumptuous regalia, decked out in our Sunday best, wound simply in white cloth, or thrown, naked again, into the ground. In the intervening years of our lives we clothe ourselves, for many reasons, and some of us wear jewellery. We supplement or accessorise ourselves and consequently activate situations where we meet with others of our species.
Any thing worn by an individual person, carried by them, or obviously closely associated with them, acts as an agent of qualification - determines the nature of interaction between individuals in a situation of meeting. We are creatures of classification. Even in an unclothed situation, our idiosyncrasies of physiognomy perform a similar role, in the absence of specifically selected qualifiers, although our observation of them may be more discreet. In our clothed lives, so filled with dissemblance, it is the selection of the particular agent of qualification, in this case the jewel, which creates the newly invented, re-invented, or re-enforced identity or persona of the wearer.
The situation of a meeting between two unique individuals can be stimulated (or stifled) by the appearance - the intercession or intervention of an object, particularly an object (or jewel) worn on the body. Even (or perhaps especially!) mass produced objects, almost irrespective of their design designation, indicate attitudes, affiliations, ambitions. At the very least, they tempt speculation, invite classification, which can appear to be quite a straightforward task once the comparatively familiar object has been slotted into its category.
However, unique objects which are worn perform in a singular manner. Their activation or qualification of a meeting situation is unpredictable. Nothing is given. The ground slips and supposition or assessment must be made in consideration of an unfamiliar "appendage". When a "known" person is met, they are qualified afresh by an unfamiliar jewel.
When the person is a new acquaintance, the jewel may qualify them, or vice-versa. This reciprocal, self-reflexive relationship between wearer and jewel, whether actual or notional, provides rich pickings for the artist who works in this medium. It is also fraught with complications.
No jewel can ever be an autonomous object, for, whether jewellery is experienced as an object on the body of a wearer or in an art gallery or museum, or whether it is viewed as an image in a journal or on a screen, the wearer is implicit, whether that wearer is the self or another.
Some jewellery is designed to be worn - "born to be worn"; some merely contrives to be worn; and some may never be worn; but, although it may not be worn, the remembered or imagined potential of its agency as a worn artefact permeates all jewellery, in fact anything that is potentially worn.
Looking through a book on Russian costume in the Hermitage Museum, I was struck, as I have often been, by what I can only call the haunting of garments - by the inescapable presence of a real of imagined wearer. If the garments are worn, as some were in this book in the reproductions of portrait paintings, they are entirely inhabited. Their potential is filled to capacity and they are brought to life. If they are not worn - if they are empty - they are haunted by this very absence. No exorcism will remove the affective presence of a potential wearer. The situation of jewellery is not so different. Its potential to be worn, to have been worn, informs all jewellery. It, too, is either actually inhabited by a wearer or haunted by their absence.
Because of the imposition of human presence upon wearable artefacts - a result of this haunting - when we look at an unworn but potentially wearable garment or jewel, we inevitably find ourselves in an imagined situation of meeting. We are, in imagination, meeting ourselves or an-other as wearer.
With whom do we inhabit these things?
We meet ourselves as often as we meet others in our illuminated, shining environment. The flipped image of what we recognise as the only us we can see in a reflective surface - the self we greet in the morning mirror or sometimes, quite unexpectedly meet reflected in a shop window - is never the real us; but it is the self we have constant access to. And the self we meet imaginatively wearing an artefact is changed by the projection of the situation. We may posture a little, flirt with the idea of our wearing it. The other person we may imagine as they desire, or otherwise.
We have only to browse quietly through a garment or jewellery shop or an exhibition of wearable artefacts and listen in order to be made aware of these inalienable human qualities of projecting - of empathising and fantasising:
When we say you (or vous & tu or ni & du) we speak of an other - one which is not us - is not the first person. Is not I. Is not je. Is not ya.
Jewellery can be an agent of invitation, of insistence. As an intermediary it can intercede, interject, intervene. It can be a negotiator, an interlocutor. It can be a mouthpiece or propitiator. In its capacity as an attractor, jewellery can fascinate, lure; it can be bait or a decoy. As shield or deflector, it can repel. It can also be a distraction, create a diversion, obfuscation. And it can beguile, equivocate, dissemble, and deceive.
The jewel is a solvent, permitting dissolution into the object - a shared moment of dissipation into its neutrality, abyss, obscurity, delight.
