Monday, 21 November 2011


The first year I spent in London, I was really amazed by the poppy fervour. I didn’t know what was happening (it doesn’t exist in France) when I progressively saw poppy pins growing on every man and woman’s jackets. Young, old, executives, artists, students, everybody was wearing a red and green flower brooch.

Poppy pin in the United Kingdom. Photo Isabelle Busnel

After a few clicks on Internet I felt cleverer: red poppies are worn around the world in remembrance of battlefield deaths. It symbolises the wild flowers that were the first plants to grow in the churned-up soil of soldiers' graves in Belgium and northern France. Little else could grow in the blasted soil that became rich in lime from the rubble. Those flowers were the first signs of life and renewal, and in 1915 a Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote a wartime poem:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row...”

It was this poem which inspired an American war secretary to sell the first poppies to raise money for ex-soldiers.

Poppy pin in Canada. Photo Isabelle Busnel

In the United Kingdom, people express their support for The Royal British Legion's charity work every year in November through the Poppy Appeal. Last year £36 million was collected and £40 million is expected this year. That is a lot of poppies!!!

But enough for history. The fact that once a year people adorn themselves with a poppy pin whatever their gender, age and social background or status raises questions relevant to my investigations about jewellery (see my post on “Read my jewellery" )

 Wearing a poppy pin is indeed not as straightforward as it seems.

First there are rules on when to wear it. According to the BBC website, “it's a hotly debated question. Many people think poppies should be worn from 1 November until Armistice Day on 11 November. Others pin one on only in the week running up to Remembrance Sunday - 8 November this year. The Royal British Legion spokesman says they can be worn from the launch of the poppy appeal, which this year was 22 October. Organisations like the BBC usually choose a day for presenters to start wearing one. This year it was from 6am on 24 October”. One should notice that the BBC has been often criticised for having its presenters wear the poppy too early, a full three weeks before Remembrance Day…

Second question: where to wear it? According again to the BBC: left or right? Some people say left, as it's worn over the heart. It is also where military medals are worn. Others say only the Queen and Royal Family are allowed to wear a poppy on the right, which isn't true. Then there is the school of thought that says men should wear theirs on the left and women on the right, as is the traditional custom with a badge or brooch. The Royal British Legion spokesman says there is no right or wrong side other than to wear it with pride".

Third, I have noticed that the matter of poppy etiquette is becoming an increasingly difficult issue to handle successfully.

For their public appearance, politicians, journalists, and TV personalities failing to show their support for British troops could well be committing political suicide. The only one standing out is Jon Snow, the Channel 4 newsreader, who vowed not to wear the Remembrance Day symbol on air because he disliked what he termed "poppy fascism". The 59-year-old presenter usually wears a poppy off screen but has appeared on television without it, leading some viewers to complain. This gesture is a way of condemning the "unpleasant" attitude of those who insist poppies are worn. He said he refused to wear anything that represented any kind of statement.
In 2009, “Strictly Come Dancing” bosses came under fire after none of the contestants or dancers wore poppies on the show on Remembrance weekend. They had to explain themselves and apologize, saying that it was not practical and could be dangerous. A spokesman said: "It could be dangerous to pin the poppies on to them while they are flying around at high speed because they could fly off”. 
And this year in Northern Ireland, an employee at a Poundland shop walked out of the store after being asked to remove the poppy from her uniform on grounds it was against company's dress policy. Poundland said after listening to customer and staff feedback it had reviewed its UK policy. The company apologized for any unintended offence caused and the company decided to allow store colleagues to use their own discretion in wearing poppies.

When, where and following what etiquette: it is everything but trivial to wear (or not to wear…) a poppy.

I tend to agree with Jon Snow that the poppy has somehow become a morality icon going far beyond the support to troops: not wearing it makes you look as an egoist or someone who doesn’t care, even though you give money but don’t pin the trophy on you coat. For many charities, there is nothing to display in return for giving money. Is it not the way it should be, generous but anonymous?

