Walls Are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture

2010 Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester in 2010, published Walking are Talking, Art and Culture as an accompaniment to an exhibition of the same name. The Whitworth holds an extensive archive of wallpapers that encompass wall coverings produced across more than three centuries from domestic to commercial designs to those made as fine art.  The introduction essay “It’s the background that explains the foreground” written by Gill Saunders describes the (often contradictory) relationship between art, wallpaper and the consumer, and the questions the perceived neutrality of our papered walls.  The book, while mainly dealing with wallpapers designed by artists seeking to subvert wallpaper’s traditional function as innocuous background to daily life, points out that in fact, wallpaper has rarely been just background.  While wallpapers by contemporary artists proclaim their subversive intention, domestic wall coverings have always had a more covert influence. 

Since the 1990’s, avante-garde artists have been using wallpaper increasingly to explore themes of home, memory and identity.  Wallpaper has been an important signifier of social, cultural and fashionable status since the 18th century becoming both the silent witness of and active participant in Western culture.  By regarding wallpaper as nothing more than “white noise” we allow ourselves to ignore rather than address its power.  It is this power that has been harnessed by contemporary artists.

Wallpaper is identified almost exclusively with the domestic interior and is an effective strategy for exploring ideas around home, identity, memory and childhood.  Generally regarded as ‘merely’ decorative, an innocuous backdrop to our lives, it becomes so commonplace it renders itself invisible but in effect wallpaper as a signifier of home can be powerfully evocative, triggering memories of the past, particularly memories of childhood and early life. Our homes and our furnishings are marked with traces of our physical presence, indented cushions, worn carpets, faded wallpapers all act as silent witnesses to the secrets of domestic life and offers the artist a simple way of transforming  an object so that the viewer understands it as ‘domestic’.

Catherine Bertola’s cut-out version of William Morris’s Marigold was ‘flocked’ with dust and sweepings, and the furred contents of the vacuum cleaner bag, and embellished with the desiccated bodies of moths and beetles, spiders and flies.  She built the pattern week by week; adding a new branch, a new cluster of flowers, as she received the latest accumulations of dust, posted to her studio in Newcastle.  The installation engaged subtly with the ideas of repetition – of a decorative pattern (wallpaper) and of a process (cleaning).





Catherine Bertola, After the fact, 2006.

Though it has become less fashionable to use wallpaper in our homes, it has become a ubiquitous feature of our visual environment – no longer simply a domestic decoration we frequently are bombarded with repeated patterns; a ‘wallpaper’ of brand names, logos and sponsors plastered behind our sports teams, politicians, film red carpets.  Time magazine noted this phenomenon in 2002, observing that the American government had “made a habit of visual message bearing, regularly wallpapering the president’s backdrop with the official theme of the day.”  Pop culture, political statement, fine art, and advertising: wallpaper has come a long way since it left home and began making an exhibition of itself.

Trevor Keeble discusses the themes in the work of Catherine Bertola  in his essay Wallpaper, Dust and ‘Muck of that Sort’  saying  “Wallpaper has no function beyond simply ‘decoration’, it is a material through which homes are made, and a material through which they are changed.  In this sense, wallpaper becomes not just some measure of household taste, but a salient record of time’s passing that speaks not just of the history of a room or a building, but of the moments and lives of the people who lived there.  This, I think, is the artistic terrain of Catherine Bertola.”

Along with objects and materials such as lace, textiles, paint and dust, wallpaper has offered Bertola a substance through which to investigate the ways things and spaces are made, and, in turn, the ways these things and spaces ‘make’ the lives lived through them and with them.  This concern with the mundane materials and objects of everyday life belies a preoccupation with the ways in which time and the passing time become inscribed and materialized in the things around us.  This has provided her a rich theme through which to explore issues of inhabitation, memory and place. Bertola’s art is concerned quite fundamentally with the process of making and materiality. The critical and conceptual frameworks of her work are achieved through a deep and inquisitive engagement with the nature and processes of making.  Whether concerned with the making of objects, from stainless steel cutlery or ladies lace, or of the spaces, boundaries and thresholds of the home, her body of work to date is characterized by an in-depth process of research as creative practice.



Catherine Bertola, Walls are Talking, 2010


Catherine Bertola, Everything and nothing, 2007

Jemposium: Jewellery or What? International Contemporary Jewellery Symposium | Art Jewelry Forum

Jemposium: Jewellery or What? International Contemporary Jewellery Symposium | Art Jewelry Forum.

Jemposium was marketed as an ‘International Contemporary Jewellery Event’; however the guest speakers came from a very small area of the globe. New Zealand jewelry has a relationship with Europe that covers many generations starting with early jewelry immigrants and later visits and workshops by Herman Jünger and Otto Künzli. It is important to continue to build on existing connections but we need to remember the rest of the world is out there.”

Click on the above link for the full article

Reconnections and Place

This posting is intended as an ongoing visual and textual reference library of works that address the theme of reconnections and place in support of my current studio project intent, which is to provoke a reconnection to a specific site that enriches the viewers understanding of that site in order to highlight the importance of preserving its historical, social and cultural values.

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Jacqui Chan is a contemporary jeweller from New Zealand.  She began studying jewellery while working as an architect and later teaching in Design at Unitec, Auckland.  In 2009 she was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship to undertake a practice based Phd in the School of Art, RMIT, Melbourne.  The provisional title of her work is Jewellery in the urban milieu: Explorations in emergence.  The research explores the relation between jewellery and the urban milieu where the making and wearing of jewellery are used to engage with specific urban situations.  The emergent artefacts are then released back into the urban milieu and the affect of this is examined through wearing projects. 

2009 – Urban Metabolism Series                                                                                         

from top to bottom, left to right
Brooch,   vegetable oil tin, stainless steel,   
Brooch,   vegetable oil tin, stainless steel,   
Brooch,   galvanised steel, stainless steel,  
Brooch,   aluminium flashing, stainless steel,
Brooch,   vegetable oil tin, stainless steel.

2010 – Situation Palestine

This series of brooches were made while Jacqui was living in Palestine, they are made out of Olive cans.  Ironically these cans have been imported from Israel as the Palestinians have no Olive trees left having been cut down by the Israelis. 


2011 – Host A Brooch Project

Host A Brooch is a jewellery exhibition with a twist. The project transforms urban debris into wearable artworks and explores how these work in the world. The public are invited to ‘host’ a brooch on an excursion through the city to see how it activates connections their surroundings

The Host A Brooch ‘depot’ is located in a converted shipping container. Operating like a bike-sharing system, the public are invited to ‘host a brooch’ on an urban adventure. Just as bicycle transforms our experience of a city – producing new sensory experiences, routes and encounters -, jewellery also alters how we encounter a city.

Walking around the city, the body becomes the vehicle for a mobile intervention. The brooches claim a prominent position on the body, demanding attention and provoking conversation. As remnants of the city, they also draw attention to overlooked aspects of one’s surroundings, evoking material histories and connecting us with the material ecology of the city.   Taking part, the goal is to wander the streets aimlessly: see where the brooch takes you; see what happens – like a Situationist psycho-geography. On your adventures, take photos showing how the brooch connects you to your surroundings. 

Over the six weekends, each brooch is worn by multiple people, resulting in myriad different experiences. Wearers are asked to document their experiences with photos and notes. These accumulate in the exhibition, becoming cartography of these jewellery-led adventures.

Host A Brooch is one of many projects that currently exploring ways of reinvigorating Christchurch city through the arts. Although architectural and infrastructural change will take time, the arts can respond more immediately to reinject life into the city.

JEWELLERY AND THE CITY:  How can jewellery alter our engagement with the city?

Cities are vast conglomerations of matter that evolve over time to meet the human need for protection and resources. They operate as elaborate ecosystems animated by flows of matter and energy.  As highlighted by the recent earthquakes, notions of the ‘urban’ and ‘natural’ dissolve in a field of interacting geological, biological and social processes.

By attaching ‘bits of the world’ to our bodies, jewellery has the potential to connect us to this world. Beyond assertions ‘Self’ (signifying relationships, social groups, personal identities or memories), jewellery opens us up to the world we inhabit and the processes that constitute it. Jacqui Chan explores how jewellery can engage with the material ecology of the city.




In her practice, Chan fosters reciprocity between jewellery and the urban condition using the analogy of a saprophyte – organisms that live on decomposing matter and release vital nutrients into ecosystems . In In Praise of Saprophytes, Flavio Albanese advocates that architecture becomes ‘a saprophytic machine capable of incorporating and metabolising at different levels the physical and cultural materials of today’s space, in order then to put them back into the cycle of life reassembled in different sequences’. With such logic, jewellery practice becomes a process of feeding off and feeding back into the city. This shapes a practice where materials are diverted from their course towards landfill, transformed and recirculated in wearable configurations.


Marian Hoskings is one of Australia’s foremost contemporary jewellers with almost 40 years professional experience and is a highly visible and influential contributor, mentor and educator to the contemporary crafts movement in Australia in the genre of jewellery and silversmithing.    Working almost exclusively with silver, Hosking has developed a distinctive vocabulary of techniques including casting, drilling and saw piercing.  She translates specific elements of the natural world into the language of silver, creating jewellery and objects of beauty.

“It is an innate capacity of humans to assign values and sentiment to objects and jewellery in particular.   Jewellery being an object worn or carried close to the body is redolent with significance and layers of meaning for the maker, giver and owner.” – Marian Hosking, 2007.

Souvenirs of Place and Meaning, is a text which is particularly relevant to my research and includes a section on Hosking’s interpretations of Architecture, Commemoration and Identity.  An important rationale in Hosking’s practice is the commemorative potential of jewellery commenting “Primarily, to me jewellery is about people … to me, jewellery is a performing art requiring a wearer.”

In the early 1990s, Hosking started to make vessel forms such as Pair of wine cups, 1991 and Sheep Shed Box, 1995.  These larger sculptural objects were associated more directly with silversmithing than jewellery, and also began to speak of her interest in architecture.  Significantly, Hosking had initially begun training as an architect before transferring to work with metals and jewellery, and her interest in the discipline has been long standing. 




Heather Skowood is a jeweller who draws much of her inspiration from urban terrain and industrial sites in search of unsuspecting beauty that she infuses in her contemporary jewellery.  Using bold geometric forms in contrast to the human body Heather’s jewellery celebrates the union between maker, wearer and voyeur.

Skowood’s introduction to Manchester and the US prison system came to her as a teenager growing up near Philadelphia in the US. It was then that she first heard the dark-humoured and sarcastic music of The Smiths and just a few years later that her best friend would be incarcerated, and spend the next 15 years fighting for his innocence as well as his release.

After finishing her jewellery and sculpture degree Heather worked a few summers giving historic tours of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), America’s first prison (1829). ESP was built by the Quakers as an alternative to corporeal punishment and the death penalty and quickly became known around the world for its radical new theories on criminal rehabilitation as well as for its architecture, particularly its radial design plan.


 The design of the radial plan consists of a central rotunda where usually the guard tower is located and from here each cellblock radiates outward like a spoke on a wheel. This radial design has been used in designing some 300 prisons around the world and most likely influenced Strangeways Prison (1861) in Manchester.

Heather chose the knuckleduster, a jewellery/device often associated with criminals, as the foundation for her visual commentary on bridging the gaps between law, politics and social responsibility. This 2-fingered ring is titled “Strangeways We Have Arrived”, a take on the title of The Smiths final album, “Strangeways Here We Come” but it also tempts the viewer to ask “…we arrived…What now?” What happens to criminals once they are incarcerated is something seldom discussed and when it is, there is usually a debate. The two pearls were chosen to represent the humanity of inmates caught in the cycle of crime and poverty. Prison is represented by the two rotating cage-like elements with their thorns that threaten the pearls to remain motionless yet keep the wearer safe. When turned, the two radial cage-like elements do so simultaneously like gears, one propelling the other.

Heather uses this as a reference to comment that in today’s society, particularly in the US, prisons are often no more than a revolving door between crime and prison that really is no longer a deterrent against crime.  In the spaces between each other lies a responsibility to better understand one another and grow.


Nicole Polentas is a currently researching for a Phd in Philosophy, Gold and Silversmithing at RMIT University, Melbourne and is a contributor to the publication Australian jewellery topos: talking about place; 18 contemporary Australian jewellers.   

‘This city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.’ – Plato

Jewellery objects can initiate an engagement with and understanding of cultural place, re-creating the diachronic characteristics of the Cretan urban landscape.  The objects are a materialisation of improvised folk songs known as Amanes, Mandinades, and The Rizitiko.  They examine the transcultural evolution between the East and West, constructing narratives of cultural identity.   They encapsulate language as a foundation of form, projecting the false utopia and bereavement of old and new civilisations, challenging the socio-political preconceptions of symbolic place. 

 The jewellery objects establish a period and locale, set within an unfastened social framework as opposed to a fixed historological perspective, which empowers the viewer to determine a personal assimilation of truth.  Through the pain of history, a distortion occurs by which notable heroes or characters are chosen whose ambitions and actions depict the desires of the people to integrate into the established ideal of the standard reality.  The objects both exemplify and distort fragments of history embedded in the landscape, and embodied within the layers of time and place.







Kirsten Hayden has a PHd in Fine Art (Gold and Silversmithing) and was the first jeweller to become and Antarctic Arts.  Kirsten spent her PhD years combining Antarctica as subject matter with a technique she has devised to give her work texture and reflective qualities, incorporating the commercial material used in road marking and it is this thesis Antarctic Landscapes in the Souvenir and Jewellery which I find I continually return to.

“My PhD research looked at Antarctic landscapes in jewellery and souvenir objects, so I was looking at different ways I could depict Antarctica. I wanted to use enamel because of the surface qualities: it could be glossy, it could also be rough, it could look like snow, depending on the firing of the actual material,’’ Kirsten says. Her main research questions were:

“How can my experiences of the Antarctic landscape be reinterpreted for the creation of souvenirs and jewellery?

In what ways can I use contemporary technologies to reinterpret historic processes to be used in the construction of jewellery and souvenir?

 Souvenir of a person; relic, mourning and remembrance.         


Kirsten Hayden, Poppy’s poppy (detail), 2001
Kirsten Hayden, Jewellery as vessels of small stories, 2010

Alessandro Mendini

This striking chair is one of Mendini’s best known work’s.  La Poltrona di Proust is one of his re-interpreted “classics”, modified by the addition of structural or decorative elements that change the dynamics of the original.

In an allusion to the description of time and space in Marcel Proust’s writings “In Search of Lost Time”, the old-styled armchair is painted in the pointillist style of Paul Signac.

In Proust’s novel, the narrator states…  “memory – not about the place where I am right now, but about a couple of places I had lived before and have been before – descends upon me like a saviour from above and rescues me from the emptiness which I cannot escape by myself”. 

In other words he is suggesting that from our memories we can rediscover ourselves and help lead us to remember our identities and revive the significance of our lives.

The “points” of colour in the chair then are not only intended for visual delight  but they also represent little fragments of memory which together form a uniform identity.

Proust also states “a travel that truly lets us discover something new is not to see a new scene, but to have new eyes to see the scene”.  Similarly,  Mendini does not want to create something new, instead he redesigns from an existing form and successfully transforms the inherent essence of the object to give it a new significance.

JEMposium issue of Overview – another great read

The latest issue of Overview is jam packed with reflections of the highly successful JEMposium held in Wellington in February  (select the link on my Home page to connect to their facebook group).  It certainly was a who’s who gathering of Contemporary Jewellers from New Zealand and overseas, the highlight for me being the pin swap where we got to mix and mingle.  Having been caught up in the Ted Noten Ring Swap bedlam, Sharon Fitness’s monologue of the Miss Piggy frenzy that ensued is spot on.  Thank you Jewellers of Greater Sandringham.

Finding the Narrative

Dorothy is a third year student at Unitec in Auckland, she enjoys finding a shared narrative or personal connection within the work she is making,  She is predominately working with metal techniques such as enamelling, casting and etching and this year hope to continue her exploration with experimenting with raising, chasing and repousse. She is currently involved in developing ideas and responses to the Rosebank Road collaborative project.