Mercury re P: on Location by Margaret West was the keynote address at the on Location: Making Stories, JMGA conference held in Sydney in 2006. The conference aimed to take makers, collectors, critics and thinkers out of the comfort zone of their normal environments and places them 'on location'; a hypothetical site where speculation, inspiration and the accidental can emerge and diverge, questioning the place of the production of meaning and examining the results of that production.
In the sixteenth century, a Dominican friar Placentius, wrote a poem of 253 verses, called Pugna Porcorum, every word of which begins with the letter P. It opens thus:
Plaudite, Porcelli, porcorum pigra phantasywhich can be translated as:
Piglets, praise pigs' prolonged progeny 1
My life-style, although hermetic and tranquil at times, is rather more frenetic than that of the ingenious friar, and our tolerance of such sustained obsessiveness is limited today; nevertheless, I call upon the letter P, as a linguistic trope, to play the role of a possible object - an object of your individual selection, which may change from time to time during the next hour - in order to have some-thing concurrently abstract and specific on which to hang these musing of stories told by and told about the object on location. I invoke it in pseudo-scientific spirit, where P equals the potential to be any object.
The sixteenth letter of the Latin alphabet, P can generally be relied upon to sound itself positively, though not as ballistically as B. Of course, when coupled with an h, it can be phantasmagorical. Standing as it does between O, which could have been asked to represent object, but is blank of face and rolls around too much, and Q, which just another blank face with its tongue stuck out, P has much to recommend it. In the glory of its upper case, P soars and swells majestically, and its lower case sits roundly on line with its tail extended straight down in a pertly determined posture.
P, as it represents an object, is polyvalent - able to undergo a wide range of affiliations, thus able to be invented and re-invented in many locations: in the first instance, through the dreams, ideas and actions of its maker; as it takes its place in the world - in the personal space of the wearer's body, or the domestic domain of the owner's home, in the museum, or gallery or shop, or in the public space, it can meld seamlessly or posture conspicuously in its ultimate (or penultimate) location. It conflates with the paper in books and journals. It melts into the gloss of five hundred million screens.
The object P is polymorphous - able to take many forms and to be made of many materials. Here, today, it will often be made of metal; but also of clay, glass, fibre, paper, stone, wood, plastic, or even pixels. It may exist as images, real or virtual, or exist purely in the shapes and sounds of words, for P is polyglot. In any case, let us bear in mind the properties of the metals we use - their alluring lustre, their density, their gravitas; their ductility and malleability, their rigidity, their tensile strength, and their co-operative nature under a knowing hand. And note that mercury is a metallic element; in Roman mythology the messenger of the gods, and the god of commerce, dexterity and eloquence. We will return to mercury.
At times the object P prides itself on being problematical, testing our patience to the limit; at times, like the platypus2 (which was once, understandably, called the paradox) it puzzles us. It is capable of creating pandemonium, particularly before it has materialised in its final form. It can be perverted by plagiarism: in a deliberate act of theft, under the aegis of Post Modern appropriation, or unwittingly. This object that we are calling P can be a password. It can access the mind of its maker; it can reveal histories, both private and public; it can unlock the poetic imagination of the viewer. It is pure at times, at others prurient or putrid. It is often, with blithe abandon, polygamous. When it is in the pipeline, percolating in the mind, sketchbook, studio or workshop, it can a poppet be or a downright prat. It has pipe dreams of being perfect. Sometimes this is effective; but can be thwarted by the perversity of maker, viewer, or critic. As it lays itself open to perusal, it can be persuasive or perplexing.
P gets around. It is prodigious, prodigal, profligate.It perches on posts and possies itself in pigeonholes. It parades. It parties. P is Promethean, which is pertinent.3 P is a Pandora's box promising to enchant and then letting loose all manner of afflictions upon the artless maker, curator, or critic. P can preach peace but can also play its part in the propagation of conflict. It can be pretty as a picture, a priceless pearl, a posturing peacock, or a pompous panjandrum. In its potential fecundity it is both Persephone and pomegranate.
P is phoenix (that's phantasmagorical) rising from the fury of the studio fire or from the ashes of words. And it can masquerade as Pytho, underworld deity and serpent, which gapes to swallow the setting sun and spits it out again at day-break. And P is a plant, seeding in the artist's imagination, cultivated in the makers studio, displayed, discussed, and botanised in many fora, including this one.
So share with me in this phantasy of P as a possible object. Accept, for the present, its potential to be an object, its predilection to posture, pose and pass itself off as an object on location; and to skitter and scatter like quick-silver as we attempt to tell its stories.
Watching, enthralled, the plash and play of mercury in the Alexander Calder fountain at the Miro Museum in Barcelona, I remembered: we used to play with mercury, at school, in the science lab, before the science mistress arrived to take the lesson. We poured a small blob from the little screw-top jar into the groove in the top of the desk where our pens and pencils were supposed to sit, or into the cupped palm of our hand. We were always amazed by its weight, fascinated by its apparently erratic movement, entranced by the depths of its sombre sheen. When we poked a finger into the middle of this blob of liquid metal, it split asunder - ran amok in every direction. But then, just as quickly, it reformed, held fast by surface tension which seemed determined to restrain it as a perfect sphere, except that it was always bellied out at the bottom by its own weight. Only rarely did a tiny bead escape through a crack, or roll recalcitrantly into one of those grooves scored into the desk top by generations of boredom. If there were dust in the desk groove, the small globules appeared to pick it up on their surface; but when they coalesced back into their original condition there was little evidence of foreign matter on the shining form.
Visual and verbal language - objects and words - are two distinct and separate modes of human expression. Each carries its unique system of signs and codes; but we struggle to interact intelligently with objects without the use of the words which enable us to clarify and order our thoughts - to make them precise and particular, and to develop them and elaborate upon them, to explore and expand them. Words help us to negotiate the terrain between what we are looking at and what we think we are seeing. They help us to locate the object P in our conscious understanding. So we speak and write about P. We recount in words the stories we believe it is telling us in its own silent language.
It can appear sometimes that P labours under the burden of all possible meanings. We read it and we tell stories about it. We analyse it. We deconstruct it. We impose linguistic properties upon it, apply the rules of grammar and syntax as we break its stories into sentences and parse them. We poke at P with words until it flies apart into globules of various sizes which roll about wildly under our scrutiny as they accrue the debris of assorted meanings. They gather a little of the dust of history, the detritus of deconstruction; we ice them with the words of critical theory, we fluff them with the talc meaning. The meniscus of the mercury is strained, and finally ruptured and meaning runs manically in all directions. But, later, it will coalesce into a shining blob, where we see only the reflection of our own thoughts as P sheds itself of the detritus so briefly disposed to adhere to it and clears from the clouds of our aspirations. Aside from the fascinating and perhaps quite pertinent mythologies surrounding mercury's perceived alchemical and astrological properties, ultimately, its behaviour in the hand can leave us confident in its innate coherency. So, too, we can trust that the object P will retain its integrity as a thing-in-the-world, irrespective of the stories we might concoct about it or might imagine that it recounts to us.
Much was learned from the prodding of mercury, and not merely a basic understanding of certain scientific principles. A sense of wonder was instilled in us by the elegant logic and integrity of the mercury's behaviour - by the matter of mercury, as well as by the visual beauty and the weight of the quivering, lustrous orb of liquid metal. That it was rumoured to be toxic merely added a delightful frisson to the experience.
The matter with which we work is inanimate. The scientific community ascribes to it physical and chemical properties but no (free)will; although, from the way in which is sometimes behaves in the studio, and from the manner in which we address it at times, an observer might reasonably construe otherwise, because, as makers, we do develop a close understanding of the materials we work with, which can display the characteristics of a human and reciprocal relationship. As makers, we dance with matter, beguiling or coercing it to perform to our tune, at a tempo with our head and hands and heart; and, in its turn, it charms us with seductive moves, stirs us with lively steps, now forwards, now sideways, obstreperously propels us backwards, or trips us up.
See how easily, in a mere fifty or so words, the inanimate becomes not just animate, but willful. How easily meaning is thrust upon it. As those ostensibly in command of the situation, and blessed with lively imaginations, we can cast P in the role of a ventriloquist's doll, or we can entirely reverse these roles by insisting that it is not makers, viewers, collectors, writers that speak on behalf of the object P, rather it is P itself that recounts stories, that tells tales. It is P that directs us to shape our mouths to its account, to spin its yarns, to chatter and chin-wag on its behalf, and to gossip, with delightful indiscretion. For when we make our object P ( or any thing-in-the-world) matter is impregnated, not just with meaning, but with life, with volition. Thus it assumes, not merely the role of a catalyst or agent provocateur, it assumes the role of narrator, of raconteur, of tell tale, tittle-tattle, chatter-box. Whether, from its demeanour, it appears to be loquacious or taciturn, P speaks, as we say, volumes. It presents us with multiple texts. It is multilingual. It speaks in tongues - a kind of Esperanto. It whispers, shouts, mutters, it babbles and prattles, it screams and yells, it sings, stutters, hums, warbles, whistles, and yodels.
And the materials from which P is made, do the same, though its agency. For in addition to their physical (or behavioural) properties, and their technological implications, they're saddled with cultural histories - some more burdensome than others. Anything that a material has been used for or associated with is not merely strapped on as part of the load, it coheres with it. This enriches the material and charges it with both desired and unsought-for meanings, for meanings can be invited and wooed or can gate-crash in on the party between maker and matter. Some years ago people were disappointed to discover that what they perceived to be enamelled silver jewellery was in fact made of stainless steel and automotive paint - materials deemed inappropriate for jewellery because their surgical and industrial connotations were so firmly entrenched in our culture. In the nineteen seventies and eighties, contemporary jewellers who used gold or diamonds were deemed guilty of moral turpitude. Ivory was worse; whereas toxic plastics were not only in vogue but politically correct. At that time gold and diamonds told forbidden stories of material value and decorative pretensions, although less precious materials did not necessarily tell less costly stories.
For eons, well before even dinosaurs roamed the earth, the mineral silver slept innocently in the ground. It did not even have a name (so, we might ask, was it then silver?) and the gentle ruminants and ravening carnivores had no interest in its presence beneath their giant feet. White, malleable, ductile, relatively resistant to oxidation, it was identical to the material with which we are familiar, except that we had not yet come on the scene to dis-cover it, mine it, refine it, use and analyse it, and give it scientific, monetary, aesthetic, or mythical value. We had not yet ravished it with meaning. Today, in this company of jewellers, metal-smiths, and associates, I say the word silver and it reverberates with the history of its use and meanings, as does every thing made from it. Now, since the slumber of silver has been disturbed, it can never regain the integrity of its primal state. We might wonder, when it lies in the ground today in sites neither surveyed nor mined, whether it is innocent or merely artless.
And what about the marble gleaming under the sun at Carrara in the Apuan Alps? Under the hands of Michelangelo it became the beefed-up adolescent David, Mary displaying her grief, a voluptuously dying slave; it became the serene ovoid of Brancusi's Sleeping Muse; it has also become a cool slab on which to lay out a cadaver or on which to roll pastry. For me, with its history of representing the body, it has become flesh itself.
As well as recounting tales about the material from which it is made, the object P cites the processes through which it has been wrought. Whereas digital processes are virtually invisible or magical (and thus somehow irrelevant) and the rendering of objects dreamed up in this manner can be obscure and ethereal, if not celestial, process in manu-factured or handcrafted objects is usually evident to some extent, perhaps familiar, occasionally even to non-makers. This relative technological transparency can play a substantial role in the story of P, or, in the case of some "craft" objects, can be where meaning inheres.
Aside from certain formal qualities - many of which so familiar as to be cliches and require no re-iteration here - the form of every object P evokes other things-in-the world to which it may provide correspondence or contrast: bodies and buildings, chairs and clouds and cups, faces and flowers, paintings and pomegranates, rings and rocks, spoons and spittoons, tables and trees, windows and watches and windswept hair. For P arouses memories of experiences, too. Windswept hair is both image and sensation. Yes, P is promiscuous, for what it evokes is barely limited by the experience and imagination of the maker or viewer. For the maker, this holds both promise and terror. As Maurice Blanchot points out: "the raison d'etre of the community ... is its own existence ... For the writer (or artist) this community is essential; but cannot be determined in any way, and so constitutes a void into which every writer (or artist) must venture."4 We have trouble, at times, determining our own meaning - and can never best-guess that of an audience.
