The concept and ideas behind collecting strongly informs your artistic practice. What attracted you to this subject initially?
I have always collected things. As a small child I was taken to the Argyle Centre in the Sydney’s historic Rocks area. Here I saw, for the first time, glass lampworking and artisans making small animals and figurines. My mother bought me one. We now recognise these as quite being kitsch but I became hooked, or obsessed, (and later in my teens I learnt how to make these myself) and over the years developed quite a collection. These were arranged on a special shelf in my bedroom and each time I acquired a new one the collection would have to be rearranged and given a new order to allow the newcomer to be included.
Other collections included lists of the books I had read (again obsessively) and 1950’s china, hats, jewellery and shoes. The latter two are ongoing. As a teenager I also discovered second-hand shops and flea markets where I found many things I ‘needed’. So collecting has always been there but it was not until a few years ago when I was researching conservation practices in museums that I started to look at my collecting habits in a different way. The real turning point was when I discovered a book – a very large book – about Albertus Seba, a 17th century Dutch pharmacist who collected natural history specimens. He produced 4 tomes recording his collection and he named it a ‘thesaurus’. I loved this association of objects with words. Seba’s objects were laid out in the book the same way he had ordered the real objects and I found this captivating, as it was a different system to what contemporary scientists would use.
Later I found out about Frederik Ruysch, an anatomist and contemporary of Seba, who collected anatomical specimens. He created bizarre still-life scenarios out of childrens’ skeletons, kidney stones, and shells. Seba and Ruysch were just two of many collectors of the time, who became fascinated with a whole range of things they were coming across grace of expansive world travel and the discovery of new lands, oceans, cultures and technological developments.
Both Seba and Ruysch sold their collections to Peter the Great and with these he established the Kunstkamera, the first museum in Russia. In 2004 I travelled to the Netherlands and St Petersburg in search of these collections and along the way initiated a new collecting project. In each town I went to I visited the flea market and this became my new source of inspiration and materials for my jewellery. Really I would have been visiting the markets anyway but with this new focus I felt a bit like an explorer, trading for my collection.
Collecting is a central theme behind sampler and is something that is visually realised in the use of archive boxes to present your jewellery. Could you tell us a bit more about the way you have classified the objects? Is there a collection in particular that holds a special significance for you?
In sampler I have included pieces from three different collecting approaches that I have adopted from the collectors of the early modern period. In this time, when ‘science’ was known as ‘natural philosophy’ and our scientific systems of classification had not yet been established, objects in collections were often defined as either naturalia (naturally occurring), artificialia (made, or ‘artificial’ objects) or mirabilia (miracles, that is things that were so remarkable they could not have come from either god or man).
My ‘miracles’ have evolved from things I have come across, mainly on my daily walks through my local area. These became miracles for me because often they are the most unremarkable things you could imagine – the shape of tar between 2 concrete slabs, the tiniest and most detailed of ‘weeds’ growing near my letterbox, a smear of paint on the footpath that resembles a skull, a piece of fabric caught on a twig. These have all become starting points for a piece of jewellery.
Naturalia is represented by the entomoids, which came out of my observations of the various insect collections at the Macleay Museum in Sydney. Entering the Macleay is like going into another world: it is a style of museum that we don’t often see anymore. I fell in love with an insect display where the specimens were pinned so that they hovered above the tabletop. I could go on and on about this display but the entomoid collection became a response to this. ‘Entomoid’ means insect-like and so they are also pinned, and arranged in a particular order, which really relates to my own aesthetic and colour sense. In April last year I displayed the entomoids in the Macleay Museum alongside a collection of moths. Moths are often considered the poor cousin to the flamboyant butterflies but the Museum’s collection of moths show that there is a fabulous array of tonal and textural distinctions in the moths, and the often have the most beautiful antennae (or eyebrows!). Moths are also nocturnal so we don’t often see them and even if we did because they are not dramatic, like the butterflies, we probably would not notice them. In putting the moths and the coloured entomoids next to each other I wanted to highlight the processes of ordering. In sampler, the story of the entomoids is a bit different, being drawn more into the story of archiving, which is what happens when collections are not on display.
