David Bielander (Switzerland), Helen Britton (Australia) and Yutaka Minegishi (Japan) are jewellers and artists who have worked together since 2002 from a shared atelier in Munich. Each has developed a highly regarded international practice based on entirely distinct visual languages, rigorous personal research and a highly crafted, innovative approach to materials. These distinct practices are drawn together in this exhibition, in a presentation that recreates the convivial, collective atmosphere of the shared studio.
This exhibition is at RMIT Project Space as part of Radiant Pavilion 2017
Location: RMIT Bld 94 Lv 2 Rm 1, 23-27 Cardigan Street, Carlton, VIC, 3053
Opening Hours (during exhibition periods): Monday & Tuesday by appointment only, Wednesday to Friday 10am - 5pm (Thursday open late until 8pm), Saturday 12 - 4pm
Look at any photograph of the Munich studio that David Bielander, Helen Britton and Yutaka Minegishi have shared since 2002 — what do you see?
A large crowded and orderly workshop, cabinets and drawers filled with curiosities, three heads bent intently over their own benches. For out of this communal daily environment — constant discussions, intersecting routines, music I can only imagine, the flurry of deadlines — come three remarkably distinct bodies of work. Bielander, Britton and Minegishi give the lie to the old adage ‘Nothing propinks like propinquity’ which, for the record, comes from Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever. (Now throw that thought away).
What do I see? A playground. Where many games are taking place, simultaneously. Looking at photos of a workshop I’ve not seen in person, there arises unbidden a social setting I’ve rarely inhabited in recent years, not really. Adults are always in playgrounds on sufferance, their own and the kids’. What a lost opportunity: for the playground is the original space of freedom, the arena of many open possibilities, the locus classicus of fun. This is also what I see in Munich: the very intensity with which these three artists address their work reminds me that the fundamental human drive to make, and to invent, is nurtured by the innate desire to play, a desire older even than homo sapiens. Hmmm…
As it happens, the idea that play is a defining aspect of art has fallen out of favour in recent decades. That’s a pity. For Homo Ludens (Playing Man), by the great Dutch medievalist and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, written in 1938 and later published in various editions in English, was a standard aesthetics text in the 1970s.1 The book’s original subtitle, ‘The Play Element of Culture’, and Huizinga’s proposition that play was essential for the development of art and society, was a prime candidate at the time for a comprehensive explanation of art. Conceptual and post-conceptual art blew away the philosophers’ hopes for a single unifying definition of artistic work, but Huizinga has returned in recent years — and where, in this digital age? In game studies, of course.
But back to the studio. Who is playing at what game now? On the face of it, Yutaka Minegishi’s rings seem perfectly elegant. Sinuous, and contained, they are smooth to the touch, sit gentle on the finger, and are so wonderfully proportioned that they seem to inhabit one’s hand. Always made of a single substance, each is usually focused on a single material, sometimes wood or jet, which is a fossilised wood, or a mammoth tusk, or stones such as agate and peerless rock crystal. I have pored over their perfection for some years, admired the way Minegishi releases the innate desire of the materials, his persuasiveness of touch. But I never noticed, until now, that this faultless precision is performed, on occasion, by a straight-faced joker.
The titles should have told me: the well-known 2013 ring made from lignum vitae is known as the Poo Ring. Minegishi’s photograph shows him giving it the sniff test, but relax, the smell is more like cabbage – the ring is made from Australian Acacia cambagei, commonly known as gidgee, stinking wattle or stinking gidgee. Another ring from the same year, I’m gonna squeeze you, is an exquisite miniature lemon-squeezer set in oxidized silver, which the jeweller explains is useful ‘if there is tiny lemon’.2 Indeed. He said nothing about it being pre-shrunk, or its Dada heritage, but Duchamp would have enjoyed the joke. The Pig Nose ring (2017) has a different lineage: it’s made from a semi-precious eosite, used in the past, because of its colour, for the diminutive pig figures Germans associate with abundance, and therefore good luck. (‘Schwein gehabt’, meaning ‘got lucky there!’ translates directly as ‘got pig!’) In some places eosite is even called ‘pig stone’, because of the association, and Minegishi says ‘I like that history and piggy colour’. 3
Of course he does. The Pig Nose ring has all Minegishi’s usual suave sensuality, but more than that, its multiple connotations make it seriously funny, even funky. The oxymoron always matters, in this Munich studio: the idea of serious play, a close relative of the seriously amusing, was recently invoked about Helen Britton’s work by Ted Snell. He wrote about the studio as a ‘place for play, serious play, where the relationships between objects, their histories, their materials, and the contexts within which we relate to them are ‘played out’, then ‘playfully’ re-organised and ‘re-played’ in various scenarios and configurations.’ 4
Right now, Helen Britton’s work is taking me to my own Australian childhood, and the invented playgrounds of the imagination I knew there. To trinkets and treasures glimpsed on the dressing tables of exotic aunts or in glass-fronted shop cabinets, with their shiny surfaces and dubious stones. To little things, odd things, found and winkled out of rocks and nooks and crannies, the treasures of the focused gaze of childhood that we strive to recover. The insouciant coupling on Blue Flower Horse (2013), for instance, reminds me of the whimsical ‘costume jewellery’ lapel-brooches beloved by the aunts, but equally of printed horsey fabric, and the Blue Horse Nebula. It’s partly silver and diamonds, as it happens, but Britton’s bowerbird certainty is as happy putting steel, plastic and paint with materials conventionally considered precious because, in the end, whatever takes the bird’s eye is most highly prized.