Let us say that I work on a piece P until it develops what is, in my opinion, the affecting quality that I seek. I want P to cite poignancy, not just as I have seen or experienced it, but something more universal. Something to share with a viewer. How do I know how to do this? Well, I don't - not in advance; but I configure and contour and cut and abrade and polish and paint and scuff back my piece of marble until it "feels" right, for me at the moment. However, what is poignant for me may not be for you (or may not be for me, tomorrow!). Such understanding comes not only from our experience, as makers, with form and materials; it is innate, embedded as part of our very humanity. We have been there and it is by feeling our way that such a quality can be drawn from cerebral and bodily memory. It comes from holding the fragile hands of an elderly aunt, from tending the wound on a toddler's leg, from the cry of an abandoned calf, from ants swarming around the eyes of a hatchling which has fallen from the nest, from the broken neck of a daffodil. It resides, not in the exquisite beauty of the Pietà in St Peters, but in the unfinished Pietà Rondanini on which Michelangelo was working until the week of his death 5 , it is in Rodin's Mask of Man with the Broken Nose; it is in the silence of Doris Salcedo's immured shoes;6 it is in Bill Viola's naked body rising and falling through water, in Gubaildulina's Seven Words from the cross, and in the poetry of Marina Tsvetayeva. These memories of sight and sound and touch, and others, make up my understanding of the word poignant. Now that understanding must be coalesced and fused into matter, into a material form, into an object P, which tells a poignant and embodied story - for me and, hopefully, for you.
We make objects - not just images, so we know that the weight of an object is also something experienced bodily, even in the imagination. Weight is salient. What does P evoke for us in respect to its weight, in the hand or on the body? What, of our experience as beings in a world with gravity, is aroused by the object when we hold it. Does it cause us to flex our arms and remind us of our strength, our own density, or does it sit like a feather in the hand? Does it weigh more or less than a babe in arms, a sleeping toddler, a sated lover, a dead dog, a loaf of bread, a dry or a just-watered pot plant, a balloon, the weekend papers, a jar of mercury. We cannot predict what stories may be repeated when we feel the weight of P.
P also catalogues our experience of other objects in its class. The category of object - brooch or ring or vessel or lamp or chair or architectural detail or autonomous object d'art - determines what is else is evoked when we contemplate it. The brooch P calls forth images of brooches we have known. The finger wearing the ring P still feels former rings it has worn. The mineral chill of a necklace against warm skin holds memories, and the sight of metal against bare flesh may evoke not just the jewel but the scalpel or the garotte. Vessels are classified by their functional capacity compared with other vessels. The delight when jug P pours without dribbling is only possible when comparisons are made from past experience of those - the majority, it seems - that dribble disappointingly. And we guess from looking at chair or lounge P whether or not it will be comfortable, for past seats are remembered, not just visually, but by the glutes.
When we make an object, we seed matter with stories, for the object P not only is a story but it inevitably becomes the breeding ground for further stories - of fact and fiction, heroic epic, satire, conjecture and supposition, appraisal, myth, and spin. This fate is inescapable, for our species possesses the apparently innate capacity to invent stories, which generally manifests itself as a relentless urge to tell them. How can we confront P without beginning to fabricate stories - not just of its making but of its maker, and of what has been quoted in the process of its manufacture, of its past, present or potential location, whether used, worn, exhibited, collected, displayed, or hidden.
P not only re-cites, for us, previous experience of similar objects, it can also dislocate us precipitately. Thus Ricky Swallow's carved wooden fish7 evoke a taste of the trout I had for dinner a few days ago, or the ones I saw in the fish market, or the ones I caught many years ago in Lake Eucumbene, and suddenly I feel their slimy skin. Of course the fact that I have already seen fish carved from wood by another living artist inevitably leads me to make comparisons between Swallow's piece and those carved by Catherine Truman from nineteen eighties and nineties. And these artefactual fish are reflected again in the pools at the local trout farm when the sleekly churning chorus lines re-cite both Truman and Swallow. The carved wooden tablecloth on Swallow's table derives its meaning for me from my last elbows-on experience of a similar cloth at a restaurant last week, or contemplated in a Still Life by Cezanne, where the painted cloth has a particular solidity somewhat reminiscent of carved wood. You will see different fish and different cloths. We do not see the same things. And, as we also use the word see to mean understand, our understanding of these objects is different. The meaning is different for each of us, as we place P within the context of our experience, and as it reciprocates by propelling us into unforeseen locations.
