Domestic Bliss Contemporary Goldsmithing, 2004;
Charlotte Gorse in conversation with Shaun Hides
SH Could you discuss what you mean by ‘Domestic Bliss’? Clearly these have very specific connotations and very much so, when one looks at the objects within the exhibition.
CG One of the key things that I try to do within the titling of work is to use conversational language, ‘the sound bite’, that which is recognisable and also time-specific. I try to put the work within the everyday through well known phrases. My new work continues to explore relationships, where I question or suggest ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’ experiences. I chose to discuss sexual relationships (rather than platonic) quite early on in my practice because for me, how we behave within sexual relationships illustrates our individual moral codes more accurately or honestly than behaviour within expected social /political arenas. ‘Domestic’ suggests the personal rather than the public expression of our morality or beliefs. ‘Domestic’ also references something safe so that there is some security to allow the audience to challenge the work. ‘Bliss’ is the point of exhilaration, of experience outside of the everyday, hinting at the ‘orgasmic’; the point of loss of inhibitions when we move beyond the cerebral and physical.
SH The title is then in a sense ironic, it is not used simply. Given the objects themselves, are you suggesting that this kind of bliss is impossible within the ‘domestic’ and must be associated with something transgressive, covert or dangerous?
CG Yes, definitely. The phrase conjures up traditional stereotypes like ‘happily ever after’ and suggests something conservative, known. I think that human sexuality pushes us to reach new heights of exhilaration, something ‘other’ for us (whatever that is). Yet the irony is, that as you age or move through different stages of relationships, from permissive transitional to long term, you develop a more stable sexual moral code. But this contradicts human nature and a false sense of security; there is no real stage of ‘knowing’ your sexuality. If it is stable, if you don’t challenge it, then you become frustrated, your sexuality effectively diminishes.
SH What are the objects?
CG I am confident to define the work as jewellery. It deals with adornment and notions of beauty, whether confirming or denying it and it is decadent, in terms of necessity and materials. Jewellery is a symbol which expresses our codes and values to others, showing status, social expectation, aspiration etc.
SH They clearly describe these kinds of traditions that they come out of and are critical of, interrogate, but they also have an air of fetish, at least gesturing to notions of belief and the sexualised object. Others suggest commodity. Do you see them within this light, or is this problematic?
CG I feel that the notion of fetish is incredibly important to contemporary crafts in general. The discipline fulfils a need for the fetishised object, for the sensorial, for the meaning that we imbue within objects. It would be difficult for me as a crafts practitioner not to engage in the notion of commodity fetish, and indeed given political discourse that I an interested in, around objectification of the body, I am often drawn back to consumerism. It is difficult to permanently balance my practice with this concept, but some objects are more overt in this discourse than others.
SH ‘How do you place yourself in relation to different notions of fetish? Fetish began within the nineteenth century critique of the venerated ritual object; only within the context of the ritual, did the object become the embodiment of power. Marx then takes this on within the context of the European economy; where there is a fetishism of the commodity and the object is viewed as valuable in itself. Whilst within Freud and the sexual fetish; the sexual practice itself is lost and is displaced upon the object. You could be rejecting the critique of the sexual practice; as ritualised/ culturally sanctioned or you could be the critic on the outside; this is the confusion of the direction of desire, ‘the viewers of my objects are making a mistake and it is the mistake that I am interested in’. Are you trying to court people’s displaced fetishisation or are you trying to produce objects which attempt to resist fetishisation?
CG I try to hint within the publication (my archaeological map) that these objects mainly illustrate or comment on society and make visible rituals and practices which go on. What I attempt to do within some pieces, is to provide extra readings for the audience depending on their engagement with it. If the object is consumed as a commodity, if people are to use them, they place a Freudian ‘displaced’ fetish upon the object. Then essentially the objects don’t assist them in moving towards interpersonal sexual desire. But largely, when viewed, they critique but engage in fetishisation.