As a surfactant the jewel breaks surface tension spilling the quivering meniscus of identity. It induces a particular kind of permeability into the membrane of individuality. It softens the scabrous crust of self.
We are all the same. We are all different.
My work is not always worn, although it frequently engages with jewellery (or the worn) as idea. It is often informed by some of the expectations we have of jewellery as a worn item which acts as an agent of demonstration, intercession or deflection. It is essential that some of the work could be worn, or could have been worn; but, for other work, notions of the wearable have little part to play in its development.
Many things can incite an artist to make jewellery, irrespective of its potential role as a social catalyst. As you will see, the development of my work is often informed by an existing situation, though it is not necessarily directed towards a subsequent situation (as a worn object). What happens happens (or mis-happens). However, like all jewellery, it is haunted by the presence or the absence of a wearer.
Lead Bibs developed in 1981,82,83, during my long enchantment with lead with its sombre gloss; with its malleability; with its alchemical implications (golden plumbing). They resulted in part from contemplation of our fraught association with lead's ability to protect us from radiation on the one hand and its propensity to poison us on the other.
In 1982 and 83 Chameleon brooches, bibs, and neck-forms resulted from observations of the dissembling behaviour of people in social situations - from the self-reflexive nature of human behaviour, as well as from the reflective nature of surface - in this case, stainless steel.
Stones with Steel in 1985, I conserved these memoranda of the untrammelled land, suspending them in precisely balanced pendants, which imposed their actual or imagined weight upon the shoulders of a real or imagined wearer.
Equation : discs with three reflections and disc with three shadows reflected upon our attempts to make the world as we think it should be.
Seven Caskets for Red Sand was made in 1987 to preserve remnants of an area of ecologically fragile red sand hill country in outback Australia which was under threat of devastation.
Equation of Obsolescence was made in 1989, in response to the in-vitro fertilisation debate, as well as to images seen on television of bottled dioxin- affected foetuses in a Vietnamese hospital.
Four Veils was made from four millimetre thick lead for the women trapped in the Desert Storm of 1991.
In 1991 Detail was made up of hundreds of little medals for the children killed in "co-lateral damage".
In 1993 Balsa Brooches provided an opportunity to wear what remained of your world on your sleeve, your breast or your shoulder. They also constituted a light reprieve from ten years working with lead.
Journal, exhibited in the Australian National Library in 1994, consisted of three hundred and sixty-five pages, each bearing a photograph of my face reflected in the foul oil-slick on a local canal. The work emitted the stench of the polluting black sump oil in which each of the pages had been steeped.
In notes : the sky is a garden cloud roses reflected a period of optimism in 1997/98/99, looking toward the new millennium They were gentle predecessors of the Fatal Flowers in Gallerie Hnoss. Now they serve as memoranda of where solace might endure in the face of such dis-ease.
notes: Hill End in 2001 celebrated the re-emergence of the small golden-yellow wild-flowers, which had been destroyed along with the rest of the native flora in the devastating rush in the 1850s to rip the gold from out of "the richest quarter mile on earth".
double damask (2001) developed themes of illusion, disillusion and delusion. The shadows cast by the grid of the mesh units onto the wall "carved" them into a semblance of three dimensional form, which slipped and shifted with the viewer's slightest movement.
In 2002 the glamorous models in Votive Gestures were flailed against harsh surfaces - trashed, but with particularity, against the ennui of perfection, into more animate entities.
STILL LIFE (natura mortua) (2003) started in early 2001 in vibrantly hued, optimistic mode, as what now seems a rather naive celebration of the potential of a new millennium. As time went by and world events unfolded, the 1,249 stone flowers became darker and more sombre.
'scape (1993) was a veiled jibe at hypocracy.
And now, in 2004, my Fatal Flowers are here in Göteborg so that you can draw your own conclusions from the evidence of their material presence.
Red star, yellow star, pink triangle, swastika, ban the bomb, make love not war, flower power, green power, no war - political badges bearing such emblems are some of the most potent agents of declaration, whether selected and worn voluntarily to demonstrate allegiance to a cause or political party, or imposed through the compulsory wearing of some type of uniform or insignia. Even so, jewellery (the worn) is not generally a medium for protest, although all jewellery wearing situations have socio-political and cultural implications. Jewellery is more apt or commonly worn as decorative display, as evidence of wealth or status, as evidence of partisanship with a cause or sub-culture, as a reminder of attachment to another person - living or dead, or as more subtle, succinct punctum. Nevertheless, I find it ideal as a poetic medium for the expression of profound concern. Its epigrammatic nature demands brevity (hence wit); its scale insists upon a terse poetic, where one must abstain from melodramatic wallowing; its location on the body (or potentially on the body) both invites and inhibits intimate scrutiny, endowing it with an intriguing tension; and the prodigious cultural and social profligacy of its histories, as well as its connotative eloquence, advocate seemingly endless potential for its development as well as its appreciation.
