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Placement is everything

‘Long-term bystander’ Philip Clarke reflects on the movement surrounding the 1988 exhibition <EM>Bone Stone Shell</EM>


<P data-associrn="950135"></P><P><STRONG>Fingers</STRONG></P> <P>The first piece of ‘bone stone shell’ jewellery I can recall buying was a pair of Ruth Baird earrings. I bought them for my wife about 30 years ago on a visit to Auckland. They appeared simple on one level but were novel in that they united what had been until a short time before the ‘conventional’ (pearl, actually river pearl) with the ‘impossible’ (p&#257;ua).</P> <P>For me the epicentre of the bone stone shell movement was the Fingers jewellery shop, opened in 1974, first located in Lorne Street, and from 1987 in Kitchener Street opposite the Auckland Art Gallery. The Lorne Street shop interior itself played a role in culturally positioning the work of these new and largely untutored jewellers. The shop had previously been the location of Purdeu Perfumes<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> &#8211; Auckland’s only perfumery &#8211; a shop I had visited many times with my mother when I was a child. It was a small, very elegant interior with simple, understated modern-styled wood panelling. The banishment of any extraneous detail created a space for the customer to luxuriate in the experience of sampling and purchasing, and the shop’s elegant aesthetic mood was retained in its Fingers incarnation. The shop was entered not directly from the street but side-on, from a short passage. On the other side of the passage, also facing the street was Charcuterie, an Auckland hot-spot that provided good and affordable French bistro food. Fingers has always been well placed in the metropolis.</P> <P><STRONG>The vase</STRONG></P> <P>I returned to live in Auckland in late 1984 and when I began working in the CBD, early the next year, Fingers was an occasional lunch-time haunt. We had just bought a house so my visits were usually for aesthetic pleasure rather than shopping expeditions. Perhaps because my visits were so much about looking I have a very strong memory of ‘the vase’. The one decorative note apart from the jewellery itself &#8211; and it was an over-the-top note &#8211; was a rather large slip-cast vase of extravagant form, based on a three-dimensional representation of a school of tropical fish; the sort of object that was then cheap and plentiful in second-hand shops. Many years later I was reading about very similar ceramic objects and the author categorically described such ware as ‘decorative ceramics for the working class home’.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> The Fingers vase was usually flower filled and exuded a powerful aura because of its singularity and unlikeliness within the sober, sophisticated interior. Interestingly, the vase and much of the jewellery were in conversation; the iridescent glazing on the vase echoing the iridescence of the p&#257;ua. Both bore significant Pacific references: the tropical fish that were the inspiration for the vase, conceivably inhabiting the same isles as the turtles that had yielded up their shells for some of the jewellery on display. The representation of naff suburban taste from a slightly earlier period alongside this emerging type of jewellery practice was paradoxical. But this combination of ‘low’ taste and ‘low’ materials seemed to reify what was going on conceptually, a fresh reassessment of both old and new. What I absorbed from the atmosphere at Fingers was not the usual position taken by the new generation of slamming an older generation but rather a new generation expanding the possibilities for everyone, in that its makers were looking two ways: at the ‘unknown’ old and into the future.</P> <P><STRONG>Placement is everything</STRONG></P> <P>The meteoric take-up of the relatively new contemporary jewellery movement is a phenomenon that I have long considered interesting. Placement in time and space always plays a part. I think of the bone stone shell phenomenon as like two lenses moving on different trajectories. One lens is anxious P&#257;keh&#257; New Zealand society trying to re-imagine itself in order to address the realities of economic divorce from the English mothership; the demands of women and others for a fundamental reorganisation of society; and the demographic diversification, from within and without, of metropolitan New Zealand (aka the ‘browning’).</P> <P>The second lens, tracking differently, is New Zealand jewellery: new and making it up as it goes; largely unshackled by tradition; aware of international jewellery’s interest in the democratic and non-precious; and aware of the contemporary visual arts and particularly their attraction to popular culture. Bone stone shell jewellery makers’ choice of local ‘trash’ materials like p&#257;ua, and the telling presence of the gaudy ceramic vase in the Fingers shop, indicate an interest in the ‘low brow’. The confident and energetic young jewellers who, because they were all, more or less, moving in the one direction, were creating the artefacts of a new culture that was confident, internationally distinct, culturally innovative, and visually sophisticated. When both of these two lenses intersect, the jewellers’ compelling vision of the future quickly finds purchase, because it is culturally grounded, innovative, and speaks to tensions present in the society.</P> <P data-associrn="564500"><P> <P>Around 1985 I bought a Warwick Freeman <EM>Lure</EM> brooch. While I wasn’t particularly involved in the jewellery world, I was part of the broader Auckland visual arts scene, and I began to notice then that artists and visual arts supporters, my age and older, all seemed to be wearing bone stone shell jewellery. An occasion I vividly recall was a fashionable December 1989 black-tie wedding. Artist and man-about-town Gavin Chilcott was formally attired, as directed, eschewing, however, a black tie for Warwick Freeman’s 1989 <EM>Star heart</EM> brooch. Not known for his craft proclivities, Gavin was acknowledged as one of the best-dressed men at the gathering. As part of this tribe I don’t think we were all interested in issues of national identity but, like arts folk anywhere, were attracted to what was new and smart.