The Design Museum, located on the south bank of the Thames, near Tower bridge, has just re-organised its permanent collections last week. So I decided to go check this out, and their contemporary jewellery exhibition by the same occasion, curated by jewellery designer and maker Dr. Susan Cohn.
Unexpected Pleasures is an interestingly curated show of contemporary jewels. They are all laid out in round horizontal windows that form thematic “clusters”. I won’t dwell on the actual themes developed in each of the clusters, nor on the merits and defects of the way the jewels are presented. What I appreciated and want to develop on was the back section of the show, called “Worn out”, that focused on jewels as worn accessories. Indeed, jewels may be envisaged as designed and crafted objects, but they nonetheless remain fashion items that take on a deeper meaning when worn by individuals who chose them to express something about their identity. This reflection of identity by design is also touched upon in the permanent collection display on the top floor, accidentally. So how best to show jewellery in context than with photography and video art? That is what the exhibition does, in part, at the very end. Visitors discover an entire wall of photographs without frames, pinned to the wall in a casual manner, as if to turn the attention away from the photograph as artistic object in its own right. The images are rather shown for their subject matter only, to illustrate the use of the jewels. But ambiguously, some of the photographs also draw attention to their own stylistic features, such as:
The wall text that accompanies this photographic display claims: “photography has become more than mere documentary tool, it has also become a pivotal mode of expression…”, suggesting that jewellery sometimes needs to be shown in context to achieve its full meaning. The object itself, in certain cases, is not enough to convey the artist’s message. This is where photography becomes properly a medium of expression, the tool that carries meaning, that adds layers of understanding.
The photographs definitely bring added meaning to the exhibition, drawing jewel design closer to contemporary artistic thought around themes such as the body, identity, portraiture, or the social significance of art (/craft). This “fine line” between jewellery and a cluster of other human activities was cleverly studied at the centre of the show: the relationship between jewellery and craft, jewellery and art, etc. And I thought that the inclusion of photography as both a documentary and demonstrative media and an independent artistic statement was the best way to convey this idea. Furthermore, it echoes deeply with the multi-functionality of photography itself, which lies on its own “fine lines”.
Unexpected Pleasures | 5 December 2012 – 3 March 2013 | Design Museum, Shad Thames, London