Yet November seems to be the annual occasion for people to display their generosity pinned on their jackets. Going one step further, we have also recently seen the development of precious ranges of poppies. The following examples are pictures from the Poppy Shop, on sale through the website with set prices:

Crystal Poppy
Ceramic Poppy
Enamel Poppy
Scarf ring

Fabric Poppy

Again according to BBC, “the traditional poppy is roughly 7cm from red tip to the bottom of its green stalk and 4cm wide. But other sizes are worn. The Queen Mother had an extra large poppy - even two sometimes - specially made for her each year. And Baroness Sayeeda Warsi sported a super-size poppy for once for a controversial Question Time. Why someone wears a larger poppy is open to debate. An attempt to stand out from the crowd, maybe a nonconformist gesture? Whatever the reason, that splash of red certainly gets noticed”.

If the poppy appeal is really about remembrance and solidarity, why, one can argue, would anyone want to stand out of the crowd? Are humility and discretion not indispensable conditions for such causes? Why not just wear the standard paper poppy sold on the streets? Well, I must admit that as an artist I do enjoy a certain measure of variety and originality and even though one may be reluctant at showing off for good causes, seeing the same pin again and again on everybody worn like a uniform gets very boring!

November and its poppies are so heavily charged with meanings and symbols that it has almost become intimidating for me: should I or should I not wear it? Thank God December is coming!

Monday, 24 October 2011


“Surface and substance” is the title of two simultaneous exhibitions held at the moment in London about International Contemporary Enamel.

They both have been curated by Jessica Turrell and are held at the Electrum Gallery (website) and at CAA (website).

This title refers to Jessica Turell’s practice led research project “Surface and substance: a call for the fusion of skill and ideas in contemporary enamel jewellery” that I have already mentioned in my article about the contemporary enamel paradox (see article).

The exhibition’s flyer mentions: “The title, Surface and Substance, has been chosen to emphasize that while this is clearly an exhibition that focuses on the use of vitreous enamel – the surface – of equal importance is the ‘substance’ that underpins the work on display; the thinking and the research, which along with the obvious material knowledge and skill, is evident in the striking and individual pieces on show”.

While the fusion of skills and ideas clearly appeared in these exhibitions, I came back with an additional story in mind: “Surface and Substance” can also be viewed in the light of the tumultuous relationship between aesthetics and contents and contribute to the controversial debate about the value of beauty in craft.

Jorunn Veiteberg wrote a very thought provoking chapter called “The Problem of Beauty” on the issue in her book “Craft in transition” (Bergen National Academy of the arts, 2005). In this essay, she starts by reviewing the different philosophies about the concept of beauty (Plato, Hume, Kant, Beaudelaire…) and then describes the main taboos of beauty (beauty as empty aesthetics, immoral, sensual, feminine and commercial…). The last paragraph establishes a link between craft and beauty and provides some interesting insights: “Craft addresses the senses and does not assume an antithetical or hierarchical ranking between mind and body, craft and art, visible surface and deeper meaning”, she says, and she quotes the design historian Frederik Wildhagen: “without in-depth knowledge of materials one cannot achieve beauty”. In the world of contemporary art however, the word beautiful is often synonymous with superficial or vacuous: it implies that the work is purely aesthetic and lacks substance, is not really art. “It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art” said Joseph Kosuth in his 1969 manifesto… Jorunn Veiteberg then asks: “Does craft devote too much attention to aesthetics and too little to meaning? Is it a final proof that craft is hopelessly out of touch with other contemporary visual art? Or should we reject this as an artificial antithesis?”

Craft in Transition book cover. Google images

She is clearly in favour of the latter but she broadens the perspective:  “We all need and long for something that is beautiful. But exactly what it is, is an open question”, she says, and quoting Roland Barthes “beauty cannot really be explained… it can only say: I am what I am”, she states “beauty is much easier to detect than to define”.

Virginia Postrel in her book “The substance of style”, (Harper Perennial, 2004) seems to share this view and argues that society must accept “that aesthetic pleasure is an autonomous good, not the highest or the best but one of the many plural, sometimes conflicting, and frequently unconnected to sources of value ” and must refrain from holding “those with aesthetic preferences in low regards”.