The life of the child she once was is important to Helen Britton: she speaks about it often: the never-ending shorelines — sources of wonder that never failed — the ghost-trains of the annual show, the great steel yards of Newcastle, near where she was born. I see these traces most readily because they are ones I share. So while the lovely untitled necklace of 2016 — this time painted silver — might not have been born out of memories of sea-tossed plastic fragments found on the sands, it’s Britton’s curiosity about the overlooked, and the awkward, and the just-glimpsed, that comes together, playfully compressed, in her portable mini-theatres of the mind.
David Bielander stages a different game altogether, putting into play elaborate forms of misdirection. Every object is both exactly what it seems to be, and then something else again. Tortoise shell (2014), for instance, functions perfectly as a bowl; it is what is does. Here is a Bic biro that is fashioned out of rock crystal, rather than plastic; it is not what it seems, at the same time as being indistinguishable from all other Bics. And there you’ll find a brace of ‘cardboard’ bracelets, neckpieces, a crown, that are patinated silver with single white gold staples holding each fiction together. Bielander says ‘My main goal is the misleading. I want to be misunderstood in my work, that’s why there isn’t so much style…’5 That’s true, in the usual sense of the term. What there is, however, is attentiveness: to the disparate objects that Bielander considers, as he toys with our minds. The patinated silver Paper bag (Wine) of 2016 looks like the real deal, until one realises that its flawless mimicry is perfectly deceptive. As he says, ‘That has always been a great pleasure, to play with the expectation of people.’6
One recent work, one of the most confounding, is Rose (2017). A stainless steel rack, purporting to be a vase, holds a 21-piece table setting of pink porcelain plates in the shape of a flower. The entire floral offering is demountable: the plates can be used and replaced. It’s fragile, it’s palpable, it teeters on the edge of improbability, but despite its insistent materiality, Rose is nothing more a figment of the imagination, a found image made incarnate. (Here I’m thinking of Gertrude Stein, and her imperishable Rose is a rose is a rose, written in 1913, though Duchamp’s sexy Rrose Sélavy is not far away.) In the end, the willfulness of this fabrication is exactly what matters. For Bielander is inviting us to see the world through his eyes. To play his game for a while.
Three countries, three different languages, at least three cultures come together in this particular playground: it’s an unholy trinity for potential mischief in the making, under one roof. (Did I mention that Minegishi and Bielander play together in Sasebo, a Japanese-Bavarian blues band?) This polyglot mixage, this willingness to mash-up with delight and in earnest, is surely one golden key to the studio’s success, both collectively, and for each of the three artists as individual practitioners. For Yutaka Minegishi, Helen Britton, and David Bielander each brings particular gambits to each of the others: riffing with difference is richly rewarding; language negotiations clearly make for their own special jokes; and, in the end, I’m betting that misunderstanding is extremely productive, and in fact often far more rewarding, than easy understanding.
Now, come on, let’s play!
1. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949. I have quoted the original subtitle in the text, rather than this translation of it, to which the author objected.
2. Email from artist, 8 August 2017
3. Email from artist, 8 August 2017
4. Ted Snell, Helen Britton: Interstices: Lawrence Wilson Gallery, University of Western Australia, 2017, p.2.
5. Vera Sacchetti, ‘Interview with David Bielander, Lausanne, 5 February 2017’, in Schweizer Grand Prix Design, 2017, Berne: Herausgegeben vom Bundesamt für Kultur, 2017, p. 22.
6. Sacchetti, p. 22.