art curator and writer

Reflect and Respond


Reflect and Respond

Handshake 1 presentation at the FRAME galleries, Internationale Handwerkmesse, Munich, 2013. Image courtesy of Peter Deckers.


It has long been established that placing contemporary jewellery within the white cube setting is problematic.

Pieces too big to wear aren’t necessarily sculptures that sit comfortably on a plinth, while neckpieces hung on the wall like paintings won’t always be as powerful as when they adorn the body. Similarly, an installation that engulfs contemporary jewellery within oblique, gimmicky references can swiftly lose gravitas. The consequence of showing jewellery in the gallery context is the loss of use and function. How do you  exhibit an object that derives its meaning from a relationship with the body, yet which—in its most contemporary form—also belongs to a self-reflexive practice inflected by social and art historical narratives?

As a public art museum curator who takes pride in being fluid and working with a wide range of disciplines, I’m interested in activating contemporary jewellery within a wider art discourse for our audiences through thoughtful installation. This means continuing to challenge these tensions in a public gallery sphere.  

A project such as Handshake 3 provides insight into the DIY culture that has formed in the contemporary jewellery world—perhaps as a result of the above tensions—but does not necessarily make an exhibition that informs a public gallery audience about contemporary jewellery. This essay lays out my curatorial methodology for Handshake 3: reflect by exploring a small group of exhibitions and how they dealt with the installation and interpretation of contemporary jewellery. Through it, I consider how to bring the worlds of contemporary jewellery and public art galleries closer together.

Exhibiting Formulas

The Bold and the Beautiful, installation view, 2015. Courtesy of The Dowse Art Museum. Photo by John Lake.

I curated my first contemporary jewellery exhibition The Bold and the Beautiful with zest for the subject matter rather than a seasoned understanding of installation. This exhibition of audacious neck pieces told the history of contemporary jewellery in Aotearoa New Zealand through our modernist influences; the Bone, Stone, Shell movement and the critique of preciousness. Responding to the need to curate a cost-effective craft-based exhibition from The Dowse collection for our ‘hallway’ gallery, the works were organised based on materials and aesthetics, sewn onto black boards and placed vertically into standard wall cases.  

The Bold and the Beautiful fits into a common formula prescribed for displaying contemporary jewellery, which harks back to some of the earliest exhibitions in the field. Modern Handmade Jewelry for instance, at The Museum of Modern Art in 1946, investigated the use of mid-century materials to portray jewellery as something other than traditional or mass-produced. It was created under the mandate that it be aesthetically pleasing but low cost. Made to fit in standard cases, it too was displayed vertically and shown in a marginal space: the foyer of the auditorium. [1]

How does this early, eminent example compare to more contemporary exhibitions? At Munich Jewellery week in 2015, Lux is the Dealer was heralded as one of the event’s must-see exhibitions.[2] Inside the well-known Kunstpavillon, jewellery was placed on a glistening black Perspex table adorned with light bulbs. Entering the room was a surreal experience; not only did the pieces echo themselves on this surface–the reflection was so deep the building’s cubed glass ceiling hovered in behind the jewellery. But what did it all mean? The artists’ statement was enigmatic at best: “The six of us have a room with four corners. We´ll exhibit in It! PS: the room is very high and is situated in a park. That´s the truth!”[3]  While Lux is the Dealer was visually stunning it had no clear theme, existing simply to bring together a group of highly regarded mid-career practioners (who are also good friends) and display their work in a beautiful way.

Lux is the Dealer, installation view, Kunstpavillion, Munich Jewellery Week, 2015. Photo by Sian van Dyk

Closer to home Wunderrūma, curated by Warwick Freeman and Karl Fritsch, was recognised as an important statement about contemporary jewellery in Aotearoa New Zealand. Wunderrūma offered more of a curatorial rationale through its title, which brought together the idea of the early wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) with New Zealand’s own history of being a tourist ‘Wonderland’, and the te reo Māori transliteration of the word ‘room’[4]. Reflecting the antipodean distance so prominent in our country’s art historical narratives, the curators’ selection process emphasised that “jewellery can be found in many different places and practices.[5] In The Dowse iteration of the exhibition, Freeman and Fritsch brought together over 200 objects including unlikely examples from a range of contemporary jewellers and artists alongside historical Pacific, taonga Māori and colonial objects from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Usually predictable Perspex plinth covers were given new life by being piled up on top of each like transparent boxes through the centre of space, giving a new take on the museum’s eternal wish to protect. 

While the latter two exhibitions aimed to push installation, inevitably both used a traditional approach by presenting all the work in standardised display format. The reflective table brought the works of Lux is the Dealer together while the Perspex cases served this purpose for Wunderrūma. Grouped visually, neither exhibition format explored the richness of the content within for the uninitiated, nor did they wish to.