I am pleased that Jorunn Veiteberg finishes her chapter on beauty with an optimistic outlook: according to her, beauty has a future before it and will benefit from a new theoretical turn. She even gives a possible lead to fill the concept of beauty with new meaning: “beauty is about the rhetorical tools that craft utilises in order to arouse visual joy and desire, heal spiritual wounds and worn out bodies, and about the aspect that makes a piece irresistible”.

I am convinced that beauty is a theme worth exploring and that we, craft makers, should not be ashamed of mentioning and researching it. “Nor, in craft, has beauty ever been repressed and exiled, except from speech and theory” says Jorunn Veiteberg. Indeed, beauty seems to be at the core of craft practice, and so to a much greater extend than in other visual art practices. At the same time, it doesn’t seem to be able to stand on its own and needs to be associated with a more intellectual side: one can enjoy the “surface” but we should not forget to look at the “substance” … 

Enamel practices are particularly interesting in that debate as the technique naturally puts great emphasis on the surface and therefore needs a lot of energy to convince that not only the surface, the aspect and the beauty have to be admired, but the substance beneath it as well.

It is with those considerations in mind that I have approached some of the artists’ works shown in those two exhibitions and tried to understand how they cope with this challenging issue of beauty (or surface).

  •      It seemed that some of them have just accepted they are trying to make beautiful objects:

Ralph Bakker, Grande Florale, Necklace, gold,silver,enamel, 2010
Photo: Michael Anhalt

I want to seduce with my jewellery, my work is seduction; and when the seduction is achieved, the seduced can never be without the object of desire”  writes Ralph Bakker in the exhibition catalogue.
Having met the artist at the private view, he confirmed he was perfectly comfortable with the idea that he makes beautiful objects of desire: “you get what you see”, he told me.

Jacqueline Ryan, Pendant, 18ct gold, vitreous enamel, 1996
Photo: Jacqueline Ryan

I am fascinated by nature’s creativity… most of my pieces are preceded by studies derived from plant life and other small organisms” states Jacqueline Ryan. In her work, the artist abstracts nature and tries to recreate the impressions she has encountered observing infinite combinations offered by the natural world. “Visually stimulating and aesthetically exciting” seems to be at the core of her practice.

  •   Some of the artists seem to celebrate a revival in ornamentation, sometimes considered as “empty aesthetics”:

Vera Siemund, Neckpiece, Enamel on copper. Silver, 2009
Photo: Vera Siemund

Historic ornament has long been the focus of my interest […] And I love to show the beauty of decoration, stuff that is nowadays regarded as very ugly; for example wall lamps or velvet cushions, old fashioned designs as relict of a lost cosy, bourgeois interior” writes Vera Siedmund.
In her work, the artist tries to associate the qualities of ornamentation in old jewellery with a contemporary feeling like this necklace.

Marjorie Simon, Red Blossfeldt, Necklace, vitrous enamel on copper, sterling silver, 2011. Photo: Ken Yanoviak

I am enjoying the current resurgence of interest in ornament. I look to travel in Europe and the Middle East for inspiration, whether on William Morris wallpaper or the Topkapi Palace” states Marjorie Simon in the catalogue.
The artist draws her inspiration mainly from the plant world where she finds a constant source of inspiration in forms, colours and functions.

  •     Some works displayed seem to use the attractiveness of the surface and its beauty as a way of achieving an understanding of the shapes and volumes:

Christine Graf, No return, brooch, copper mesh, gold, silver, enamel, stainless steel, 2011. Photo: Christine Graf

Christine Graff explains: “The surface quality - subtle nuances and texture - emphasizes the fragility and ephemeral qualities of the work. It seems as if the metal body is reduced; covered by the enamel it loses its structural qualities and in turn takes on a new visual and metaphorical identity

Kaori Juzu, Not me but storyteller 2, brooch, enamel, copper, 14ct gold, silver 2010. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Kaori Juzu says: “By forging and repouss√© I feel the material and aim to transform that feeling into a form. By applying multiple layers of enamel I seek to enhance the expression not in order solely to create something different but to deepen form. […] Form and surface melt together”.