Amalgama, relating to artificialia, is the third collection in sampler, and these pieces have come from my flea market purchases. Many of these works have emerged out of a residency I did in Beijing at the end of 2007. During the three months I was there I visited Panjiayuan, the flea market, every weekend with the sole intention of buying. Many of the things I bought then have found their way into my work, either directly as material or as inspiration. In this way each piece becomes an amalgamation of different cultures and worlds, artificially constructed though my aesthetic.
In sampler I have only differentiated the entomoids; the other two collections are interspersed. The titles give some clues to which collection they belong to, otherwise it is mainly apparent through the materials I have used.
I have presented the jewellery in archival boxes to link them back to the systems of storage and preservation which museums and archives use.
Having exhibited for over 20 years now, what have some of the challenges been?
The biggest challenge would have to survival. I am pretty stubborn and I realised quite early on that I was not a production jeweller. My visual language also set my work outside of the mainstream. Consequently, most of my making is producing one-off works that are presented in exhibition contexts.
When I finished my undergraduate studies in Sydney I went to study in the Netherlands at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. I ended up staying in Amsterdam for eight years and this was where I established my first studio. Amsterdam was a fantastic environment in which to be a jewellery artist, firstly for the way art is embedded in Dutch culture and artists are supported, but principally for the engagement and understanding of contemporary jewellery in their society. There are many galleries and exhibition opportunities available there, as well as formal and informal networks within the jewellery community. And very importantly, there is also an educated and interested buying public.
When I returned to Sydney it was difficult as, unlike Melbourne, there are few private and no public galleries that accommodate contemporary jewellery and this hasn’t changed much over the 12 years that I’ve been back in Sydney. There has been an increase in more grass-roots opportunities, including markets, but participating in these kinds of activities require a lot more sustained effort and they do have their limitations. In New South Wales there is also comparatively little funded support. So if you are wanting to work towards a special project or take the time to experiment with a new process it can be a struggle to find the means to make that happen.
Making art is always a dynamic process. It is not a matter of simply going from point A to point B, and arriving at a destination. I find my ideas are constantly evolving and sometimes it is hard to keep up with all the things I want to make. This can be a challenge but is also exciting.
…and following on from that, what have some of the highlights been?
Highlights over the last 20 years have not always been directly to do with making however it was a pretty big buzz when I was awarded my first grant!
When I was first aware of contemporary jewellery my knowledge was centred mainly on the Scandinavians, Larsen and Lewers, Matchum Skipper etcetera (these are the kinds of things my mother wore). When I started studying jewellery at art school I looked at as much work as I could and became very familiar with the ‘European’ revolution of the 70’s. Eventually, when I went to Amsterdam, I met many of those jewellers. I studied with Onno Boekhoudt, Marion Herbst and Ruudt Peters, and met Paul Derrez and Rian de Jong. This was so exciting for me as I also got to see their work rather than pictures in books. They became real people.
Ever since I became hooked into jewellery I have always been interested in the broader discourse around the medium. This has led me to be committed to addressing how contemporary jewellery is perceived in Australia. In 2006 I curated the biennial Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia (JMGA) conference in Sydney and was able to invite several Dutch luminaries to speak at the conference, including Ruudt and Rian. In some ways this was my life with jewellery coming full circle.
Aside from that, another enormous highlight was reading an original copy of Frederik Ruysch’s Opus, dating from 1665 and the following week examining the original Thesaurus of Albertus Seba. It wasn’t just the feeling of history that struck me (I was touching books that were 300-odd years old) but I felt I had a closer sense of what these two people had been doing.
What has been the most personal piece of jewellery that you’ve made so far? Where is it now?