</P> <P><STRONG><EM>Bone Stone Shell</EM> reconsidered</STRONG></P> <P>Eight years ago, Wednesday 10 August 2005, a small event was staged at Auckland Museum following the opening drinks for Warwick Freeman’s touring show <EM>Given</EM>. This event bore the leaden title of ‘<EM>Bone Stone Shell</EM> Reconsidered: A panel discussion by leading jewellers and cultural commentators on the influence of the bone stone shell era on contemporary New Zealand jewellery’. It was chaired by cultural mandarin Hamish Keith with a panel comprising art historian Damian Skinner and jewellers Alan Preston, Andrea Daly, Jason Hall, and John Edgar.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> It was not dreary. </P> <P>Questions were posed about the appropriation of M&#257;ori and Pacific cultures by P&#257;keh&#257; jewellers and whether this appropriation had resulted in the making of some problematic and improbable objects &#8211; ‘heifer lump’ was the term used to describe a key work made by one of the panellists. The appropriation issue had been well thrashed out in the visual arts during the 1980s and 90s, but not so publicly, at least in my experience, in the crafts. </P> <P data-associrn="36707"><P> <P>Inia Taylor, who had the distinction of being the only M&#257;ori jeweller included in the<EM> Bone Stone Shell</EM> exhibition, was in the audience. Inia stood up and stopped the proceedings.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> His point was that the bone stone shell movement had had a very positive influence on him. Alan Preston recalls that Inia’s experience of working with slightly older jewellers, whose work drew on other cultures, had provided him with a practical pathway for learning more about his own M&#257;ori culture. <SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> He believed that <EM>Bone Stone Shell</EM> had been helpful for M&#257;ori and Pasifika people because it had acknowledged the existence of their cultures and recognised them as relevant contributors to a broad contemporary New Zealand art and culture.</P> <P>When the <EM>Te Maori</EM> exhibition opened in September 1984 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, M&#257;ori leader Dame Georgina Kirby attended and for the occasion borrowed works from Fingers. When returning them to Fingers she laughingly reported that the works had been admired and, on one occasion, when asked who had made them she replied &#8211; always the able manager of a political moment &#8211; ‘I got my cousin to make them for me.’<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> This ‘reverse’ appropriation by one of the most influential leaders of M&#257;oridom rings true for me. Alan Preston has said that around this time Fingers was regularly visited by M&#257;ori people who proudly came to see how their culture was informing ‘contemporary art’. [7] It seemed to me that whatever ‘borrowing’ was going on, it was in the spirit of advocating to a largely P&#257;keh&#257; audience to reassess their attitudes towards, and more often than not general ignorance of, M&#257;ori and Pasifika cultures. </P> <P>There is a powerful image that demonstrates to me the respectful scholarship of bone stone shell jewellery makers, through which aspects of diverse Pacific cultures began to enter mainstream New Zealand culture. In the 1990 catalogue <EM>Mau Mahara: Our stories in craft</EM> (still my favourite book on New Zealand craft) there is an image of a kneeling Warwick Freeman studying a drawer of Polynesian objects at the Auckland Museum.<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> His stance makes the point: before any borrowing or appropriation was possible, study had to take place.</P> <P>Writer Edith Wharton once observed ‘placement is everything’. She was in fact talking about commas; however, in thinking of how the innovative work of very small number of New Zealand jewellers seemed to capture, for a moment, the aspirations of a whole society, I concur with Edith that placement is everything. </P> <P><STRONG>Philip Clarke</STRONG> bought his first bone stone shell works at Fingers when he was employed by the Crafts Council of New Zealand. He went on to make further jewellery purchases while working at ARTWORK, the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, and later Creative New Zealand. In 2004, he became the inaugural director of Auckland’s Objectspace. </P> <P>Endnotes</P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>Alan Preston, conversation with the author, 9 September 2013.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>John Davenport, <EM>Pates: Post War Australian Pottery</EM>, Ken Arnold / Crown Castleton Publishers, 1997.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Dr Damian Skinner, correspondence with the author, 6 September 2013. </FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Alan Preston, conversation with the author, 5 September 2013.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Alan Preston, conversation with the author, 5 September 2013.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Ibid.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Ibid.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2><EM>Mau Mahara: Our stories in craft</EM>, Auckland: Random Century, 1990, p. 21.</FONT> <BR></LI></OL>
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Ruth Baird, Earrings, 1990 -2000, titanium and silver earrings,
Purchase 2009.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Warwick Freeman, Large star, 1990, Pearl shell, paint, sterling silver, steel,
Purchased 2002.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Inia Taylor, Fish, 1987, whalebone, paua shell, ebony,
Gift of the Friends of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1993.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz