Australia

05/01/2013
Susan Cohn in Conversation

Design Museum, London, England
December 5, 2012 – March 3, 2013
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
April 20 – August 26, 2012

 

Susan Cohn has a longstanding career working across the art-craft-design divide. Living in Melbourne, Australia, she has been making artwork for more than 30 years and has exhibited extensively in Australia and overseas. Techno Craft: the work of Susan Cohn 1980–2000 was a major survey exhibition by the National Gallery of Australia that toured nationally. Her solo exhibition Black Intentions was presented by the National Gallery of Victoria in 2003. Cohn’s understanding of design and making has also enabled her to work as a designer for Alessi and as the curator of the international exhibition Unexpected Pleasures—the Art and Design of Contemporary Jewellery, commissioned by the Design Museum. I met her in Munich soon after Unexpected Pleasures was taken down and shipped back to its many participants. It seemed like an opportune moment to ask Susan how she managed that particularly ambitious project.

 

Ben Lignel: What did you learn during this experience?

Susan Cohn: The first “lesson” I learned from the project is that really not many people in the world know about contemporary jewelry. I realized how important it is that we change the way we engage with people outside the community. On the opening night, for example, about two thirds of the visitors were from the jewelry community. The other third was not, and their reaction—especially if they came from design—was very strong, and often ran along the lines of, “I did not know about this! Why did I not know about this?” This vindicated our working hypothesis that design and contemporary jewelry are like two people at a party. They’ve bumped into one another at the bar a few times, and they think they know one another, but they don’t. And Unexpected Pleasures was a platform to blind date them.

The second and probably most important thing I got out of this project is an overview of the field. The extensive research that went into the selection process meant that I really got a comprehensive glimpse of what is happening in jewelry today. The research for the selection process itself took two years.

Susan Cohn

How did you select the work for the show?

Susan Cohn: I really wanted a democratic form of application process. To begin with, after conducting some research on who is who and how best to reach the largest number of people, I sent out 3000 emails to makers, universities, associations, and galleries. This first email stated the curatorial premises of the show and asked for interested parties to send in five images of available works.

I received a total of 553 submissions, featuring roughly 2500 pieces, and did a first selection of the work based on the following criteria. First, how well did the work fit in the themes I chose for the exhibition, and then how did the work fit in a design museum exhibition? This second criterion was important. The show was really an attempt to encourage a dialogue between jewelry and design, and this had obvious implications on the selection process. For example, I could not choose work that had too much of a footing in art, such as installations and non-wearable objects.

During this first phase, I would put potential themes next to each submission. In some cases, the “fit” between a piece and a theme was obvious, but in a majority of cases, pieces seemed affiliated to several themes at once. During this initial stage, I managed to winnow the original 2500 submissions to 1000. I had chosen 21 themes for the “Linking Links” clusters in addition to the single theme of wearing for the “Worn Out” section. Considering space and installation constraints, it was decided with the museum to aim for a grand total of about 126 pieces for the clusters and 18 works for “Worn Out.” This meant I had to retain only six works per theme. In some cases, this proved harrowing. About 300 works were earmarked for the theme of “Earthly delights,” for example. This theme was about nature, and a lot of work from Asia and Australia somehow engaged with it. (Very few from Europe or the U.S. did, however.)

Obviously, during this second stage, I was accountable both to the field at large and to the exhibition and how it made sense as a show. The last selection stage was probably more about the show and trying to find a balanced, representative selection for each of the 21 themes. I mostly chose work that represented “opposite” approaches to the same subject.

Were there glaring omissions in the final selection?

Susan Cohn: For several reasons, mostly to do with my reluctance to intrude on or hassle people, I rarely asked for work I knew is out there but had not been submitted—however badly I wanted it for the exhibition. Nor did I call up people, including friends, who had chosen not to submit any work at all. I also wanted to remain true to the democratic nature of the selection process. As a result, some pieces considered seminal in the way they tackle this or that subject were not included. That is a shame, but I decided to stick to this thinking, and not make exceptions.

When looking at submissions from people I knew well, I also realized that makers went through a process of self-editing. The work submitted was not always the most representative or the best work from that artist for this exhibition. In some cases, I think this happened in response to the design element of the curatorial statement. People were sending work they thought might fit in a design museum.