For me, work has no meaning unless it engages with the existent, if necessary the bloody, reality of our world. The poetics of suffering - of blood and pain, of distress, of desolation - these have their place in the art of jewellery as they do in life.
I probably could make pretty jewels, if I put my mind to it; if I could find reason in it. Some work has exhibited a gentler lyricism. As you have seen, In 1982 I made deceptively benign reflections on the world, to be worn as ephemera. But these were also a response to the disconcerting dissolution of matter demonstrated by quantum physics. Clouds have become flowers (by way of stone). Blue sky has been transformed into a blue rose - a gentle myth, in the absence of the numinous. However, for me, the critical challenge - the relevance - lies in finding the beauty - the aesthetic potential - within existing situations which seem to hold some particular significance in our lives today and which consequently may disturb or distress. It is not that I regard making as therapeutic (gardening is my therapy) though it may at times be cathartic. Much the work has developed in response to political situations or situations which seemed to have some urgency, some intrigue - situations which might lend themselves to the crucial evolution of cogent visual forms.
Try to look objectively at a wound, at blood running across a cheek, around an arm, down a leg, at blood seeping through clothing, at blood splashed on pavement, at a blood-stain on a wall. Try to look objectively at a bruise. Try to look objectively at burnt flesh. Blood is a marvellous red. Its vital hues are omnipresent - the vermilion of arterial blood, the scarlet of venous blood. As it dries, blood develops many subtle sanguinary variations. Burns have wondrous colours and textures. Bruises appear lurid or delicate. With such attempts at dissociation, dramatic tension develops between the inevitable known, remembered, or imagined narrative of the event which has caused the effect and the formal (aesthetic) qualities of the image or object. On one hand, we are captive to the inexorable insistence of our memory or imagination of the narrative. On the other, the summons of the aesthetic will not be denied. The point at which these demands confront one another (and, hopefully, fuse) represents a poetic imperative of great urgency and intensity.
For me, works must exhibit a quality of beauty, of aesthetic particularity, even though they may tell our bleakest and most disturbing stories back to us. So this is the undertaking: to achieve a discriminating balance between distress and artistry, between desolation and beauty, to sublimate wrath in a quest for a more subtle, elegiac eloquence. More simply - to achieve a discerning balance of paradoxical elements. None of this is new. Artists have struggled with it for centuries.
A wound is a flower - budding, bursting, flourishing its red petals, curling, drying, darkening, crumbling from the outer edges towards the centre, towards the heart. A wound is a red flower; and these red flowers are blooming in many parts of the world today. Doubtless they always have; but now, through the agency of the media, we are only too well aware of their perennial nature and ubiquitous abundance of their efflorescence.
My work often begins with words; but these did not. Nightly on the television screen we see both the unimaginable horror and the terrible beauty of these images of war. We have words for wounds, for wounding, for the wounded - atrocious words : amputated, lopped, blasted, bloody, bruised, contused, butchered, fractured, ruptured; gouge, gash, slash, flash, bash; laceration, lesion, open wound, raw wound, flesh wound; grazed, razed, ravaged, raped, ripped, ruined, scarred, slaughtered, stabbed, sunk, torn, wasted, welted, winged, violated. However, the words we are force-fed do not name the wounds; they do not call the human damage; they do not they invoke the desolation. We hear instead of "9/11", "WMD", "terrorist threat", "insurgents", "corrupt regime" - words which themselves corrupt and are in their turn corrupted by those who use them. Only the wounds are real - screened both for and from our sight - only the torn and gaping flesh, the flowing blood, convulsing viscera, the lurid shine of exposed bone, the charred flesh, the bleeding stumps, the mash of brains - only the fire and the blood are real. We gape; we gape; but the very screen that presents sights to us, for our delectation or despair, screens them from us - an intervention which renders us all dys-placed.
In this situation it became urgent to rescue these wounds from behind the glazed screen of the television, from the gloss and spin of the media; to rescue them from the deceits to which they are subject - from the lies that have been told about them, told on their behalf - and to make them material, carnal, fleshly; and for them to be broken, bruised, bloody, and burned. It was urgent to allow them to give utterance to their pain - to enable them to speak, to cry, to scream, to weep - albeit with the voices of flowers, with the timbre of stone.
The rhetoric of the wound is persuasive. Flowers speak with complex and beguiling voices. Stone is implacable. These are three different metals. The wound speaks with the voice of a flower. The flower with the voice of a wound. The stone might hold its tongue but the rhetoric of the worn can never be subdued. And these wounds can be worn so that, in a gesture of acknowledgment, it is possible to wear a wound, as you might wear your heart, on your breast or sleeve.
These jewels of situation both are and they are not flowers, wounds, stone and paint, demonstration of technical virtuosity, jewels (or brooches). They both are and are not, representatives of my state of mind, political protests, aberrant exaltations in the spectacle of gore, brokers of my aesthetic, repercussions of my philosophical ruminations. Significantly, they are what it is that the viewer is looking at, seeing, perceiving, remembering, thinking, imagining, feeling; and they are agents of my poetic fancy. They were made to cultivate and civilize as well as to register (my) distress with a situation in which we (in Australia) find ourselves complicit - thus culpable. (We have blood on our hands.) They were made as a lament in the face of desolation. They were made in a continuing quest for poetic truth - to illuminate the beauty - dazzling, formidable, sombre - of the flower in the wound. They were made, if you like, as a soft option for, as Maurice Blanchot says:3 "Poetry is a means of putting oneself in danger without running any risk, a mode of suicide, destruction of self that comfortably leaves space for the surest affirmation of self." These Fatal Flowers represent the transfiguration of guilt; the transmutation of mind into matter; the metamorphosis of consciousness into stone.
If you look at the sky obsessively enough it becomes many things. For me, it became a celestial garden. Thus clouds were transformed into flowers and the blue sky-holes which promise fine weather became fabulous blue roses. Clouds are ephemeral. Flowers are transient. If these could be transformed into stone with its obdurate qualities and its durability, I would be provided with a paradox of unlimited potential. And as clouds and flowers became stone, so, in its turn, stone became clouds and flowers. Now flesh has become stone - stone which has been cut, abraded, fractured, bruised, burnt. Now, even the stones are bleeding.
In his prophetic essay The Storyteller4 Walter Benjamin describes the human condition following the First World War: "A generation . . . now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body."
Since then everything has changed and nothing has changed. We dwell in limbo, caught between optimism for a future born of our belief in human potential and pessimism derived from our knowledge that the dystopic condition Benjamin describes obviously prevails for much of the world, and possibly exists in more subtle forms even where it may not be suspected. However, despite despair, despite an awareness of widespread desolation, work goes on. What does that demonstrate? Perhaps it is partly a challenge to Theodor Adorno's5 assertion that, in a world after Auschwitz (or Hiroshima), poetry is no longer possible.
The very act of making work is an optimistic enterprise. However, I do not believe that it is possible to change the world through poetry; and I am only too well aware of the difficulty of capturing and conveying the fugitive nature of an idea in tangible form; but I am convinced of the absolute necessity of striving for poetic truth and attempting to render it in crystalline perfection. In the process of attempting this, it becomes apparent that the seeds of this poetic truth lie substantially in both the matter and the manner of the work, and that they grow and flourish as the work blooms materially under the hand; and poetry, whether made from stone and paint or from words, is a way of understanding the world, of forging new alliances, of seeking for new meanings, of exploring new possibilities. It is a way of tapping into our consciousness, and of honouring it. The art-work is a receptacle of consciousness. It receives it - it rescues it - from the sometimes chaotic flux of the artist's being; it holds it in trust; and it gives of it with infinite bounty. As the work arises from the consciousness of the artist, so it is re-imagined and re-formed by the consciousness of each person who considers it with fully witting engagement. Thus it lives in optimistic anticipation of the fair providence of human nature.
(Of course, from within this Epidemic of Art - (konstepidemin) - we may also consider that making work might merely demonstrate, as I have often suspected, a benign (or is it malign?) pathological condition - a pathology of making "real things" as an antidote to our pandemic of glazed gazing, things which may act as a meeting point with others of our kind.)
Margaret West, Blackheath August 2004
Craft Australia would like to thank Margaret West and Craft in Dialogue for the permission to reproduce this paper on the Craft Australia website.