One of the words recommended by my thesaurus as an alternative to citing is abducting. The verb to abduct, as defined in the Macquarie Dictionary means - to carry off surreptitiously or by force. As we may observe, the object P, as well as being a perpetrator, is consistently a victim of such behaviour at the hands of writers, critics, viewers, not to mention the makers themselves. Every story told about P after the fact of its existence could be seen as an abduction. And P is also adduced - brought forward and cited in arguments as pertinent or conclusive, to provide evidence, to testify, to bear witness, to prove some point.
Although we made the switch to farming some ten thousand years ago, at heart, we remain hunter-gatherers. As members of an urban (if not always urbane) post-industrial society, driven by greed rather than need, we zip along the information super-highway at god knows how many terabits per second, as we transfer the basic impulse to hunt and gather to the conspicuous consumption of whatever is available at the nano-second. This particularly applies to the collectors of objects, but also to viewers, as well as makers. Our appetite for acquisition, whether primary or secondary, whether actual or virtual - is voracious. We hunt P as our quarry. We garner P for the intellectual and emotional sustenance it provides. And we and P swap yarns.
Once it leaves the maker's hands, the stories of P's meanings are hunted, gathered, stored, and processed in many ways, some of which will be discussed at this conference. However, the importance of the hunting of P by its maker is often overlooked. We know that, for the maker, P often exists in a more or less ascertainable state before it is seen as an actual, in our case, solid, object. Like quarry, it may be glimpsed, fragmented, through a dappling of distractions. Once seen, even in nascent material form, the meaning of P to the maker becomes more, or sometimes less, clear, as it evolves and takes form. As Jackson Pollock put it "when I'm in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of "get acquainted" period that I see what I have been about".8 Sightings of P as it develops, watching it mature and move towards completion, can elicit delight or dismay in the maker, prompting further consideration and development or variation from original intentions. In my experience this is often the case. However, once P is acknowledged as a complete and independent object, and has been delivered into the world, the maker may view it afresh. One of the benefits of taking work out on location into the "real world", is to catch sight of it afresh, to take it unawares, to be taken up short by it, even taken aback by it, leading to insights and understandings not previously available in the close working association of studio or workshop, when the work is in progress, or so hot off the anvil that one is blinded by the steam of the moment.
Actual sightings of P-in-the-flesh by people other than the maker confer on it many meanings, many stories - potentially more numerous than the number of viewers, as memories are evoked and imagination comes into play. The stories told of P-in-the-flesh are legion and are rich with personal and often quite intimate mythologies, as well as being informed by knowledge and experience of an increasingly accessible array of theories and hypotheses and sentiments and suppositions. The proximate physical presence of P stimulates narratives of certainties and subtleties only available at first hand - realities of weight and size, nuances of three dimensional form, hues and intensities of colour, tone, and texture as effected by the potentially variable reciprocal positioning of object, light, and line of sight. Hands on experiences of P tell of roughness, graininess, ridginess, smoothness, and of tensile properties like spring, bounce, flop, rigidity, elasticity; and weight in the hand or on the body tells tales only available from first hand experience. The speed with which the material warms to body heat and holds that heat as it is passed to and from other hands tells not just of the thermal properties of the material; but that my hands are warmer or cooler than yours (and there may be other stories there).
The internet has turned us all into nomads. We range through the ether - footloose vagabonds, itinerant, peripatetic wayfarers, pilgrims, adventurers, beachcombers, bums; and under the aegis of the electronic media, P can be sited anywhere again and again and again, for virtual P is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Beyond the wild scatter of prodded mercury, it is omnipresent even as it dissolves in gloss.
According to the testimony of Mouchette, that thoroughly virtual gal who lives exclusively in the limbo of the ethernet: "Virtual life is a form of death. The body must be annihilated completely. Everything ... has to disappear ... no more voice, no more breath, no more flesh, no more eyes ... a perfect and total disembodiment!"9 Thus the object which is no longer an object can take on infinite possible lives, and inhabit unlimited stories, confined only by its immateriality, constrained only by the imagination which has been aroused and prompted by all possible effects, by the possibility of innumerable locations.
The web-site dedicated to international contemporary jewellery - KLIMT0210 - provides an excellent opportunity to view contemporary jewellery, to attend exhibitions, to hear and to discuss what artists have to say about their work, to read the deliberations of critics. Located at our computers we are relocated, via the site's little office in Barcelona, which is also a jewellery studio, to: Alternatives Gallery in Rome, Galerie Spektrum in Munich, Louise Smit in Amsterdam, the Nationalmuseum in Sweden, The State Museum for Art and Design in Nuremberg, among others. In each of these seventy-two locations in twenty-seven countries we may view works on exhibition, and it is possible to follow jewel P as it moves through its locations of one international gallery after another. But none of this is real.
When we engage with P, the actual object, we are physically located in conjunction with the matter of the thing; but what we bring to the engagement, besides the significant particularity of our own physical presence, is ephemeral, intangible. Memory may be crystalline and unambiguous, or fractional, fugitive, and hazy. Imagination may be clear in its path, or deliciously wayward, incorrigible. By engaging with the physicality of P, we are no longer drifting in that space of any possibility, which is no particular possibility; we are no longer located anywhere, which is nowhere in particular. We are on location in the material presence of an actual entity. The tangible nature of this experience provides a secure base from which memory, however fleeting, and imagination, however unruly, can stray. What we are seeing, either touching or potentially able to touch, is real - as real as the hands that would touch it. All is verifiable. Here are no tricks, no spin, no gloss (leaving aside, for the moment, the mysteries of technique or process which sometimes may baffle even the most savvy professional). This is not internet dating where what we see is anything but what we get. We can benefit from the close encounter - one in which we approach the existence of P on equal terms as another thing-in-the-world of matter. We can revel in the advantage of actuality, the privilege of proximity. The surety endowed by this genuine engagement is a gift indeed.
P is often destined for a particular location - on a body, on a table, on a shelf, on a wall, or in a showcase, in a public space, or a museum. The maker's intention or ambition for P to be located in some particular physical or cultural site can be a powerfully aphrodisiacal factor in P's evolution, effecting gross or more subtle variations on its material outcome; and once materially manifest, P can subsequently be located, in fact, or in imagination, or virtually in many sites by artists, wearers, users, and curators - each one of which tells a different tale. The story of one particular P pinned to my lapel is not the same as the story of that same P pinned to your lapel, or on the wall in the SCA Gallery, or in a showcase in Gallery Funaki, or in a showcase in Gallerie Ra, or in a showcase in the Powerhouse Museum, or stored securely in vaults of the MFA Houston. It is not the same as the story of that same P hiding in the drawer of your sister's dressing-table or in an old jewellery box belonging to your great-aunt. And when viewers, museologists, writers, critics, theorists, historians, teachers, and students have access to it, whether substantially or imaginatively, as we know, the possible stories of its siting are limited only by the diverse fancies of those people.
The name of this conference is ON LOCATION (from the Latin verb locare - to place). The Macquarie Dictionary describes this in cinematic terms as a real and authentic place; not in the studio; an actual place as distinct from a simulation. Doubtless some of the real and authentic and actual places for thinking about making P, for making P, for wearing or using P, for exposing or displaying or storing or hiding P, for discussing P, for telling the stories of P will be divulged in the next couple of days.
To be on location suggests that one is in a place and there at a time that has been selected, rather than being where one just finds oneself. One has not simply hung up a sign that reads GONE FISHING; one has selected the place, the time of day, the quarry, the bait, with intent. Being on location, if not always entirely voluntary, at least has an element of volition to it and in no way resembles being in exile or being a refugee. Being on location is vocational - associated with a sense of purpose. It is a situation where one is focussed rather than vacuous. Being on location is being there - particularly. It is being there (or being here, as we are today) rather than being some-where, or where-ever.
Being on location is not usually an extreme adventure, although it may appear so. It has a slightly jaunty, glamorous, Holywoodish ring to it, evoking outsized sunglasses, director's chairs with celebrated names on them, caravans, wardrobe mistresses; there are hairdressers and make-up artists in tow. True, there may be inconveniences of inclement weather, rain, sand storms, even brain storms; the careful coif may be dishevelled by wind, beautifully kept skin may be in danger of sunburn, or insect bites, or may go blue and goosy from the cold. The serenity of known terrain, the security of the familiar may be tweaked. This merely adds a frisson to the situation - a slightly titillating edge to things. The knowledge that home base or the studio awaits our return is comforting.