The hardest thing, the very hardest thing in this whole project, was to commit to a final selection. I don’t think you can understand how hard it was to get down from 2500 works by 553 makers to 186 pieces from 126 jewelers. It was emotionally draining because, in effect, my curatorial position was defined as much by what I kept as by what I did not keep.

During opening night, I wore a bulletproof vest. I wanted to acknowledge the fact that some people not included in the show might be pissed off, and I wanted to make fun of the situation. (As ornamental messages go, this one was a complete flop. Most people thought I was wearing some weird back-straightening jacket.) It was also a way of saying I was ready for a fight, or at least criticism, but this never happened.

Did you get any negative feedback on the exhibition?

Susan Cohn: Not yet, no. Jewelers mostly acknowledged the massive amount of work that went into the project as well as the importance of the show. Otto Künzli and Paul Derrez, for example, said to me quite frankly that they did not agree with my curatorial choices, but that it was a seminal exhibition because of the context in which it was shown and the exposure it gave jewelry outside its usual audience. There was some criticism about the showcases and some about the book cover. I do regret that jewelry had to be shown inside showcases, but there is simply no way around that in museums.

What about your institutional partners, the Design Museum and the National Gallery of Victoria—what was their reaction to the show?

Susan Cohn: In Melbourne, the show had approximately 398,000 visits over four months. This is an extraordinary amount for any museum. I think several factors explain our Australian success. For starters, it was a free show, so many visited several times. It was also located in a strategic area of the museum. A lot of people would pass it on their way to something else and naturally wander in. And then, word-of-mouth snowballed, and people ended up coming that had very little obvious connection to the world of jewelry. A telling example is having a group of footballers sign up for a tour of the show. 

London was different. There was an entry fee. The visitors’ demographics were narrower. I think it was mostly the design community that responded to the show. But Deyan Sudjic, the museum’s director, was very pleased with the overall response to the exhibition.

What did you plan, at the beginning, in order to engage visitors?

Susan Cohn: In Melbourne, a series of public programs happened during the exhibition. At one event, five jewelers who had works in the exhibition led floor talks of the show. We also hosted a party. Katie Scott, director of Gallery Funaki and I invited people to come and try on work from our collections. (It couldn't be work from the exhibition, however, as that would have interfered with logistics.) The setup was quite simple. Visitors walked along a glass-walled corridor and could see the selection of available pieces through the glass. They then picked up a ticket and waited for their turn to wear the piece they selected. Their photographs were taken and then projected on a wall for the audience to see. (A selection of these photos was later shown in London.) This project involved a certain amount of role-playing—people tended to go for the more extravagant work—but in general, people were quite easy about it. It gave everyone a chance to see jewelry pieces on a range of different people.

Is visitor participation a way of breaking the ‘vertical ceiling’ - the glass that separates visitors from cultural artefacts?

Susan Cohn: Due to security and insurance constraints, most works in museums are displayed in showcases, which is difficult in the case of contemporary jewelry. Jewelry is about people. It talks for people, so the wearing is an integral part of the experience. Jewelry in a showcase is a “jewelry object,” so photography and visitor participation events are ways to bring the object alive. There is always the curiosity of how jewelry is worn, especially for someone unfamiliar with contemporary jewelry. This opportunity helped to move the object out of the showcase and onto people. It also introduced an element of play to the exhibition, countering the seriousness of work normally featured in museum showcases.

Unexpected Pleasures was an attempt to take contemporary jewelry to a new audience, a design-orientated audience, who by the nature of their interests could understand the language of contemporary jewelry. Visitor participation was an integral part of this experience. At the same time, the intention of the exhibition was to encourage the contemporary jewelry community to look further afield and consider the nature of design in their ways of working.

Benjamin Lignel

An art historian (BA) and furniture designer (MA) by training, Benjamin Lignel veered toward jewelry design just after earning his master's degree. Lignel describes himself as a designer, writer, and curator. In 2007, he co-founded la garantie, association pour le bijou, a French association with a mission to study and promote jewelry. He became a member of Think Tank, a European Initiative for the Applied Arts, in 2009, and was a guest teacher at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Nuremberg, Germany) in 2013. Lignel was appointed editor of Art Jewelry Forum in January of the same year. In 2015, he edited the first book-length study of jewelry exhibition-making, "Shows and Tales." 

Mari Ishikawa: Landscape
Sienna Gallery, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA