Is this the right room? Oh yes, I think so – a bit hard to tell. On entering Unexpected Pleasures the visitor is confronted with an array of beautifully designed and clearly very expensive but otherwise blank table cabinets. They are black and round with three massive domed bolts holding the glass down (they are real I couldn’t resist a tiny unscrew of one!). Inside sorted into collections of about six pieces per cabinet is the jewellery displayed on black foam. I found myself peering down these wells trying to decipher what I was looking at and when looking at any piece that was also coloured black (there are several) I was reminded of Douglas Adam’s spaceship with “weird black controls, which are labeled in black on a black background, a small black light lights up in black to let you know you’ve done it…”. The lighting was not helping matters either. I felt the display did not show the jewellery off to is best which is a shame. For example Steinhaufen by Karl Fritsch, 2004 so prominently displayed in a glorious colour image on the Design Museum website was tucked away in a cabinet so it was hard to tell what colour it was or even that it was a ring. I suspect the design of the cabinets was intended to make the visitor feel as if they were discovering those promised “Unexpected Pleasures”.
The exhibition was in four sections, smaller works in table cabinets at the front, a room-like historical section in the middle, behind that large neckpieces, then the “Worn Out” photography section at the back, a slide show of images people wearing jewellery and a video wall which seemed to be people wearing contemporary jewellery at a party (the wine was flowing at least!) which attempted to address the conundrum of displaying jewellery without being worn.
The range of contemporary jewellery was excellent in an important exhibition that is the first of its kind at the Design Museum. As an introduction to artist made jewellery it really tried hard. The pieces were collected together in loose themes and came from artists all over the world, were there enough from the UK? Does that matter in an international art form? There was also a section on the earliest emergence of contemporary art jewellery in the 1940s – 1960s.
The lack of human context so apparent in the front of the gallery suddenly changed once you had circumnavigated the “historical room”. Here at eye level was an array of big necklaces from famous names such as Marjorie Schick, David Watkins, Caroline Broadhead and Lucy Sarneel. Behind them was a wall of images showing pieces being worn or photography by jewellery artists that were purely two-dimensional works. Maisie Broadhead’s “Keep Them Sweet” is a gorgeous image but a problematic one in the context of this exhibition, its claim on being jewellery was a sweetie necklace used as a prop.
A personal tradition before leaving an exhibition I like to select the piece I would most like to take home with me. This time it is Sari Liimatta’s “Phoenix” 2010. A piece that, for me, embodies what artist made jewellery should; interesting technique, arresting beauty, expressing an intense emotion, with an undeniable ambiguity, exquisite craftsmanship and most importantly wearable.
I bought the exhibition catalogue which you can buy online here it is a little pricey at £35 but is a lovely hardback book with essays and lush images. As usual I found some other great books in the shop On Jewellery – a compendium of international art jewellery by Liesbth den Besten and Collect Contemporary Jewellery by Joanna Hardy a guide intended for the novice collector but useful for a maker from the other side of the fence too.
“Unexpected Pleasures” was an excellent start if somewhat disappointing in its display, I hope the Design Museum will continue to champion contemporary jewellery and help raise its profile with the general public.
I took a few shots at the exhibition as visual notes for writing this review included below to give a flavour of the display, however, if you want fabulous images of what was at the exhibition I’d get the catalogue if I were you these were just shot on my iPhone!
The full review will appear in ACJ Findings Magazine spring 2013 edition.