Habitual approaches to contemporary jewellery exhibition-making are explored further by Kellie Riggs in her essay What is it you do exactly? Categorizing contemporary jewellery through exhibitions. Too often, she claims, works are shown together because of their shared materials, geographical location, common training of, or awards won by makers. She laments exhibitions created simply to place “things that look good together”, and argues that some exhibitions make little attempt to link works to each other, and could just as easily be titled “friends”.   Riggs makes some astute observations of these curatorial approaches, reflecting that:

 “Conceptual development is fundamental to the field, in which jewellery pieces are physical manifestations of long personal investigations. For makers with similar conceptual interest, concept-based shows are a means to showcase the research elements that supports their—and any true—artistic practice. They provide an opportunity to share such thinking processes with the public with statements made stronger when a number of artists gather to articulate their messages… To do this well through exhibition, an apt contextual framework is required. It can be visual or verbal, or more interestingly, a combination of the two.” [6]

Wunderrūma, installation view, 2014. Courtesy of The Dowse Art Museum. Photo by John Lake.

Time, personal agenda, budget, safety and institutional priorities are constraints every curator—whether a maker or not—faces when developing an exhibition. It’s worth considering whether due to these constraints and the tensions of exhibiting contemporary jewellery, makers have become less reliant on public institutions, establishing a DIY culture instead. As a result many have become very self-sufficient: successfully launching their own exhibitions, publications and development opportunities while maintaining a strong voice overseas. Handshake is no exception.


Considering this, what can a curatorial hand bring to this already successful exchange?

The first international presentation of Handshake was held at Schmuck 2013. It was a big deal and while I couldn’t be there, I found the images of the metro map-inspired design alluring. Putting on my curator hat however, I was left wondering if I was won over by this approach because it evoked the excitement that came with traversing through my OE, rather than its strength as exhibition design. The installation didn’t help me understand what the jewellery was about and why these pieces had been physically linked. In the April 2013 Overview that followed Schmuck, Peter Deckers wrote:

HANDSHAKE needed to present as a project with a difference, yet cohesively pull together 12 individual emerging makers from NZ and show their work with both text and images. The design came from the combination of ‘mind mapping’ and the Munich ‘metromap’. Our relatively small budget, needing to transport our booth to the other side of the world, and minimal German assistance at the other end, made it very challenging. [7]

This exhibition was a success in that it achieved a tangible outcome–introducing emerging New Zealand jewellers to the international scene. However, it was less about contemporary jewellery, and more about navigating through a career.

Renee Bevan, absent presence, 2014. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist

Handshake 2 brought a new group of makers together, and I was fortunate to see the exhibition at Toi Poneke, Wellington.  Here two display techniques dominated the space; work that sat on custom-designed shelves hanging from the ceiling, and work placed directly on the wall. However, Renee Bevan’s work, which was about non-material value, consisted of two string necklaces and a note that explained one had been cursed and the other blessed. These items sat on a mahogany table, sealed under a clear glass case reminiscent of a museum cabinet, leaving viewers with the impression that what was inside was misunderstood, or taboo, and must be kept at bay. Similarly, Sarah Walker-Holt, who is interested in the mechanics of objects, veered away from the standard display mechanism and placed her pieces on a trestle table with a stool. This sat in front of an instructional video that invited people to figure out her work through deconstructing and reconfiguring it. While all the contemporary jewellers made work of merit, these two installations were the most successful, because the artists considered how the installation would add to visitors’ understanding of the work, connecting contemporary jewellery to the outside world. Both approaches showed the self-awareness described by Damian Skinner in Contemporary Jewellery in Perspective:

 “Contemporary jewellery is a self-reflexive practice, which means that it’s concerned with reflecting on itself and the conditions in which it takes place. In general, contemporary jewellers work in a critical or conscious relationship to the history of the practice and to the wider field of jewellery and adornment. This is what makes contemporary jewellery different from other forms of body adornment, and it isn’t found just in the way contemporary jewellery objects and practices engage with the history of jewellery, or the relationship to the body and wearing. Contemporary jewellery is shaped by a distinct awareness of the situation in which it exists, meaning that jeweller’s engaging directly with the spaces in which their work circulates - the gallery of museum, for example, or books and catalogues.” [8]

Sarah Walker Holt, Kitset, 2014. Wood, acrylic paint, copper, brass, nuts and bolts, plywood box, digital video (5.39 mins), trestle table, stool. Courtesy of the artist and Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery. Photo: Sam Hartnett.

Up to this point, Handshake has fitted comfortably into Rigg’s categorisation in that while each maker gets to explore and push their own practice further, their exhibition is essentially about membership and participation. To make this iteration less about the platform and more about the nature of contemporary jewellery, I have presented participants with two challenges. The first is a provocation to consider the context of their own practice while allowing me to draw solid connections between their work. I have given them the verb reflect as a springboard for their work. reflect can mean both to mimic and to cast back or respond, a useful metaphor when considering the collaborative mantra that has sat alongside the Handshake journey thus far. Participants are invited to consider how their practice draws connections between the term reflect and the self-reflexive nature of contemporary jewellery, which both embraces and counteracts its traditional and commercial counterparts. I’ve given them groups of words to help contain the project, but also encouraged them to make these words their own. These include:

Synonyms of reflect:

echo, mirror, reverse, emulate, imitate, rebound, repercussive, reply, resonate, resound, return, reverberate, shine, give  forth, take after, throw back

Traditional and commercial jewellery trajectory points:

cultural, religious or  political identification,  lineage or whakapapa, wealth, status,  class, preciousness,  intimate, occasion, inheritance , ritual , belonging and/or connectedness, memory, token, taste, talisman,  symbol , timeless , trend, illusion,  accessory, fashion, connection.

The second is to do away with the one-size-fits-all approach to exhibition design. Instead each jeweller will  submit an outline of their work, including an artist statement, working images and safety considerations; then each will  enter into a discussion with me and The Dowse’s exhibitions technicians  to decide how best to install their work. As the curator, I can then bring all the aspects of the exhibition together to make a concise statement about the self-reflective nature of contemporary jewellery. The aim is that at the conclusion of the process, each body of work will be installed in a way that reveals more about the meaning behind it, and its relationship to the other works in the exhibition.

What will be

The examples discussed in this essay–while only specks in the rich history of contemporary jewellery exhibitions over the century —relay how exhibitions curated by public institutions can at times be constrained and unremarkable, while those curated by makers can, at times, lack conceptual heft. Having spent the three years since The Bold and Beautiful becoming  more ensconced within the contemporary jewellery world, I’ve come to  realise that public galleries supporting projects like Handshake helps to bring contemporary jewellery into a wider national curatorial, critical and academic discourse, and give local audiences the opportunity to consider contemporary jewellery as part of the wider field New Zealand art.

 As I write this essay, Handshake participants are beginning to formulate the ideas and outlines that The Dowse team will respond to. There is anticipation in the air: this is a new and exciting way to work, and none of us are quite sure what the outcome will be. As I wrote in the Handshake three Platina exhibition:

 “there is a lot of emphasis on pushing boundaries, letting go, forgetting rules. Like any good experiment, we can plan as much as we like, but there will always be an element of the unknown. Therein lies the true potential in Handshake: a challenge to think ourselves out of traditional boundaries, trust each other and watch what happens.”

Combining my curatorial methodology with the jewellers’ pragmatism and individual approaches to the starting provocation ensures their voices are not lost and the freshness of the project remains. In the spirit of Handshake, collaboration prevails, helping to tease out the potential for contemporary jewellery to make relevant, conceptual statements within a public art museum context, and carry on a conversation with the wider world.

Handshake 3: Reflect, installation view, 2016. Courtesy of The Dowse Art Museum. Photo by Shaun Matthews


This essay was published in CONTEMPORARY JEWELLERY IN CONTEXT: a Handshake blueprint (2016), Peter Deckers (ed.), by Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart . ISBN 978-3-89790-498-9



[1] Toni Greenbaum, “Modern Handmade Jewellery” in Shows and Tales, on Jewelry Exhibition-Making. ed. Benjamin Lignel. ( California: Art Jewelry Forum , 2015), 19-23

[2] Marjan Unger, “Must-See List Stir it up and shake you booty” in Current Obsession Paper (Antwerp, Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Rome, Current   Obsession, 2015), 48 - 56

[3] ‘Luz is the Dealer” Klimpt 02 Events, accessed 13 Sept 2016,

[4] Warwick Freeman , “Tales of Wonderland” in  Wunderruma. (Auckland, Hook line and Sinker Publications, 2014) 4-18

[5] Warwick Freeman quoted by author in the Wunderruma exhibition  introduction, 2014

[6] Kellie Riggs, “What is it that you do exactly? Categorizing contemporary jewelry through exhibitions” in Shows and Tales, on Jewelry Exhibition-Making. ed. Benjamin Lignel. (California, Published by Art Jewelry Forum, 2015), 113 -114

[7] Peter Deckers, “Handshake” in Overview #12.  (Auckland: The Jewellers of Greater Sandringham, 2013), 6, accessed 7 Sep 2016,

[8] Damian Skinner, “What is contemporary jewellery” in Contemporary Jewellery in Perspective  ed Damian Skinner. (California: Art Jewelry Forum, 2013), 11