SH Isn’t there an obverse possibility that in suspending the audience’s relationships to one of looking at the object, you reinscribe the fetishistic?
CG Yes the audience becomes voyeuristic. This is problematic. There is so much seduction within jewellery itself that the most obscene or explicit object within this language would still be digestible. This is interesting and challenging about the discipline.
SH One way to reconcile that dilemma, that contradiction is to aim to deliver that precise anxiety, ‘what is it that I want?’
CG Yes, that’s my aim.
SH To move on, these objects fit in to a language and a discourse that has been around for quite a while, around technologies of the body. Ideas of the body have increasingly been, through the modern period, the point at which cultural institutions cease to operate so instead of attempting to correct the mind or morality, the apparatus of the state are applied directly to the body. What strikes me about work that deals with the body is that there is no choice about sitting within this; you are marking out the body in a way that the body is increasingly being marked out. Is this deliberate?
CG It is deliberate. Whilst I aim to portray (not induce) the body politic, it is problematic to work with the body as it is dictatorial and prohibitive. I define the site, rituals, practice surrounding each piece and the wearer. There is little autonomy, except in the choice to wear or not to wear. One of the conscious things that I have done in presenting later pieces is to not show them worn. This absence of the body suggests some space but is juxtaposed by framing against clothing, which is of course a social construct. My approach is not new and I playfully use that. There are still audiences that find my practice contentious, and this seems bizarre. This topic is continually discussed and illustrated within our day to day experience. The context is key. However if my work was not seen to be outside of our expectations, then I’m sure I would push further as I enjoy being on the periphery. I want to challenge people’s expectations of what is within a particular discipline. Given the topic’s heritage, I have many metaphors, references to play with.
SH One myth of the ‘repressed’ nineteenth century (which Foucault spoke about) was that no-one spoke about sexuality, but infact it was spoken about all the time. To me, today you could argue that the injunction has been reversed. Today, there is suggestion that people are still largely repressed, therefore we must be more overtly tolerant and that we should transgress, if within fairly narrow parameters. We should care for ourselves, not within the repressive, hysterical, obsessive ways of before but through narcissism. Your marking out of the body could be seen as part of this injunction, concerned with managing your desire, multiplying your sensuality. Do you agree?
CG What I attempt to do is comment upon (not encourage) a defined aspect of social change within each piece. It was a huge revelation when I recognised this narrow, focussed approach; I didn’t have to answer everything and could respond argumentatively, antagonistically within a known position. The aspect that you mention, the narcissistic gratuitous enjoyment of the visceral (which occurs within our ‘permissive’ single life) is ironic, as when we work presumably without boundaries, we actually demonstrate more stereotypical, archetypal, less transgressive behaviour. As we narrow our behaviour further within ‘normal’ long term relationships, we become even more conservative. The myth doesn’t exist.
SH Reading them as part of that technology says that there is no part of your life that you should not to heighten or productivise. At what point within a community does transgression become obvious, when cultural forms of all types begin to capture this? One example is teen publications aimed at young women (and men) which are highly loaded in sexual content. These give the impression that if you are not ‘screwing everything with a pulse’, there is something wrong with you. This is a world away from there, but is an extreme end of that injunction. It identifies that you should be concerned with how you fit within perceived (but unreal) norms and conventions, just outside of your experience i.e. the group of people who are one foot beyond the edge of taboo. Is that a problem or where you are working with/about/against this?
CG I have incredibly strong opinions about the appropriateness of this media. As I speak through narrative, I am constantly surprised that people project the storytelling within the work onto me, autobiographically. I feel that I quite explicitly make strong moral statements about contemporary sexual media and conventions in general. When I started to work early on in fashion (as a key part in this), I loved the notion of working within that framework conceptually. But I could see that the work was becoming part of the industry that it was defamating. This continues to be tough, as although there may be further commercial opportunities for the practice (raising its profile and popularity which I would love), this move was add another layer of reading/ irony. I aspire to resolve this, moving away from the current elitist or self referential context but that translation is tough.
