How Dan Bell uses your body for his installations

Published in the Australian Financial Review's Luxury magazine supplement, 21/11/14


According to tradition, Dan Bell should be celebrating his fourth anniversary of jewellery-making with fruit or flowers. Instead, he’s spending more and more time with plastics.

“I’ve been using a lot of aluminium,” he says from his Northcote studio, “and have been trying to integrate that with rubber, or plastic or silicone, and the degree of flexibility that this entails.”

Rubber, plasticine and rope in vibrant neon shades line the walls of his workspace, with pieces in the middle of coming together pinned up carelessly or lying around in fragments.

At first glance, Bell’s playful juxtapositions of materials, based on traditions of the ready-made and often seemingly in the middle of transforming into something else, appear distant from common notions of “fine” jewellery.

However, the Melbourne-based jeweller and sculptor has an assured touch that positions each piece on the precipice between fine art and junk, imbuing his jewellery with qualities that challenge traditional notions of value.

A graduate of the ANU School of Art, the sculptor has a fascination with the relationship between jewellery and time. The jewellery industry is built in part on the idea of milestones – birthdays, engagements, anniversaries – that merit rubies, diamonds or emeralds. No matter how beautiful the jewel, it will always symbolise a fixed moment in time.

For Bell, whose sculptural practice is installation-based, this relationship between time and jewellery can be a complex one.

For example, an installation as part of the Utopian Slumps gallery’s show, Impossible Objects I, in 2011, featured 365 necklaces, brooches, earrings and rings, one for every day of the year. “The idea was to wear them throughout the year, almost single-use only, and clock its use and dispersal,” he says.

Complicating this simple arrangement was the fact that each individual piece was available for purchase. Investors could buy the entire work, either to wear in a calendar arrangement as Bell intended or for display as an entity,– but only if art patrons didn’t buy a ring or necklace from the work first.

Needless to say, they did.

What Bell had originally intended as a straightforward navigation of a single year became more complex, as the new owners of his gems could wear their work outside of its assigned “day”, in collaboration with other jewellery, for as long or as little as they liked.

“It’s almost an installation practice on the body, especially if there’s a layering of multiple works,” he says.

The participating body is not just a canvas for his jewels, but a key part in their framing as precious objects.

His jewels are “precious” not because they are rare or expensive, but because they are fragile, deliberately impermanent and rooted in a relationship between the artist and their owner. Following from the show, Bell’s jewellery became a common sight among artists, art critics and curators in the know.

“I’ve heard of people recognising each other wearing my work, and being able to have a conversation without me being present, which I think is beautiful,” he says.

However, buying a Dan Bell original can be idiosyncratic. Though he has exhibited at jewellery gallery/shop Pieces of Eight and has shown in galleries, he has no regular stockists. Instead, Bell encourages interested parties to come to his studio for a visit, either to discuss commissioned work or to browse his psychedelic magpie’s nest for pieces that appeal. Often he encourages buyers to bring a special object they might like incorporated into a piece, giving it an extra layer of history.

Though he is open to a straightforward sale, Bell prefers to make his jewellery for friends and acquaintances, often trading pieces for other artworks or the specialist tools required to make the jewellery itself.

Bell’s transient, delicate installations were already gathering acclaim when he decided to develop jewellery as a parallel practice, exploring ideas he felt high art sculpture couldn’t quite express.

“Jewellery has a methodology of making the work more conversational,” he says. “You can wear it on your person, it’s more contextual, it’s vaguely performative. It has a way of bringing the material concerns of the studio out into the world.”

Although the first jewellery pieces he made were deliberately unstable, poised to fall apart at any moment, in the past few years he’s developed a respect for the idea of permanence – even if he’s not ready to embrace it completely.

“There’s still an openness to entropy,” he says, “but it’s become more finely crafted. A lot of the pieces haven’t existed [that long] because they weren’t as robust; in some ways, I’ve learnt to make work that will possibly have a longer life span, while still reflecting a temporary nature. I’m interested to see how they will wear over time.”