Response to Keeping It Real
It’s often the little things that matter in keeping us together when everything else that surrounds us threatens to fall apart.
Threading together the events leading up to the moment prime minister Jacinda Ardern first discovered “the smear” wasn’t too difficult. Although the incident in question wasn’t the usual kind of political slur applied to the female politician, it was more akin to a curious aside or a minor affront. Although, like much of the political conversation it was tasked with the symbolic and contained elements of the theatrical, the combined effects of which signalled the bearer operated with a high degree of competency underpinned by an advanced level of vulnerability and care.
When Ardern posted the image of a fleck of pearlescent white nappy cream adorning her velvet pink lapel, I like many others, was able to empathize with her predicament. She presented us with a situation that many of us had faced and sought solutions for in our daily lives. It was as if for a moment we too could imagine ourselves running the country. In her role as prime minister of Aotearoa New Zealand Ardern is the consummate communicator. She connects with her constituents through social media in a manner rarely, if ever, seen in a leader. One explanation for her successful leadership is that in the heat of the moment she is level headed and relatable. Out of all the current world leaders she demonstrates, for the most part, an uncanny knack for keeping it real.
At the time of viewing the nappy cream incident, I was taken by the similarities between Ardern’s accidental ornament and the 1975 performance Everyday Adornment by Dutch artist/jeweller Robert Smit. Dressed in a cream linen suit and cradling packets of cigarettes in his hands, Smit tracked through his gestures familiar, although now disconcerting, body-object relations. A sequence of Polaroids trace how Smit focused on the details of what we might think of as unconscious everyday activities, and in the process of indexing them, he rendered the forces and effects of these quotidian endeavours “as acts of design” (Deyan Sudjic, Unexpected Pleasures 2012). Smit made an interesting claim at the time of making this performance, by suggesting that “any object can be jewellery as long as it was put forward as such” (para. 2 ). A statement that continues to resonate for many in the contemporary jewellery community.
While it’s apparent cigarettes and nappy cream register as polar opposites on the ethical spectrum these precarious expressions of adornment share features in common. As ornamental events, they tell of the social and material effects of jewellery, reveal how adornment is situated on and activates amidst the margins of public discourse. In their abject performativity, these ornamental indiscretions speak volumes in terms of representation – tell of health and gender norms for example.
On the day of the nappy smear incident, the potential of the involuntary act of design was curtailed, interrupted by a last-minute decision to rectify the perceived anomaly – cover the site of the oily fleck with a brooch. I’m not sure whose bright idea this was, although as far as I’m aware the actual jewellery object never warranted a mention on social media.
In her project Keeping it Real jeweller Kelly McDonald picks up on the Ardern domestic/political crisis and fills in the gap of the missing brooch. McDonald works with the image of the velvet pink lapel as a backdrop, a mise en scene for her own jewellery objects made of kitchen scourers and pebbles. The objects and video are playfully enthused with feminist critique and while I’m engaged by the proposition of Ardern engaging more pro-actively in jewellery box diplomacy aka Madeleine Albright style, in the coupling of concept and material these works present more as ideas in the making.
In another series Tools for Lockdown, McDonald’s expressions are more on the mark. These objects appear to be congruent with previous works made of reclaimed steel, appearing in the Masking It section. The oddball hybrid readymade objects, which have fantastically descriptive titles such as Elementally Hammered, resonate with McDonald’s lived story of COVID19 lockdown. In form and content, they’re enthused with the absurdity of confining people to their homes for extended periods. A saw blade cut to a right angle and a hammerhead bonded to a stovetop element coil capture the imagination and transcend the flatness of the screen. While these objects blur the boundaries between function and fantasy they’re totally convincing. They capture all that is confusing about this time and in effect remind us that life is at its best when we are caught up in the struggle of keeping it real.
- for Gallery Faux, September 2020