Jessica Turrell, Hollow form series, brooches, enamel on copper, oxidised siver, 2010. Photo: Jason Ingram

I seek to create evocative objects that might stir an emotional connection and thus give pleasure […] I strive to attain a tactile delicacy and a weightiness that positively encourages touch. It is important to me that the pieces I create should reward the wearer’s close attention with an intricate and detailed surface” writes Jessica Turrell.

  •     Some artists seem to consider that beauty should be difficult to grasp:

Kathleen Browne, Links, necklace, copper, 24ct gold, vitreous enamel, cotton, 2011. Photo: Kathleen Browne

Kathleen Brown explains that: “My current body of work is a response to a beautiful collection of 19th and early 20th century jewellery that was passing on one of the members of my family. […] These jewel images sit on the surfaces of organic “fleshy” forms I have created”…
By photographing the collection of rings and pasting it onto rough and unrefined forms, the artist seems to conceal its natural beauty into something harder to grasp.

Jamie Bennett, 10th matter of appearance, brooch, enamel, copper, silver, 2011. Photo: Jamie Bennett

How nature is mediated by ornamentation and aestheticized continues to hold my interest. Particularly in jewellery […] interpretations of beauty seem to be intractable. My own interest in this subject has evolved and what I seek to characterize as beauty has shifted from an integrated ornamental condition to a more incidental bodily appearance” says Jamie Bennett.

  •   Some artists exhibited seems to use enamel to distort, destroy or dirty the beauty of the material used. The alteration of preciousness and beauty is a way of attracting attention to the substance:

Adrean Bloomard, Amphora. Necklace, silver, copper, enamel, 2010. 
Photo: Adrean Bloomard

Adrean Bloomard’s work is inspired by archaeological finds. He says: “I apply enamel to the surface of metal so that it appears in encrustations and clots, to give a sense of an object that has been corroded by time

Patrizia Bonati, A3, ring, 18ct gold, enamel, 2003. 
Photo: Patrizia Bonati

In the catalogue, Patrizia Bonati explains: “ I introduce the white enamel to my pieces as a way to “dirty” the surface, although white is a symbol of purity”.

Stephen Bottomley, Matrici, brooch, silver, enamel, plastic, 2011.
Photo: Simone Nolden

Fascinated by oriental motifs and universal mathematical shapes and symmetries, I am intrigued how pattern alters once transferred to cloth. Lines soften and geometries stretch, not only from fabric’s movement and weave but also on the passage of time” writes Stephen Bottomley.
I was intrigued by this piece where the natural beauty of the patterns has been altered and corroded by the enamel.

Annamaria Zanella, Venere, necklace, silver, gold, enamel, magnets, 2007.
Photo: franco Storti

For Annamaria Zanella : “The most important aspect of the work remains the continued research on materials, the ability to create sculptural forms through oxidations causing physical holes, wounds, burns, colours, creating microsculptures in which neither the preciousness nor the beauty are the value, but the poetry and the underlying process”.

I will conclude this reflection on Surface and Substance with a work that summarises perfectly the complexity of this topic: the Soot ball series of Susie Ganch.

Susie Ganch, Soot ball series, brooches, diamond, silver, gold leaf, enamelled copper, stainless steel, 2011. Photo: Susie Ganch

Those brooches are made of enamelled copper worked in such a way that they take on the appearance of soot balls, some of them covered with gold leaf and some of them topped by a diamond. By coupling those two materials, she is making a comparison between the most prized substance (the diamond) and one of the cheapest one. One is shiny and desirable; the other is dull and unattractive. But both are made with the same material, carbon. Surface or substance? The same question applies to the brooches covered with gold leaves: they will wear away with time. “In the end the wearer will have to decide what is beautiful: what remains or what was taken away. Beneath the skin of gold is a simple ball of soot” writes Susie Ganch.