When I am perplexed by dilemmas with my work and I go and dig in the garden (or cook or clean the house or go for a walk) I am not on location. I am seeking escape, or refuge, from a disquieting situation. This may be in desperation or it may simply be vacational - a break. But when I need to understand what it means to be a rose torn about by the wind and I go into the garden to feel and smell and watch and draw and photograph, I am on location. This is vocational. Although, as you have no doubt experienced, the vacational can swiftly and surreptitiously defect to the vocational.
Of course, the condition of being on location can occur in the setting of one's own studio or study, for to be on location is not necessarily an exclusively physical circumstance. If being on location is being somewhere authentic, to look inwards into one's own consciousness, to engage with one's intellect and imagination places one in a spot as genuine as any I know; and the studio can be a place of respite from the exigencies of daily life, where the mind can venture, uninterrupted, to more challenging imaginative or intellectual locations. However, the studio set(ting) often seems to be regarded as a retreat - a haven in which to hide from intemperate reality; a place where work becomes a form of meditation; a place to make nice things. True: a jeweller or metalsmith's workshop can be a gritty, grimy place where we break fingernails, cut fingers, burn ourselves, set out hair alight, where acid eats holes in our clothes; but this is safe wholesome-dirty fun, like the earth we get on our hands when we garden, like muddy knees to our jeans. Our minds on location in the studio are, temporarily at least, unimpeded, unsullied, untroubled by events in the actual world. Or are they? Well, the niceness of much jewellery implies this; and conversation with jewellers confirms it, on the whole.
Not everybody sees the studio as a place of sanctuary. American poet Robert Pinsky11 describes his study: "that stage-set of expectations" as "a subtle Hell"
Yes, reverie is essential, and I particularly drawn to Pinsky's limber and defiant reverie; but jewellers and metalsmiths are not only poets, we are engineers, and unless we farm work out to industry, we are frequently confined to specialised studios and workshops. This is where the physical making must generally take place. While acknowledging this necessity from first hand experience, I still wonder why the objects of jewellery are so often dis-engaged from political, social, economic, philosophical, even cultural locations? Why is it so often shot on the studio set rather than on location? Why is its sighting so genteel, its citing so innocuous, its siting so institutional ? Why is often so couth? So deja vu?
One night last autumn: The invitation was printed in gold. Celebratory atmosphere. Acceptable wine. Good crowd. Big crowd. Many people. The right people. Excitement, smiles and chatter, compliments and congratulations. Difficult to view the work. Perusing the crowd was more promising. After all, we were there to be seen, weren't we? Upstairs to see the jewellery. Hot amid a crush of bodies - svelte, groomed, glossy bodies. So, too, much of the work. The showcase ran the length of the narrow space. Beyond the crowd through the reflected lights I saw the ghosts of Christmas-past and Christmas-yet-to-come, yearning for a future perfect of virtual seamlessness, baubles, exquisitely manufactured to within an inch of their lives - the exquisitely precise work of morticians and taxidermists. Of course, all jewellery - even the simplest golden band-ring (which, as we know, is far from simple) - comes to life once it is worn - in situ, in its ultimate location on the body; and the perpetrators in this instance, so finely groomed, were the ideal location for such graceful ornaments.
However, on this same bedazzled night, out in the "real" world, the starving were still starving in sub-Saharan Africa; bodies were still being blown to bits in Iraq; desperate people seeking refuge in this country were still incarcerated like criminals; the shameful petrol-sniffing poverty of our indigenous people continued; there were homeless sleeping under newspapers on our park benches; there were beggars on the street, not just in Barcelona or in New York, in Moscow or in Paris, but outside the door, in this bedazzled city.
The world changes, but with little consequence to this forum. I find it baffling. I don't believe that we are without care or conscience. But P is polite, its demeanour genteel - perhaps because its production is so often driven by arrantly commercial interests. Does this then condemn it to bland and decorative niceness? Or is it comfort we seek? The sanctuary of tried and true? Perhaps it has all been said and all we can ask P to do is reiterate bygone stories. Perhaps the almost unique object P, whether wearable or not, which can be dreamed up in the comfort zone of the studio, provides a safe haven amid our itinerant reality - a location which is stable and sure, gelded by taste and swaddled in traditions with which we feel comfortable - a pleasant oasis amid the inexorably grim and flaming havoc of a world screened in short bites between sport, panel, and lifestyle programmes. It seems that, unless this devastation directly touches us, it's difficult to maintain any rage beyond latte-indignation, as we are lulled into compliancy by our hedonistic and palliative culture, which would render us catatonic as it condemns us to intellectual asphyxiation.