Because I often draw on my own experience for my work there are lots of personal stories hiding under the layers of material. However, I once made a series of pieces that in the beginning I thought was simply about the transience of memory. When I had completed the work I realised it was about heartbreak. It sounds very corny now – and I don't want to make it sound like therapy – but this work was about making this sorrow tangible. In this series I worked a lot with thread, which was knotted and tied, and chemical crystals which I grew in my studio. These were interesting as the chemical composition predetermines the shapes of the crystals. I worked with different chemicals but potassium alum and potassium ferracyanide were my favourites – the alum made diamond crystals and the others were blood red. These works are tucked away in storage now.
You recently visited Beijing and blogged about your travels. Could you tell us more about your trip?
I went to Beijing with the Australia China Council Residency program which is run in conjunction with Redgate Gallery. The program gave me an apartment in Beijing for three months while I worked on my project.
One part of my project was to present an exhibition of jewellery and a workshop at the Central Academy of Fine Art, which has a very interesting jewellery course headed by the jeweller Teng Fei. The other part of my project I mentioned briefly earlier and it centred around the flea market as a location of what I term, ‘low economy’. People bring their wares, often cast off domestic objects, to trade. They have determined for themselves that their wares have a value even if they are the most prosaic items in their homes. If they value it, someone may also and so their objects enter into a cycle of trade which did not exist before. This was similar to how I perceived the trading of the early modern collectors.
I would visit the flea market each weekend without any predetermined goals other than to buy. In retrospect I began to notice that often my first purchase would define what else I would buy. For example, one day I bought a string of bone beads and after that everything else was white – an ivory hand, mother of pearl fish etcetera. I didn’t notice this for a couple of weeks but by then it was a pattern. I found this quite curious but tried consciously not to change it.
My apartment had two very large glass front cabinets in the living room and this is where my goods would end up while I pondered their future. I didn’t make much work while I was away though I took many photos, some of which ended up on the blog. I started the blog as a recording process for myself but also to let my students and family and friends see a little of what I was seeing.
Being associated with Redgate Gallery was a fabulous opportunity I could not have imagined. Brian Wallace, who owns Redgate, set it up as the first contemporary art gallery in Beijing. He has also established a series of studios which form his residency program and people come from all over the world to participate. Brian is incredibly generous and would invite all the residents to his openings (he had a second gallery at the famous art precinct, 798) and to the dinners afterwards. This was my introduction to Chinese food that I would not have tried if I were on my own. However, anyone who has read my blog will know that I developed an obsession for Peking duck.
I loved Beijing and the differences between it and my Sydney world were so new and exciting I thought that this may have been a little like what the early modern explorers felt when they discovered new things from other places. In some ways the work that emerged out of the residency are souvenirs but they don't carry the nostalgia that is often embedded in souvenirs: for me it is much more of a sense of wonder at this other world.
Trees in hibernation; image from Karin's Beijing travel blog
Your upcoming exhibition that you are curating with Bridie Lander in Japan sounds very exciting! Could you please tell us more about it, how you and Bridie came up with the concept and how the title By Example relates to the exhibition?
Bridie and I were invited by the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Itami to curate this exhibition which is part of a biennial series focussing on jewellery education in individual countries. To date the pattern has been for teachers to nominate recent graduates. We decided to take into account other ways of learning, as this relationship between teacher and student can often be more complex than simply instructive. We also wanted to take into account the Australian context; consequently we expanded the premise to encompass mentors. While there is an emphasis on tertiary learning, this includes people such as Susan Cohn with Workshop 3000, Mari Funaki nurturing young artists in her gallery and the many makers who teach casually. This kind of learning often consolidates what has been taught more formally in the ‘classroom’. From this we came up with the title, By example. Current tertiary art education advocates teaching by example, that is from practicing artists, and often that learning is reciprocated – the teacher learns as well. From another angle, this exhibition will show examples of Australian jewellery to Japanese audiences.
And finally, what is the best piece of advice anyone has ever told you?
“Change is as good as a holiday”, though occasionally a holiday is pretty good too! But I would advocate treating each new experience without fear and as an adventure from which you will learn something and hopefully it will be a surprise.
Thank you for the great interview Karin! To read more about her travels in Beijing, be sure to check out her travel blog. Karin's website is also a great resource of things she's done, things she's doing, and things she's about to do.