Upon entering Helen Britton’s latest exhibition, Interstices, at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia, the viewer is drawn down the left-hand side of the vast open gallery space. An opening grouping of early drawings, along with showcases featuring journals and a small selection of early jewellery pieces, set the scene for the 25-year survey of the artist’s practice. We are led down a darkened corridor of beautifully lit intimate works, ranging from small-scale sculptural forms, which on closer inspection are in fact handmade books, to a display of engraved shells. The shells, collected during the artist’s annual camping pilgrimage from her base in Munich to the remote Western Australian coastline, reveal a void as the representation of both homesickness and the remoteness of the north-west coast.
The dark, narrow exhibition space as entry point is like a time tunnel highlighting elements from the artist’s vast archive, leading us towards the light of Britton’s more recent bodies of work within the open gallery space. The inclusion of blown-up images of the artist’s studio in Perth further evoke a feeling of nostalgia. These photographs transport us back in time, revealing drawings pinned to the wall in stark contrast to their current presentation as framed works of art within a gallery context. Subtle clues, such as a wall calendar, help situate her archival work within a specific time and place. Director of the UWA Museums, Professor Ted Snell, travelled to Munich during the European summer of 2016 to select highlights from the artist’s expansive archive, ranging from the mid-1980s to the present.
Britton works across a variety of mediums. In the three discreet bodies of more recent work on exhibition here, Britton sets up parameters for the investigations that have preoccupied her for years. Most notably, as a visual artist working with jewellery, she likes to play with scale, contrasting large series of drawings with jewellery pieces that are small, detailed and intricate.
DEKORATONSWUT is a made-up word, a mixture of German and English, that translates as “decorative aggression”. This grouping of heavily constructed jewellery pieces, displayed in low-lying cabinets, are juxtaposed with monumental drawings of trinkets as details blown up to prodigious scale. When worn these individual jewellery pieces as objects take on a new life and meaning. But here, in the context of this installation, it is hard to imagine the individual elements separated from their display. There is a clear and distinct relationship between the three-dimensional objects, made of sourced components of varying history and origin, and the two-dimensional drawings.
A further body of work investigating the industrial landscape is presented in the opposing corner of the room. This installation of paper objects crowned with jewellery, is complemented by a group of large wall-based drawings. Here the jewellery has been visually and physically integrated within the 3D paper forms, as drawings folded and constructed to form a holistic and autonomous work. The harsh, geometric lines of machinery and the industrial sensibility directly reflect the Britton’s experience of growing up in Australia. The architecture and landscape setting are inspired by her childhood memories of industrial Newcastle and more recent experiences living in Germany, the subconscious memory of place evoked.
One of the most interesting features of the Lawrence Wilson exhibition is the inclusion of the artist’s shell collections, titled INTERSTICES, not previously exhibited. Displayed flat on an elongated wooden table-like structure are various shell necklaces, revealing this practice of the artist, her symbolic and personal pieces. During her childhood, like many growing up on Australian beaches, Britton began collecting shells and making necklaces. However, her habit of collecting gastropods continued and evolved. As stated in the catalogue, these shells continue to serve an important function, now stored in her desk draw in Munich, particularly during the cold depths of winter when they are pulled out for examination and meditation. Their forms, colours and textures serve as a memory trigger, evoking the sun and the sea of a distant home, the place to which she continues to return, to re-evaluate and recharge. The artist has collected the shells carefully over many years always from the same places, waiting until enough have been gathered to make a piece. Some collections have taken ten to fifteen years to put together. Her shell works are objects, not jewellery, never made with the intent that they may be worn.
Here, the use of natural materials dissects the central diagonal of the gallery space, strongly contrasting with the mechanical and industrial materials on either side. One of the most captivating pieces for its apparent fragility and delicacy is a necklace created out of the bones of the last whiting caught by the artist at Golden Bay near Mandurah, Western Australia. She then covered these bones with red earth, indicating their place of origin, before leaving for Europe in 1999. This practice of shell necklace making continued on each trip returning home to Western Australia, as well as during her intervening time spent in Europe. The choice to display this collection on natural material, and the warmth of the raw wooden surface is surely not a coincidence, reflective of the mediums’ transience and fate, to eventually dissolve into the earth. These necklaces serve to evoke a sense of ritualised activity, associated with memories of place and personal experience.
In contrast to this celebration of natural materials and processes, crossing over to the right-hand gallery space, you enter a world of darkness, fear and pop culture and the fabulous intrusion of a Ghost Train! Here, every fifteen minutes, a train in the shape of an eel rambles around the head-high tracks. This extraordinary work is both fabulous and perverse. The bold idea of building an adult-size toy train, which was shipped in pieces and reassembled in Perth, speaks of the ambition of the artist and the exhibition. Walk inside the structure for an immersive experience and feel a sense of nostalgia. We are reminded of that nervous feeling you get in the pit of your stomach, building in intensity upon approaching the peak of a climb and the rush of adrenaline after speeding down the decent. Britton’s preoccupation with the Ghost Train is a combination of fear and fascination, the allure of the unknown and ultimately unknowable. Here, the idea of wearable or experiential art takes on a whole new dimension, as a metaphor for the analogy of life’s ups and downs, embracing the risk and excitement of life as a roller-coaster ride.
In a further take on the agricultural show, she exports this sense of fear, frenzy and fun as a mock-up installation. This further installation of works occupies the entire adjacent wall space with pinned stencils and spray painted imagery on paper, creating the scene. Britton’s fascination with the annual Show, the side show alley, fun rides and show bags, experienced growing up in Australia, serves as the starting point for her exploration of this other world of seediness, transience, cheap trinkets, excitement and terror. These images are reflected in a further body of work, recreated as jewellery. Most notable of these is the Lucky Dick Brooch, remade as part of Britton’s FEELING LUCKY series of good luck charms in 2016. While the stencil version referred to earlier was created using gold leaf, this 18-carat-gold dick charm was created specifically for Hillary Clinton. This comment on the current political climate and backlash against women is summed up by the artist’s words: “If she had a dick, she might have won!” These symbols of good luck take the form of trinkets, of private icons associated with memories of the artist. They are also symbols representing deep sentiment which have been imbued with meaning through history as lucky charms.
Like the slow train of a life’s work, we come to the final room of the exhibition full of white and bright light, where mounted cases containing broaches run the length of the three walls. The selection of work here spans fifteen years and offers a cross section of Helen Britton’s jewellery practice showcasing the breadth and range of techniques employed and her innovative designs over the decades. Elegantly displayed on floating shelving on a continuous mirror, the hidden undersides and intricacies of her ornate creations are effectively presented.
The impact of Britton’s move to Munich in 1999, originally to study at the Academy of Fine Art post-graduate study project under professor Otto Künzli, and the influence of and contrast with her experiences in Western Australia, are central to her practice. In 2002 she established her own studio in Munich, a place for exploration, examination and contemplation through materials and making. Her practice reveals a fascination with the history of components, offering them the opportunity to exist in a new form, and of observing and processing the environment and world around her. A constantly evolving unpacking, collecting and collating of ideas, her creative practice provides an outlet for exploration of her preoccupations, an unravelling and investigating of nuances and an evaluation of experiences.
Her relationship to Australia is also integral, both through distant memories and regular visits to recharge and connect with the natural world. Interstices, the space between, surmises the creative space between these two places — Britton’s studio and home in Munich, and her deep emotional and physical ties to the Western Australian environment.