Taking a walk

John Edgar, Stone stone, stone bone, stone shell, 1987. Te Papa
Alan Preston, Breastplate, 1987. Te Papa
Michael Stevenson, This is the Trekka, 2003-05. Te Papa
John Edgar, Compass, 1987. Te Papa
Mary Amery on an elegant exhibition at Te Papa which richly explores the language of New Zealand jewellery.

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By Mark Amery

Shells, some stones, maybe a bone or two. These are what we take from a walk on the beach in this country of edges, of shoreline. Touchstones, such collections evoke feelings of connection to this place, and other people.

This Labour Day my family left a collection of beach stones on my mother-in-law’s grave. Afterwards we headed down to Makara for another ramble around the rocks.

Other things however also wash up on our shores. They remind us of life’s complex crosscurrents. After being stung by a blue bottle, my four year old yelled out “pink bottle” when she saw a piece of plastic on the shore.

This is the kind of knottier picture about our relation to our environment that jewellery exhibition Bone Stone Shell 25 Years On elegantly sets out. At its centre is the re-presentation of a celebrated 1988 exhibition of New Zealand jewellers. That exhibition summed up a distinctly New Zealand movement in the 1980s of jewellers and carvers who were looking less to Europe and its familiar precious materials, and more to our connections to the Pacific: its natural materials, rich indigenous ornament history and relationship to the sea.

Placed in vitrines down the centre of a gallery, the work of these dozen artists is neatly cross-referenced to a beautiful selection of Maori and Pacific Island objects from centuries prior. The use of vitrines emphasises the jewellers’ relationship to the museum artefact. Alan Preston and Paul Annear pay homage to traditional Pacific ceremonial jewellery with a directness its hard to imagine Pakeha jewellers doing today. Indeed Bone Stone Shell was notable for featuring only one Maori or Pacific Island artist (Inia Taylor). Since, as works by Chris Charteris and Sofia Tekela- Smith elsewhere here indicate, Pacific Island jewellers have taken their traditions back. Since also, works by Areta Wilkinson and Warwick Freeman have spoken smartly of the tensions around cultural appropriation, cataloguing and bell-jarring.  
 
Yet there is much contemporary resonance to savour in the original show. The structural integrity of the work of curator John Edgar, for example, such as a pounamu disc that resembles both a compass and Chinese coin. Roy Mason’s placing in a whole oyster shell’s mother of pearl innards an image of a missile falling on a Pacific Island - this broach’s shape like a sunfish or an eye carrying a tear. Works like these feel timeless, beyond fashion.

Others, conversely and welcomely remind you of another time. There is something of the showier, more angular shoulder-padded ‘80s in Michael Cooper’s setting of natural curves off against straight industrial lines, and Jenny Pattrick’s bold employment of swooping pieces of paua evoking the flight of birds. By this new century by contrast we have Gina Matchitt smashing up paua (like for the tourist trinkets of old), and laying it into the shape of the Nike swoosh.

It’s the way this exhibition intelligently grounds Bone Stone Shell in what went before and what has come since that makes it such a rich exploration of the language of New Zealand jewellery.

Alan Preston begins and ends the show strongly. White Foreshore - the title a reference to the Foreshore and Seabed debate - presents a series of unadorned shell shards on silver pins. They are like broken butterfly specimens, laid out as if marking a walk along the high tide line. With their found object simplicity (the shell could not be more common and white) they are far removed from Bone Stone Shell’s emphasis on craftsmanship. Yet they talk powerfully to us like a line of letters - a local alphabet fractured by unresolved cultural tensions.

Our jewellers increasingly find resonance in found fragments and objects, but shorelines are no longer the main collection routes they walk. Preston also presents necklaces here made out of road bitumen, a surface we spend far more time travelling on. Jacqui Chan upcycles scrap from the Christchurch earthquake into many-sided puzzle-like constructions. Ignoring the beach, Lisa Walker uses adhesive mock-Paua strips bought on Trademe to provide a large lumpen ode to both souvenir tack and jewellery tradition. Jewellery has never seemed smarter at considering what we value, and the complexion of connections we have with the world around us.

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Written by

Mark Amery

31 Oct 2013

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media. He is co-curator of public art programme Letting Space.

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