This is a perfect metaphor for this debate but as this work demonstrates, no one has to choose between surface and substance and the enamel works shown in those exhibitions represent a very interesting panorama on how craft practices deal with what Jorunn Veiteberg calls “the problem of beauty” in craft.

Friday, 15 July 2011


The Royal College of Art degree show is a rendez-vous I never miss. As specified in their  website : "Art, Architecture, Communications, Design, Fashion & Textiles and Humanities come together at Show Kensington in a remarkable gathering of design talent". What impressed me most this year was the students' creativity in material use. This post will therefore be focused on some of the most fascinating and clever objects discovered at this show.

Erik de Laurens has, during his two years at RCA, "extensively explored the realm of materials. Challenging what they are and asking what they could be. For instance, creating new materials from fish scales and human hair". 

Those tumblers are made of coloured fish scales.

Erik de Laurens. Photos Isabelle Busnel

Sarah Colson's artist statement says: "at the forefront of my practice is an investigation into manipulation of materials. I apply my ideas using a range of juxtaposing techniques. My current work explores the personal boundaries that we project to the outside world, and how public and private intimacy can be expressed through our clothing. Processes such as body art, adoration and armour communicate identities and create boundaries, which are used as tools to express different levels of privacy." 

This cape is made of white plastic nails.

Sarah Colson. Photos Isabelle Busnel

Fabien Caperan  states: "my work focuses around encouraging the subtle interrogation of behaviours. A recurrent theme is the idea of ‘slowness’, particularly regarding everyday rituals, which have become depreciated in modern society. It is about re-appreciating the moment [...].  
This project "explores the long-standing significance of bread, through an imagined narrative. More than this, bread, as the oldest edible constituent of our society, is the ideal vehicle to explore methods of production". 

This object is made of bread crumbs.

Fabien Caperan. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Shi Kai Tseng's PhotoGraphy project "is the creation of a process in which the environment, time and light react to each other and generate images on 3D objects. The objects are coated with a ‘light-sensitive’ layer, put in a black box with strategically placed holes, and exposed for five to 50 minutes, depending on the brightness of the environment. It is a new way to capture a moment in time; no matter whether the image on the object is focused or losing focus, the object will carry the trace of its first moments of experience, its first exposure". 

The two vases have been made using this process.

Shi Kai Tseng. Photos Isabelle Busnel

Markus Kayser's project is very original as well. He writes: "In a world increasingly concerned with questions of energy production and raw material shortages, this project explores the potentials of desert manufacturing, where energy and material occur in abundance. Sunlight and sand are used as raw energy and material to produce glass objects, using a 3D printing process that combines natural energy and material with high-tech production  technology. Solar Sintering aims to provide a point of departure for fresh thinking about the future of manufacturing, and to trigger dreams about the full utilisation of the production potential of the world’s most efficient energy resource — the sun"

The first two objects are obtained using solar energy to create sand in fusion, and the last picture represents the machine he used to achieve this process. You can find an interesting video about his Solar Sintering project on Markus Kayser website.

Markus Kayser. Photos Isabelle Busnel

Alkesh Pamar's  statement explains: "in addition to presenting light as a form of de-materialised matter, I am engaged in thinking about processes of re-materialisation; materials being transformed from one sphere to another, specifically materials that are normally destined to become waste products".

Those objects are made of orange peel powder.

Alkesh Pamar. Photos Isabelle Busnel 

Nevertheless, David Roux Fouillet's "Riviere de Diamants" remains my favourite project. It tackles a challenging question : "Could a delicate moment of beauty last forever?"
His diamond-shaped steel necklace rests on a rotating device, and is plunged into soapy water. Every time one of the shapes emerges from the liquid, a bubble has formed over its structure, creating an ephemeral surface, which imitates a real diamond until the bubble bursts. A clever, fascinating and thought provoking way of questioning the value of beauty and preciousness. 

David Roux Fouilet. Photos Isabelle Busnel

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


"To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified". 
Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

Photos from Isabelle Busnel