I am not (necessarily) promoting P as an agent of propaganda. It is, after all, a form of visual art, and the visual arts, while often demonstrating polemical ambitions, are also inherently imbued with aesthetic credentials, and the makers of P have their own poetic agendas. But do we want P to be a safe haven? Are we prepared to challenge and be challenged by its potential, or do we want it to swaddle us in serenity, smother us in a blancmange of bland niceness? Perhaps sometimes we can more boldly go out, get down and dirty on location and check our options? We have the choice, and will probably pull through enlivened and strengthened. So will P. Or it might hit the scrap bin, if that's where it belongs.
In her brief essay The Tyranny of the Possible, Irina Aristarkhova reflects upon choice, beginning with the words of Duchamp:
The word art, etymologically speaking, means to make, simply to make. Now what is making? Making something is choosing a tube of blue, a tube of red, putting some of it on the palette, and always choosing the quality of the blue, the quality of the red, and always choosing the place to put in on the canvas, it's always choosing. So, in order to choose, you can use tubes of paint, you can use brushes; you can also use a ready-made thing, made either mechanically or by the hand ... , if you want, ... since it's you who choose it. Choice is the main thing. 13
Unlike painting, which has been transformed and is still being transformed by that lesson, other art forms are particularly vulnerable to the tyranny of the possible, when little thought is given to the question of choice as the main thing. When the urgency of such self-reflexive judgment is not enacted; when one is not constantly vigilant about one's choosing (. . .) then one's art becomes a mere exemplar of the possible.
Aristarkhova is referring, broadly, to new media art practice; nevertheless what she says is pertinent to us. She concludes:
To move forward, it seems, one needs to resist the tyranny of the possible - to ensure that the reflexive moment is not swallowed by the immediacy of the Next Big Thing.
And, I would add, is neither submerged in the expectations of past practices, nor blinded to a world so rich in potential locations.
The conundrum of choice particularly applies to the selection of media and consideration of the location of work - of how and where the story of P will be told. For centuries, Jewellers and metalsmiths have had at their disposal a remarkable range of material and technological possibilities, and the potential repertoire of the enterprising maker is always expanding. We can undertake some of the more arcane practices from the past such as granulation, inlay, filigree, fire gilding, or we can work, as we have since the sixties with so called "new" materials or we can combine any of these. And now, of course, we have the possibility of the ultimate and almost alchemical CAD/CAM magic of polymer-laser sintering.
As makers, we have experienced this conundrum of choice, and we seem to have a particular obsession with materials and technologies - with the how-ness of P. In this conference On Location we will be discussing the where-ness in greater depth. But, perhaps, the inquiry into the why-ness, so often neglected, is even more crucial and critical. The rudimentary and perplexing question that we are sometimes unable to answer. Why do we make what we make? And, if we are able to answer that question, where does that answer locate us in our world, and where does it locate P as the object of our endeavours?
But that is for another time and place.
One Saturday afternoon some years ago, in Artspace, following instructions I removed my shoes and went up several steps into a small purpose-built room and closed the door behind me. I was immured in mirrors. The only reference was my own presence, repeated into infinitely on all four sides, as well as above, and, vertiginously, below. When we start to analyse the reflexive and self-referential nature of our scrutiny of P we might well conclude that, when we reflect on the object P, what we see is the reflection of our looking, according to location.
Nevertheless, we poke our words into the mercury and watch its crazy dance, secure in the understanding that, through the integrating force of its surface tension, it will coalesce, and reform itself into a thing of wonder. And, when we return from the locations of this conference to the sanctuary or the challenge of our studios and studies, perhaps we will remember the words of Robert Pinsky, for whom the distracting clatter of the world "smells of Poseidon, the old antagonist and inspirer, the ocean god who blocks the way home and shakes the world. He shakes it, and I am scared, and I wrestle with something shapeless and incoherent, and if I am lucky the disruption leaves me shaken and shaking, breathless, staring at some coastline I never saw before."
Margaret West, Sydney,