Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

A Sense of Place

A_Sense_of_Place_reviewBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

A Sense of Place: New Jewellery from Northern Lands
National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh
May 18 – September 16, 2012

As part of her practice-led doctorial research at Edinburgh College of Art, Beth Legg invited sixteen jewellers from the “northern edge of European jewellery practice” (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Scotland) to create two new pieces of work. The first a response to local place, the second to the contents of a “topophilia box” filled by another participant in the project. Topophilia (meaning “love of place”) is a central theme to Legg’s PhD, which explores “how contemporary jewellery makers transfer the sensory experience of place into a tangible object”.

This exhibition displays the outcomes of system that could be likened to the game of Chinese whispers: each participating artist received a wooden box to fill with inspiration and a request to make one new work. The box was then sent at random to another jeweller in the sixteen-strong group, who took on the challenge of creating a second piece of work in response to the contents of the box. Legg explains her selection of participants was based in part on an “affinity with their approach” as well as an attention to jewellery practices that are  “involved in a communication with their surrounding environments.” Her thoughtful conception and curation of this show, now handsomely displayed off the bustling Grand Gallery at the National Museums of Scotland, is the culmination of three years worth of research and planning.

Ironically, my eye found the first pieces to be more successful than those made in response to receipt of a foreign box of inspiration. Legg’s second iteration, perhaps unsurprisingly considering her role as conceiver of the project, is the exception to this rule and one of the most compelling in terms of aesthetics. Some of this can be explained by a curious repetition of box contents: seven of the sixteen boxes are filled with the harvests of beach combing, creating a glut of coastal (more so than northern) references. Only two clearly deviated from this: Norwegian Ingjerd Hanevold’s 77 pins of silver and purl were made in tender response to each of the lives lost during last year’s massacre at Utøya on July 22, the day her inspiration box happened to arrive by post. Equally disarming is Nelli Tanner’s decision to present a single out-of-focus black and white photograph of an older man, gazing intently into the camera.

The project raises a number of intriguing questions. Shipping restrictions notwithstanding, I felt a curious sense that the boxes established – perhaps unconsciously – perimeters for the scale of each work. The absence of huge work is understandable, but there was also nothing tiny on display. The helpful exhibition text, carefully edited down to a single phrase or statement from each artist, showed that several artists struggled to establish a connection with objects that needed an imagined narrative. For example, Grace Girvan observed, “Even though the objects were similar to objects I would collect, I didn’t have the same connection to these collected objects as I did to my own.” Legg notes the sense of freedom she felt as an artist responding to stimuli without a context, but it is clear that many more found this a struggle rather than a release. Rut-Malin Barklund bravely summed up the challenge by explaining, “The thing I found difficult in working with someone else’s inspiration box was to disregard wondering what that person thought/felt meant with these things.”

It may be more than four decades since the French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote “The Death of the Author”, but in this project it seems the absent author loomed large. As a result, this exhibition may be less about how artists respond to a particular place and more about responses to stimuli that exist in the vacuum of Legg’s carefully orchestrated topophilia box-swap. Place, we are reminded, is far bigger than a box.

Crafts Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2012: 68-69)