SH It is also about what the audience is projecting; personally speaking I feel a certain inadequacy in the face of your work. One response is that I can’t engage adequately because of all the other challenges upon me within contemporary culture. So, what sympathy do you have with your audience or how do you envisage the position of your audience?
CG I hope that the pieces are quiet and I don’t expect my audience to run through all the cognitions I’ve made, that would be arrogant. I hope that the minimal response that the audience is able to have is the visceral; the empathy to project how this might feel physically upon their body and therefore immediately question ‘would they want that experience or not?’ Every practitioner, due to the period of time that they spend with the object (planning, making etc) is going to have additional readings of the object that aren’t going to be identified by the audience. I playfully engage with this restricted engagement, through the notion of the sound bite. I don’t expect people to contemplate each object. It is interesting to debate and argue them more widely but it’s not necessary.
SH The archaeological map, there are a number of ways of reading this; the Freudian idea of burrowing down to reveal that which is that are hidden, but also the Foucaultian version which is a simple description, ‘I describe what I see and here’s the what if?’ What do you mean by archaeology?
CG The objects that I produce are time specific, imbuing aspects of psychological revelation and also responses to what I see.
SH Metaphorically, is it about distributions between pieces?
CG It is attempting to make more explicit the cognitions that I imagine within and between each piece. It illustrates how I reflect upon what I’ve made and identify new issues, stopping me being dogmatic/ simplistic. It also hints at historical references in terms of ethnographic and/or personal.
SH One of the archaeological games is about distribution of objects, in relation to people or place which says something itself.
CG There is a notion which I keep coming back to (and I haven’t yet reconciled) which is the heritage or meaningfulness of my work for future analysis (although this seems grandiose). Although my work is vulnerable to time (and sometimes transient) it is precious and is being well conserved within collection. It may therefore outlive some of the ephemera which fully documents contemporary culture. There is also something around the position on the body (grave goods etc) and these objects become institutionally recognised which is interesting.
SH What would the putative archaeologist of 100,000 or 2000 years read into this? A classic notion of archaeological analysis is that when it can’t be explained in terms of economy or technology, it has a ritual function (which means that you have no idea how it works and therefore speculate). Are you playing games towards posterity here? What would people read into these in a radically different context?
CG This isn’t yet resolved but I love that we base our judgements on historical cultural presumptions/ speculations. I hope that they would read through the recurring symbols of the circle (the ring, the orifice etc) and even if they projected these somewhere else, these common signs would speak.
SH Do you mean the common memory, that bodily experience which is difficult to believe what exist in some way?
SH Current writing around common identity suggests that there is an eroticisation of everything with many things brought into that circle of representation (advertising through sexuality etc). Also that there is a flattening of landscape surrounding the taboo/ the norm, with high street sex shops (selling products which although different not a world away from your objects), the expansion of porno chic within fashion magazines, internet pornography etc. Essentially that the dissemination and proliferation of sexualised is ubiquitous. What does that do to the ways that we hang work and the things that you want to say?
CG I find it very interesting how behaviour is normalised or marginalised and how it relates to context. That is why my work seems more extreme than its form or materials make it. Trying to find where that line is, is challenging. The choices to show my work outside of accepted gallery venues within local museums and traditional art/craft galleries (that slight juxtaposition which lots of practitioners do for lots of different reasons) fuels these pieces with more anxiety than the sums of their parts. Of course showing within any gallery/ published context validates the practice and also lessens its anxiety and you have to remember this.
SH Does the task become a different one in that in the past transgression (deliberately provocative, critical practice) may be, whilst hard to do, easy to locate to produce that reaction. But now it is the reverse, it is difficult to find somewhere which recognises that transgression.
CG Yes. Almost the easiest part is determining what to make and making it. Recognising the site to predict the response, the responsibility of that is interesting and hard.
SH Is that defensive though? Do you have to find the right tier of venue/ appropriately educated viewer to make any reaction? If you get that wrong, the fear is not that they are angered but that they fail to notice or care?
CG Well inversely, where I have shown within lower working class districts, the work has had its strongest reaction. I know that I cannot this work within Compton St (London) for example, within areas of transgression, as it would become invisible.
SH One way to redeem the objects from this invisibility is then the extent to which it is a material object versus a sign. Baudrillard suggests that what we consume is the object as sign, not as a material object and that the object has almost no value. Yet your practice is made with gold; the marker of absolute economical value but also ritual cultural value. These objects are not hallmarked. Could you discuss your decisions about this and also the materiality of the objects; their physicality, weight, surface?
CG The physicality of the material is important. Some of the initial reasons why I moved into fine gold and silver (where earlier practice used worthless or ephemeral materials) were to do with the implicit sensuality of the materials. Fine gold and silver are psychologically the most ‘warm’ or ‘human’ of metals and their fineness or ‘purity’ makes them incredibly malleable and ductile. This ductility offers opportunities to me, the maker but also to the wearer (which can be anxiety provoking) as they add to or transform the object through use. My initial funding proposal (surrounding the use of one single fine gold ingot) was to explore and reference the ritualistic and transcendentory within Etruscan, pre-Columbian, Aztec goldsmithing practice. I wanted as intimate as possible a relationship with the production of the objects and this was possible through the processing of the ingot into sheet, wire etc. What I found however, and influenced my subsequent decisions was the immense power of the ingot as a symbol. I was subsumed by ‘gold fever’ and indeed for several weeks, couldn’t make because of the fetish I had put upon it. When I began manufacturing, the removal of the hallmark became pivotal. There was a point when its trace remained and I recognised that only by the absolute removal of the hallmark, could I remove the material’s intrinsic worth and hold over me. I was then able to use the material in a very decadent and liberating way, recognising it only as a beautiful malleable, rich yellow metal. On completion of the object when I would usually hallmark, I chose not to. This decision is legally contentious and makes it difficult to sell the work but I enjoyed the perceived removal of me as the author and also importantly the denial of institutional authentication. It is, I guess, a ‘decadent’ act.
SH Is it that through not being hallmarked, the objects become more difficult for you to consider as commodities? Is this therefore a defence mechanism? The obvious way into this notion is through the idea of property, ownership, authorship, questioning who owns and holds both the object and the proper understanding/meaning of the object. One answer might be to hallmark them, which then puts them into exchange value (into commodities) but away from your intervention. You lose control over them.
CG Yes, and that scares me. I don’t yet know how to walk a line within and yet outside of consumerism, so I guess I have effectively withdrawn from it.
SH That’s interesting and is reassuring to my more conservative mentality, that to be radical transgressive practitioners we still need something that we can hold onto and protect.
CG Yes, to work without parameters is terrifying, I couldn’t practice.
SH Not liberating? As this is one of the way that theorists describe the apora; that the attempt to cross into the void is the most liberating experience, but that is ‘theory’ and not practice.
CG Yes, to be working within a void is impossible.
SH So is the practice and the form of the practice one of the ways in which you handle that, the idea of ritualisation of the process? Working with gold, you are conjuring up the role of the metallurgist, warrior, alchemist, bronze age. It is the continuity of metalworkers/ goldsmithing which provides a secure construct?
CG Yes, the discipline has been held in a position of power and wonder, indeed this aura was one of the reasons why I went into the practice. There remains a sense of mystery about how metalwork objects are born and some of my pieces play on this, becoming more and more straightforward, simple or benign in their manufacture.
SH And how does that fit with more explicit/ graphic objects? The tradition of jewellery is not overt and you are not producing traditional jewellery.
