In 2005, millennials worldwide created intricate bracelets out of scoubidou strings. In 2015, internationally-renowned Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei created a line of ‘wearable art’ pieces. His golden bracelets and our plastic ones unwittingly provoked the questions: Are artists jewellers? Or vice versa? What we may not have realised is that a long lineage of overlap between jewellery and art exists: French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle made brooches and necklaces, American abstractionist Frank Stella created what he termed ‘neckpieces’, neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer created rings, as did Picasso, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Yayoi Kusama, Yoko Ono, and the list goes on.
Ba An Le is a contemporary jeweller completing his Honours year at the Sydney College of the Arts who follows in the footsteps of these artists, and even earlier artists as Le looks to the Dutch and German jewellery tradition of the late 20th century. Like these earlier practitioners, Le conflates the boundary between the two spheres of art and craft, which have historically been viewed as mutually exclusive. Le’s objects provide a new perspective on the recurring debates surrounding the divide between art and craft, subverting traditional perceptions of jewellery.
Whilst jewellery in popular consciousness may evoke images of bulbous gems, Le challenges this conventional idea that jewellery is only valuable because of the mercenary quality of its material. Le swaps the traditional gold, silver, and gemstones for stone, wood, and cheaper metals in his brooch Stone, Wood, Metal (2017). Le’s work often uses ephemera, found objects discovered in his own room, giving the materials new meaning in a new form. The familiar materials are transformed and manipulated into unfamiliar forms and situations, illustrated best by Unhomely Implements (2017) in which the hard substances of bamboo and brass become elastic and flexible. Extending impossibly into space and delicately balancing on wires of brass, Le invites the viewer to witness the potential of the materiality to elude and allude. Le allows us to recognise that experience and collective memory is inherently tied to these materials, that craft and materiality presents a lingua franca that is able to transcend culture, time, and space.
Simultaneously, even paradoxically, these found objects have been discovered within Le’s room and hold great personal relevance and significance to him. It is for this reason that Le discusses his works as portraits, either of himself or of others around him. As they mark autobiographical encounters of people and with himself, Le hesitates to call these objects sculptures or even jewellery, but prefers to view them as experiences. Thus the objects seem to be anthropomorphised. In Unhomely Implements the bamboo rod reaching out into space, balancing on metal spokes, is ostensibly sentient. This movement perhaps references the fact that unlike conventional works of art that are static when hung in sterile galleries, pieces of art jewellery are animated when they are worn on the human body. Furthermore, Le acutely realises that these objects, which are worn and carried through lived human experience, do not occupy moments of stasis. This is seen in his work Accumulating Time (2016) a neck piece made of different fragments that record the moments of everyday life and their accumulation over time.
Art Jewellery has been termed as ‘the most intimate form of art’ or as ‘sculpture activated by the body.’ Le’s small-scale works make it possible to see the body as a moving exhibition space. His works reveal the interesting relationship between wearer, viewer, and artist. Jewellery exists as a form of non-verbal communication and Le explores this triangulation between the artist and viewer through the wearer.
As messages become more potent and immediate when worn on the human body, Le’s work imparts stories and messages in turn asking us to understand the sentiment and significance behind every piece we decide to place on our own bodies. Whether it be a mood-ring we bought from Hot Dollar, or the priceless Heart of the Ocean from Titanic, both encapsulate, record and impart memories and messages. After all, it is this exact message that Pandora uses to market their ever-popular charm bracelets: that every charm be used to commemorate a milestone.
Le champions the power of art jewellery to extend beyond the purely decorative and encourages us to view jewellery as more than mere markers of status or wealth: Jewellery is more than the Pretty Woman necklace. Le’s brooches, necklaces and rings are pieces of portable, wearable art. Like the metals that Le employs, jewellery is allotropic and malleable. This is truly a badge to wear with pride.