New Zealand born contemporary jeweller, Jacqui Chan, work is edgy and unmistakably urban. By using materials salvaged from Christchurch demolition sites including a decorative steel thermometer, burnt pine floor boards, sign fragments, roofing iron, gas heater, and brass tube for rivets, Jacqui literally turns trash to treasure for her latest collection, Host a Brooch. I’m very grateful to Jacqui who took some time out to answer a few questions which shed some light on her creative process.
The post graduate scholarship you began in 2009 at Melbourne’s School of Art, RMIT, enabled you to research the relationship between jewellery and its urban milieu, as part of a practice based PhD. A lot of your work prior to Host a Brooch has involved using found debris from the urban landscape and reshaping it into tiny wearable sculptures of great beauty. Can you unveil some insights you have discovered in the course of your research on this topic? The PhD is very much practice-based and I’m firmly positioned in the ‘practice AS research’ camp. This means thinking about how engaging the city through jewellery produces distinctive knowledge and concepts about the city and allows me to think about the potentials of jewellery practice.
In approaching jewellery’s relation to the city, a key aspect of my PhD is the operational analogy of a saprophyte. Saprophytes are organisms that feed off decomposing matter and return nutrients to their ecosystem – such as some fungi. What appeals to me in this analogy is the process-based, symbiotic and embedded nature of this relation. This of course doesn’t entail making objects that resemble these organisms – but rather positioning myself and my practice in this way: intervening in the flows of matter that constitute the city, breaking it down, transforming it into something entirely new, and in turn experimenting with its effects on the city. This approach is influenced by the Deleuzian question of ‘what does art do’, rather than ‘what does it mean’.
Is your background in specialising in working with found materials the reason Caroline approached you for this project, or is it something you worked on together from the outset? Caroline had been asking me for sometime to have an exhibition at The National, and in keeping with the nature of my research I proposed doing a Christchurch-based project (rather than simply showing work made elsewhere). The discussion for a project started after the September earthquake and it was initially to involve pieces made from local materials and worn by participants for a longer period of time. The relations between the jewellery, wearers and the urban milieu were to be exhibited through photos, in the gallery. The February earthquake changed everything – including my trip to gather materials at that time. Despite loosing the gallery, Caroline was determined to maintain her exhibition schedule so we started to talk about alternative locations. The Arts Festival came on board, loaning us a shipping container in Hagley Park. This allowed the project to have much greater affect, involving a broader range of the public than ordinarily frequently galleries.
Can you give us a run down on the types of materials you used in creating the brooches for Host a Brooch? Which ones did you find the easiest to work with? Like any dedicated antique market trawler, were there any particular items you found amongst the earthquake debris that made your heart skip a beat? We gathered a real range of stuff including: bits of appliances, aluminium joinery, burnt floor boards, roofing iron, rubble, novelty thermometer, interior flashings, signage and barrier mesh. Working with any material for the first time poses challenges, but I really enjoyed the diversity of materials – it makes you think on your feet. Of them, I am most familiar with working with sheet metals so these were easiest for me. I usually avoid being sentimental about the materials I work with. For example, I see the concrete and wooden remains of buildings in terms of their biological and geological origins as much as their human-centric stories. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t moving of course. Staring at a vast mountain of damaged timber, I couldn’t help imagining the vast forests that had been sacrificed then their life as buildings. However amongst all this, Caroline and I were intrigued to find a small filing cabinet amongst the demolition mountains. And inside was a birth certificate from someone in the 1960’s…
How much time were you given to rifle through the remains of demolition debris? How easy did you find it to gain access to the sites? Were people very supportive of your mission?We thought it would be easy to collect materials from demolition sites, but a mandate on salvaging materials meant we required written permission from land owners. As you can imagine, this would dramatically alter the opportunistic nature of my practice, so instead we hunted down the places where all this material was being taken to: demolition sorting yards and public refuse sites. The people there were much more supportive – although they probably thought we were a bit crazy.
Although the exhibition itself is not designed to be a memorial to the Christchurch earthquake, it’s undoubtedly part of all our psyche when coming into contact with the infrastructure in and around our city. Have you had the opportunity to hear about people’s various experiences Host a Brooch has given them? Do you think these experiences have been somewhat cathartic for the people of Christchurch? Definitely. Conversation is really important to the project and I make time to talk to people about their adventure and their photos. The conversation naturally expands onto all sorts of things including the future of the city, and their personal feelings about the situation.
Many people find Host A Brooch offers an alternative way of engaging with the damaged city. It gives them a purposes and the brooch acts almost like a lens for seeing in different light – so this of course is very cathartic. Some have returned with dark glasses after a teary experience, but felt having the brooch focused them on what remained, finding beauty amongst the broken. Also the potential of transformation manifest in the brooches themselves has been interpreted as a sign of hope by some. For others, the project (especially the act of taking photos of them, the brooch and what their attention is drawn to) allows them to find fun interacting with the temporary structures that can otherwise feel like cruel daily reminders of the quakes.
Interestingly, to date two people have commented that the experience has been confronting. For one man, the vibrant orange and black steel spikey brooch had associations with destruction, and taken out of context to the park, felt like an intrusion on those happy ‘natural’ surroundings. Another woman photographed her young daughter wearing the same brooch. She felt sad as it drew attention to aspects of the city she’d been avoiding : the fencing, road cones, and barricades. This kinds of feedback is really important for thinking about what jewellery does in the world. We ask each participant to write comments about “How did the brooch alter your experience of the city?” and these are an important record of the project. One woman’s comments sums it up:
“On the is expedition with the brooch it seemed like taking it back where it belonged – to the treasured old gems of the city which are now mostly rubble. Seeing landmarks (e.g. Old Christchurch Girls High School) which have been removed – just a hole in the ground made the tears flow. But it also felt like a reclaiming of the territory – the brooch was part of the old city and on the brink of the new. Being part of an Art project felt just right – the brooch is an expression of both the loss and resurrection, hope for the future. We need more art in the city right now. It fitted well also in an ultramodern lunch venue. Just as it did in the old precincts.”
I understand a catalogue will be produced with photographs documenting participants’ experiences. Will the brooches also be available to purchase? And from where? The brooches will become available after the project through The National. They are taking names of people interested in specific brooches. We also have interest from a couple of institutions who are interested in purchasing brooches as a record of the project.
Do you find a great deal of difference between what the urban environments have to offer in terms of discarded materials for jewellery making between Melbourne, where you’re now based, and New Zealand? Earthquakes aside, the difference is not so huge between Melbourne and NZ. The greatest contrast was with Palestine, where I was based for 6 months in 2010. The volumes of waste on the streets was incredible, but I was surprised to find it was all of such ‘poor quality’ (a strange thing to think in relation to rubbish). This made me realise how efficient developed countries are at hiding our waste. It’s not that there is more rubbish in Palestine than here – just that they have to face it on a daily basis. This means we think we’re ‘clean and green’ when really we just have a shiny surface that is difficult to scratch. Some of the work from Palestine is on show at Masterworks Gallery in Auckland until the end of the month.
Do you have another project in the works? For now I have a lot of writing ahead of me. I try to work through what each project has produced, to see what questions it raises, and this becomes the impetus for the next project… In the meantime we will be showing Host A Brooch up at Masterworks in Auckland (from 5 October), and I’m making (new jewellery) for a few group shows.
Remember, this weekend is your last chance to participate in Host a Brooch!Friday to Sunday 10 – 4pm Host A Brooch container next to the Telstra Clear Club, Hagley Park Visit Host a Brooch or The National for further details
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