CG Well, the difference between this and the mechanised (mass) manufacture of eroticised objects interests me. There is a great sense of security for purchasers of sex aids (for example) as production/ consumption the whole process is depersonalised, the internet etc. This allows anonymity and experimentation. The craftsperson however working with, in my case the suggested client, individualises the experience and therefore provides further invasion of that private sphere.
SH One of the things that might protect both you and the narrative is the ritualised process and the material. Some pieces could be made cheaply from ready-mades, washers etc. How does that change the valuation of them for you and the consumer? Is there something about the aura of the material, the reaction of it, is that what redeems the objects from the banal?
CG Some of how I practice (which is perhaps not interesting to the viewer) is seeing sexualised connections within the banal. I collect, appropriate and then transform. Why I feel the need to transform is in part a symptom of the time (post-pop art) but also what I can do is make more explicit historical references and add humanity or humility to the work.
SH Does that risk nostalgia?
CG Well, nostalgia is really important to crafts. The positioning of crafts is fuelling that need, whether it is contemporary crafts or handicrafts. Somewhere we still need to see the maker, the human presence within manufacture.
SH Baudrillard wrote about ‘art objects’ that through practice, there is a way back to the symbolic (not about commodity). You focus upon developing the kind of act that can only exist within an archaic belief driven context, an act that can’t be answered. However rituals suggest nostalgia or domestication of that aspiration?
CG In the process of producing (conceiving) the object, there is a point where I believe in ‘newness’ and then another moment where I recognise the familiarity of the object. Although I don’t expect the audience to understand everything about the work, it is important to me that they emotionally recognise something and familiarity is a key way in to this.
SH Yes, there is another set of relationships, which people perhaps don’t understand but instinctually respond to.
CG Yes, that is much more interesting to me.
SH Talking about usefulness, what’s the difference between the objects that you’ve made and a representation which would function in a similar way? Similar ideas could be represented with more mundane materials (such as the washers).
CG I make some decisions implicitly and couch them within my ‘visual aesthetic’ choices. I aim to humanise the object and allow some sense of empathy or willingness to engage in things, which might otherwise to be verbalised as too tortuous or ‘other’.
SH And the material and the method of production is the vehicle by which people may give them the space to not be repelled?
CG Yes, a liberating aspect of consciously moving into precious materials and away from utilitarian metals (brass, steel), was the reduction in the interventionist, surgical, threatening qualities implicit in these forms/ uses.
SH These objects are created with a type of function in mind but are not intended for use. Therefore there is the debate about the craft object without a function, the relationship between the art object (as that which is use-less), is that therefore too much ambiguity?
CG My aspiration for my practice is to make utilitarian objects and it is my goal when I set out on each object. I knowingly add factors that make that difficult (through materials/ form/ function etc) but at the very least, I believe that craft objects should be ‘about use’. That is the meaningfulness of the discipline; without it, it would be subsumed by fine art practice. What prevents me from achieving utilitarian objects, is in part my patience in refining/revisiting forms. Each body of work becomes more useful and less performative, and as I force myself to engage more with these imagined narratives, I am encouraged to refute the object as statement only.
SH I’m also wondering about seeing the object as opposed to an image of it.
CG The artefact is important, experiencing the object first hand is important. This is more ‘real’.
SH But, problematic within the experience of the exhibition.
CG Yes, an exhibition is artificial and that’s why my aim is to become more utilitarian. The objects that I feel are more successful are those that can live outside the exhibition, even if vulnerable to the world. I enjoy collectors who live with my work. These pieces then become part of people’s lives, enacting or preventing the ritual.
SH And this in a sense completes the cycle. It is still problematic as it may be less transgressive, but more fitting to a ritualised experience.
CG Yes, but it reduces the performative and public, and moves the work into the intimate and private.
Shaun Hides is a writer, critic and senior lecturer in material and consumer culture . This conversation was recorded on Thursday 19th August 2004 at Coventry School of Art & Design.
This publication accompanied Gorse’s solo show, ‘Domestic Bliss’, bringing together a comprehensive body of her work for the first time.