Brief Lives

 
 

During the couple of years that Gray St Workshop used to have a little shop/gallery attached to its jeweller's workshop, we used to encounter a small but persistent stream of people who would bring in modest items of jewellery to be repaired. More often than not, these little casualties would be in a sad state, and sometimes it was possible, like some forensic pathologist of the object world, to identify in the marks which the piece of jewellery bore, the sad train of events which had brought it to ourbench tops. We would notice how the hole which accommodated an earhook had become worn through, and the earhook was missing; we would see how the earring was distorted, probably crushed by a careless foot as it fell; sometimes a stone was missing, popped out of the distorted bezel in the accident.

We never liked these little repair jobs: partly because we saw them as a distraction to the main event of producing our own work, I suppose, but partly because we also tended to regard them as a variety of difficult patient. Often (in fact mostly) they were not well made. Purchased on some overseas trip, or in some country market, they would turn out to be made of thin, lowgrade alloys of silver which were a nightmare to solder, collapsing under the gentlest of flames, and we would have to resort to compromises which we felt were beneath our skill: a judicious dab of super-glue here, or (heaven help us), a touch of lead solder there.

We would warn the anxious owner that these repairs were not going to last forever, that they might perhaps have to come to terms with the eventual death of their precious possession, but they never really seemed to believe us. They were in denial, and you could always bet that they would be back a few months later, hoping against hope that we would be able to effect another makeshift miracle on the other earring, which had, in the meantime, succumbed to a similar unfortunate accident.

Often we would discuss these tearful visits, marvelling at the degree of importance which people would attach to such tacky trinkets. We would shake our heads in disbelief at how a woman could look at a truly hideous necklace of woven leather and cheap beads, and tell us, with tears in her eyes, of what sentimental significance it had for her, how much she hoped we would be able to repair it because she never had it off her body, and she felt its absence like a small pain. We were at once interested in the power of these objects to carry meaning for their owner, and astounded (good little modernists that we were), that such aesthetically unpleasing things could be the focus for such fervent feelings.

In this way, we were not unlike most other contemporary jewellers working at the time.
We were busy investing our own meaning in the works we made,and although we were conscious of, and interested in, the sort of sentimental attachments which our clients formed to the work we made, I suppose we thought of this as a provisional kind of relationship, formed independently of our creative intentions, an interesting side effect of making, but not central to our own concerns.

And yet, it doesn't take a jeweller to tell you that connections between items of jewellery and the profoundest moments of mortal experience are extraordinarily persistent in Western culture: jewels have marked friendships, engagements, marriages and death for centuries. The sober, plain surface of a wedding band, or the compulsively braided insets of hair in a heavy piece of Victorian mourning jewellery invest jewellery with a kind of semiotic gravitas . Their power comes from the way in which they can symbolise simultaneously the private and particular life moments of the wearer and the broader social implications of the rites of passage which they mark.

However, this commemorative status is always a double-edged one, for as much as these jewels are about remembering, they are also about forgetting, memory's inevitable concomitant. One has only to think of the poignancy of a trayful of wedding bands in a second hand shop, or the sight of a mourning brooch in the vitrine of a museum, opened to show a feather of baby-blond curl belonging to some now-forgotten infant, to understand how fleetingly individuals maintain a toehold in the span of human recollection.

Objects are like the bones and teeth of memory, then, persisting poignantly beyond the life of the person to whom they belonged, persisting often beyond the memory of them, even, in the same way that the soft tissues of our mortal selves give way, leaving behind the inner core of bone to mark our brief tenancy in the world. Jewels are particularly poignant in this respect, having lived out their lives in such proximity to the living, breathing flesh which they commemorate, the persistence of their burnished surfaces reflecting back at us our inevitably mortal selves.

The meaning of these objects is constantly in a state of flux, between then and now, between private and public, between the subjective and the social.

If jewels are testimony to the fragility of human memory, they are also testimony to the persistence of the human need to remember, to cement life's experiences into some kind of narrative from which we can draw the comfort of coherent meaning.

The sad crushed earrings, the flimsy silver rings and the tawdry leather necklaces which my clients cherished no doubt reflected back at them the full gamut of human hope and disappointment. Clinging to these relics, the owners could comfort themselves with the idea that the fleeting affair, the overseas trip, the perfect solitary day walking the streets of a small country town are not lost to them forever. Plying our tubes of super-glue and wielding the soldering iron, my colleagues and I were, for once, not at the centre of this poignant transaction, but its invisible facilitators, holding back for a time the slip into forgetfulness which must inevitably come to us all.

The work in this exhibition is not strictly that of Barbara Heath alone, in the sense that we usually mean when we think of an exhibition by a contemporary artist. These objects are a roll-call of moments of collaboration between Barbara and her clients. These collaborations displace the two-way transaction of meaning between maker and object which is usually privileged in contemporary visual practice, and establishes the wearer as equal partner in a three-way process of making meaning.

The tension in this project lies between the powerful investments of meaning which maker and wearer place in the objects, and the capacity of those objects to bear the memorial and narrative expectations invested in them. This exhibition plays on this tension by exposing a range of narrative possibilities within the work availing itself of their multivalent potential so that the project acts as a kind of biography of objects.

I cannot help being fascinated by the mute eloquence of these jewels.

Sometimes their formal appearance and their individual life stories seem strangely at odds with each other: for example, what can we make of the engagement bangle whose lustrous golden surface conceals the fact that it is made from " a whole jar of gold teeth among other things"? Here for a moment, an innocent bracelet holds open a space between two allusions: on the one hand, the fabrication of the bangle stems from the time-honoured practice common to all jewellers of recycling the fragments and scraps of precious metal which come their way. On the other hand, it is hard not to hear an echo of another more unsettling post-Holocaust allusion in that jar full of gold teeth.

What does this tell us about the life of objects? That meaning is provisional, I suppose; that it is never completely under our control, and can, at any moment slip from the streams of singular experience into the rivers of collective memory. Perhaps it tells us that collective memory is itself a mutable construct: on the one hand it offers us the comfort of a sense of a shared symbolic order, in which we understand the meaning of a wedding ring or a mourning brooch. On the other hand, it offers us a darker face, in which we read a story of the object coopted to the perverse ends of human desire, human folly and even of terror itself.

And what of the mute eloquence of the formal face of the sealed locket which conceals "a lock of hair from three new born babes (two surviving)"?

In its modest surface and its secret cargo we might read the face of human endurance itself. After all, how many times have we all scanned the faces of our companions on the bus, or the passers by in the street and wondered for a moment what stories those lineaments, at once so ordinary and yet so particular, might tell us?

In the capacity of objects to present a formal face which sometimes conceals from us other, unexpected stories, we read an echo of our own lived experience. In the same way as we ourselves are, objects are sometimes overtaken by an unexpected turn of events, and as much as we have intentions for the work we make and wear, sometimes they seem to lead lives of their own, in which they get lost, or damaged, or we simply request of them more than they can possibly deliver.

How poignant the fate of the charm bracelet made to accommodate every love token the client had ever been given. It is now lost, and with it a whole narrative in personal relics. In this sad little story we might read the unpredictable events in the life of the heart: the way in which our hopes and passions are so often derailed by life itself: love so palpably there one minute, so solidly located at the centre of our existences, and the next, gone, occasionally a victim to a theft, but more often to habit or to our own carelessness.

Or perhaps this bracelet simply jumped ship. Perhaps, unable to bear the complex freight of stories, hopes and dreams with which it had been entrusted, it took advantage of the chance provided by a loose catch to slip unseen from the wearer's wrist, and seek its fortune elsewhere, to live its life out as an innocuous charm bracelet, host to souvenirs of a more mundane variety.

I would never have thought to commission many of these articles, but I can enter into the vagaries of the lives of which they are a part. I can appreciate and revel, too, in the wit and invention with which they have been invested by their owners and their maker. This is the chief pleasure of the commissioning relationship which is at the heart of Barbara Heath's practice, I suppose. Through her role as facilitator, she has been able to enter into a myriad of emotional moments which she might never in her own lifetime experience, and, at the same time, she is able to bring to the significant moments of others the wealth of her own lived experience.

This essay tells you that all of these objects are in some way about memory and about the act of commemoration. What these objects tell us is that memory resists the simplicity of narrative closure.

The events that they commemorate are continuous: in the minds of their owners, certainly, but in the minds of the viewer as well, taken up and transformed through the particular lens of each person's life experiences.

Finally, these objects tell us, they will persist, even if, like the love token charm bracelet,they have become invisible to us. Somewhere, they will persist, on someother wrist, telling another story altogether.

Anne Brennan

Canberra 1997

 
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1997-2001 Barbara Heath