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Subverting Social Messages

By Guan Tan

Hoods, 2016
Lauren Kalman
Hoods, 2016

It was two in the afternoon in Detroit, but three in the morning here. The air was still, the night deafening. I stepped out, the insomniacs loitering around. Cigarettes crackled. She speaks on, but my languid brain was scrambling to catch up. I should have known – she is the rarity of artists whose intellect metes equal measure to her work.

Detroit-based Professor Lauren Kalman is a visual artist. She marries gold with jewellery-making to oppose what society dictates about the human body.

“A number of years ago I was influenced by Baudelaire’s essay, In Praise of Cosmetics. He said to [exist] in society is to separate oneself from the natural, and wear cosmetics. In that it’s to elevate, to separate oneself from animals. And objects are used to symbolise to society that you are trying to be civilised:”

“Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural; she has to astonish and charm us; as an idol, she is obliged to adorn herself in order to be adored. Thus she has to lay all the arts under contribution for the means of lifting herself above Nature, the better to conquer hearts and rivet attention….anyone can see that the use of rice-powder, so stupidly anathematised by our Arcadian philosophers, is successfully designed to rid the complexion of those blemishes that Nature has outrageously strewn there, and thus to create an abstract unity in the colour and texture of the skin, a unity, which like that produced by the tights of a dancer, immediately approximates the human being to the statue, that is to something superior and divine.”

– Charles Baudelaire, In Praise of Cosmetics in The Painter of Modern Life (1863)

Courtesy of Lauren Kalman

Kalman was saying there exists an obvious mind-body separation in society – everything around us is either constructed by a human’s opinion, or the actuality we were born into.

In that sense, society is bogus and man-made, it doesn’t actually materialise in our surroundings. Society is but a set of rules that exists in our heads. What is real and natural, is the body we were bestowed in life.

Likewise, “gold is not inherently precious, its value is man-made.”

The 36 year-old’s work pivots primarily around gold – a metal that has been impregnated by humans who came before us. With meanings – power, wealth, kings, and purity.

Like gold, the human body is a vessel that has been plastered with meanings by society – the male body a site of worship, the female body abominable, the transgender and handicapped, frankensteins. Bodies are sites of political struggle.

“It’s prevalent in the United States right now – bodies are assigned power based on what they are, their ethnicity. Bodies are politicised sites. I think of my works as the resurrection of body into something powerful, and valid.”

In 2014 Kalman conceived Hoods – an assertive 12-piece collection of head jewellery. “They are viewed as jewellery, and are wearable objects. It exists in similar territories. I was readily thinking of how faces are really powerful sites of sight, and voice – which implies agencies, and power. Mouths are a charged site of the body – a site and point where the external and internal meet, where diseases come in and out. Masks as an object allows you to be anonymous – it controls and renounces power.”

Courtesy of Lauren Kalman

A powerful material renouncing power – that is the dexterity of gold, and the authority of Kalman’s subversive jewellery.

She took three months to produce the pearl hood that you heedlessly glimpse over – hand-beading 11,000 pearls and Swarovski crystals, amounting to thousands of dollars. It’s by far the most laborious piece Kalman’s ever assembled. In contrary, a gold hood took half a day’s of work – validating how a metal could be so articulate.

Owing to the growing scale she works at, apart from her first collection, Kalman no longer builds a fully 24-carat gold piece. She taps into a gold plating process – electroforming over a copper base.

“I build a model of what I want in wax. That wax is then painted with conductive paint – a paint that can transmit an electric charge. That object is submerged in a bath of acid along with a plate of copper. A positive electric current is attached to the copper, and the negative electric current is connected to the painted wax. When the current is turned on, slowly over many hours, a thin deposit of copper builds up over the wax. When it is thick enough, it is removed and the wax is melted out, leaving a copper shell.”

The copper deposit process takes between eight to 24 hours. After which, the copper husk is plated in 24-carat gold by a similar plating process.

Courtesy of Lauren Kalman

24-carat gold is deemed pure gold by industry standards. It weighs 99.95% or even a 100% gold mass, making the metal soft and pliable. But it melts at approximately 1000 degrees Celsius, making manipulating gold an intensely demanding process.

“I enjoy working. It is a well of concentration, preciseness, patience, and permanence.”

In spite of an crammed storage jam-packed with gold jewellery and artworks, the professor has never worn nor owned gold in her personal drawers. She regarded the moment, cutting a second of silence, “It was only until my mum passed on that I inherited [her gold]. That only made gold more precious to me.”

A comprehensive archive of Professor Lauren Kalman's body of work is available at http://laurenkalman.com/.

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