OBJECTS OF DESIRE
The inspiration for Australian artist Helen Britton’s jewellery is enhanced by her bowerbird tendencies, writes Victoria Laurie
Can jewellery be wearable, beautiful and provocative all at once? A little gold object suggests as much in Helen Britton’s retrospective show Interstices at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in Perth. Britton’s beautifully executed work has an incendiary quality tucked somewhere in those interstices — the small intervening spaces — between an ornate pink bow and a crusted sliver of glass, all mounted on a modern steel brooch.
Britton herself is “in between”, says Ted Snell, who runs the gallery and who was also her supervisor at Curtin University in the 1980s before she left for Europe.
“Her history is rooted in both Australia and Germany,” Snell says. “Helen’s work is a meditation on her own history as she engages with artefacts and environments that act as powerful triggers.”
The little gold object was inspired by the same “trigger” that led artists, cartoonists and journalists around the world to comment on the US election and Donald Trump’s victory. In Britton’s case, she chose to focus on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. “I can show you a piece that I made for Hillary,” says the artist, gliding across the floor of the gallery towards a display cabinet. Inside are several small goodluck charms, the kind that hang from bracelets.
“I thought, ‘Oh Hillary, if only you had had this,’ ” says Britton, grinning and pointing. The little object is a tiny, perfectly formed gold penis with testicles, designed to hang from wherever the wearer chooses to put it.
“It was for me a bit of a cheeky reaction to the symbols of luck, power and fear,” Britton says. “I have to say since I’ve made this piece it’s got more attention than anything else — even in the catalogue, people stop at that page.”
Britton’s sentence structure has a faintly Germanic feel to it. It comes from having spent more than 15 years living in Munich, sharing house and studio with her jeweller-artist husband, David Bielander, who coincidentally is holding his own 25-year retrospective show in his Swiss home town, Lausanne. The pair have an international reputation for their respective jewellery, drawings and installations, and a dedicated following from collectors of their art.
“Contemporary jewellery is not as evident in daily life here as it is in Europe, America and Japan,” Snell says. “It is regarded very seriously over there in specialist galleries.”
Britton’s meticulous pieces are made from metals, glass, precious stones and sourced components. They can be found in collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Art Gallery of Western Australia, to name a few.
“A lot of people who feel distanced or overwhelmed by the fine arts,” Britton says, “feel there is accessibility to what we might once have called the crafts or the applied arts, whatever it might be … There is something here very human.”
The little penis should not imply flippancy. Britton is serious about each piece and its provenance. Each one is as potently memorable as Japanese netsuke, lingering in the mind and senses of whoever the piece adorns.
“There’s a cheekiness and a challenge to the status quo but not an overt political statement,” Snell says. “Helen’s jewellery is not quiet. It has a voice and demands comment.”
Britton has given a lot of thought to what constitutes jewellery: “I’m interested in the very human, very ancient parameters of what jewellery is, although within those parameters there’s a fantastically interesting field of possibilities,” she says. “You see contemporary jewellery that is no longer wearable — sometimes it’s interesting in that it challenges the idea of jewellery …” her voice trails off, suggesting this is not a path she chooses to go down.
“When I make jewellery pieces, they must be wearable and conform to a set of parameters that means it functions as jewellery. But I divide my work up into different areas of interest.”
The breadth of her interests extends to an elaborate miniature ghost train, complete with soundscape, assembled on an elevated track in the exhibition space. The train offers “an element of surprise, a relationship to my own childhood memories of the ghost train ride at the Royal Show”.
“I’m fascinated in the unheimlich, the uncanny,” she explains. “What is the attraction about the unknowable? Why do we want to experience fear and fun? I wanted to find a way to immerse my public in an experience and an environment that is strange but has a popular cultural reference.”
Other fairground paraphernalia has inspired a series of jewellery pieces displayed nearby. Hanging in a frozen cascade are children’s rings from trinket machines, cheap jewellery she remembers from childhood.
“Girls that had gone with boys always got one of these rings. Sometimes their fingers were full of them — it was so symbolic of who you were and what you’d done, and it really stuck with me. It ties in with the dark side, the unheimlich.”
It’s striking that Britton is respectful of materials of all kinds, not merely precious ones. Her international reputation rests partly on her quest to incorporate items from the past into contemporary settings. She hunts down factory components of mass-produced jewellery or discarded costume jewellery items in regional towns. She “re-purposes” tiny items, such as a mass-produced snake emblem or crossedgun motifs, by mounting them in state-of-theart industrial mounts. The materials, whether plastic or precious gems, seem to speak to each other.
“She takes inspiration from everywhere,” Snell says. “She’s always finding things like bucketloads of buttons in an old factory in America or huge numbers of small plastic horses that were used in 1950s costume jewellery. “In Germany they still have mittelstand,” he says, “small industries that are still viable and … employ a lot of people. They make one thing very, very well … Helen takes them back to the studio and thinks about how one thing relates to another.” “Value is a funny thing, isn’t it?” muses Britton, as we examine a brooch of branches and lightning-bolt design set with rose-cut diamonds. “If you stand outside Tiffany’s window you see a tiny diamond and a weeny bit of yellow gold, and because it says Tiffany’s you’ll be paying $35,000. Diamonds aren’t intrinsically valuable — it’s a construct that we’ve made valuable. Trees are valuable but we don’t see that.” It doesn’t mean she isn’t fascinated by the properties of her materials. “Gold is fascinating because it has a very specific and unique property, as does silver or diamonds, or styrofoam.” Britton started out at Sydney College of the Arts, then left to drive around the coast in 1987 to Perth. She enrolled in Curtin University, where Snell supervised her master’s thesis in fine arts, and in her spare time she reconditioned cars from the wrecker. “It gives me an understanding of making and building.” She was surrounded by the work of other tal- ented West Australian jewellery artists — Dorothy Erickson, David Walker, Eric and Rinsky Carr, Carlier Makigawa and Bronwyn Goss, to name a few. “I had some very good teachers … I went out teaching to an outreach program in Kalgoorlie. It was formative.”
She left Perth to travel to Germany for postgraduate study with Otto Kunzli at the Academy of Fine Art in Munich before setting up her own studio 15 years ago.
“Helen’s is a lovely story of a hometown girl made good,” Snell says. “But she’s always trying to make that connection with home.”
Britton returns each year to Australia to walk along the beach and gather seashells and inspiration. And somewhere between the two hemispheres — those interstices again — she creates. Her love for Australia’s raw natural places is reflected in delicate strings of shells and fish spines she has reassembled into jewellery after catching and eating the fish’s flesh.
Equally, she plumbs the depths of human foibles in European folklore, such as why we attribute luck to certain things. Her gold penis trinket sits alongside other talismanic objects shaped like black cats and witches. “It’s a feminist statement of sorts,” she says. “Cat, witches, women … During the witch hunts, cats were also killed, which is why rats and the plague took such hold in Europe.”
“She’s living in Germany looking at this very long history where everything has a previous use, a patina of the past,” Snell says. “She comes back and sees all these things freshly.”
As to whether the word jewellery closes the minds of people who don’t consider it a serious art form, Britton has a view.
“I would respond that their minds are limited, but my mind isn’t. I thought we’d been through postmodernism but apparently it must have been put on hold in some people’s heads. Why can’t this be as meaningful as painting something on a piece of canvas?
“This is jewellery, this is real jewellery,” Britton says, “but it is motivated by a multitude of things.”
runs until April 15 at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia, Perth.
Helen Britton and some of her creations, including Lucky Dick, top; Bones, Tracks, above; and Mushroom, below