Body Politic. By Melissa Cameron. Gallery Bilk. Until April 16.
Reviewer: Kerry-Anne Cousins.
This is a surprising exhibition not only because of the subject of the work - war weaponry is not usually associated with jewellery - but also because the artist has moved so assuredly between actual objects that can be worn and objects that seem more suitable as sculptural wall pieces. The artist writes: "These works grew much larger than my previous pieces and in one instance outgrew jewellery as a medium. In the end I had to put the idea first and found myself making jewellery for the wall."
The techniques of jewellery making have always been associated with making and decorating weapons such as swords (the beautiful Japanese samurai swords being a prime example) and armour. However it is the power of weaponry; its evolution from arrows and cannon to contemporary tanks, missiles and bombs and its growing destructive potential that is the subject of this exhibition. Using such images of what many would consider instruments of death as adornment whatever the artist's political intent can be confronting. If you do wear this jewellery, it will be a constant reminder of death and destruction – a sort of contemporary memento mori in place of the more traditional symbol of mortality, the skull.
The Body Politic exhibition consists of three parts: the Escalation series where domestic objects are created into wearable artworks in a historical narrative of violence; the HEAT series where patterns like fireworks based on the effect of firing a high explosive anti-tank warhead (HEAT for short) on an armoured tank are used to make multiple shapes in both jewellery and wall pieces; and the Body Politic series where the medium itself is a part of the message.
Cameron has a clear-sighted vision for this body of work. It reveals itself in the magnitude of the concept that lies behind the complexity and the precision in which it is carried out. In fact her work resembles the workings of machines with their interrelated and interdependent components. Nothing, you feel, has been left to chance.
In the Escalation series Cameron cuts out her central shape - a gun, a cannon, a sword- from a group of domestic objects - a non-stick pan, a red trowel, a bamboo tray, and a Japanese lacquerware plate. She uses both the cut-out shapes and the negative space left behind to make necklaces and neck pieces and brooches.
Cameron begins the narrative with an early simple instrument of death – the arrow. Arrow shapes are cut out from an old antiqued brass tray. The remains of the tray are transformed into the "target" or a neckpiece and the "arrows" that are removed are threaded as a necklace on a waxed linen thread. I had not heard of the word caltrops before but I recognised what they were from seeing them in museums. These sharp spiked objects were thrown on the ground to fatally harm horses and foot soldiers and were employed in more modern times to rip the tyres of vehicles. Cameron has cut out their distinctive star-like shapes from an antique brass coaster, a tartlet pan and a brass valve tag. The shape of the negative space in these objects is stitched across with linen silk and steel thread to make medallions and the flat spokes of the caltrops are fashioned into benign looking pendants.
The shape of a cannon cut into an antique red lacquerware tray is one of the more colourful works. The neckpiece (Seven personnel) is made from the pieces of the cut-out cannon complete with the silhouettes of the seven men needed to fire it. The tray that is left (11RPH Cannon) is fashioned into a very large brooch and is one of the more dramatic wall pieces.
However arrows, caltrops and cannon cannot compete in the killing stakes with the modern tank, automatic weapons, the M1 Adams Tank, the RPG (rocket propelled grenade) missile and the armed UAV drone (unmanned aerial vehicle). Cameron fashions silhouettes of each of these weapons into a series of neck pieces and brooches. Recycled military uniforms have been cut up and made into paper shells while a series of "bullets" are hung from linen threads as necklaces. This latter use of uniforms is a reference to the Combat Paper Project workshops designed to help returning US war veterans.
In the HEAT series, the works (named Penetration11, Spatter 11 and Strike 11 ) are based on the pattern made by bullets that have penetrated the metal of a tank. In simulating this pattern by using the bits of metal that are shot out from the metal sheets, Cameron has made a free fall chain necklace, a brooch and neck pieces. These relate in style to the work called Attempts to kill (Drone 1) and to the artist's Body Politic series. In this series clusters of small metal components are strung together so that the tiny shapes in gold and other metals cascade on chains to form necklaces and brooches. They make up a coded message in binary, the language that is the foundation of our digital culture. These latter works with reference to some of the most deadly of modern weapons, are to my mind ironically the most attractive.
Whatever your feelings are about the images of weaponry being used as wearable art, what is obvious is the passion and deep commitment to this work by an artist who has obviously thought very deeply about the curious and indeed shocking history of all the ways we have developed to kill our fellow humans.
Melissa Cameron studied in the fields of interior architecture, jewellery and metalsmithing at both Curtin University in Perth and Monash University in Melbourne. Since graduating with a Master's Degree in Fine Art from Monash University in 2009, she has chalked up an impressive list of exhibitions and awards. In 2012 she moved to Seattle in the US where she now lives and works.