Gilty: Consuming contemporary jewellery

Claire McArdle

1 March 2023

In her audacious exhibition, Claire McArdle invites the audience to consume and destroy her precious jewellery.

I had just turned twenty-five when I presented the work Gilty (2013). My birthday that year was filled with frantic making as I often spend far too long thinking about the work and don’t leave quite enough time to actually make the work. I had a vast concrete gallery in the middle of Melbourne to fill and only seven small neckpieces to fill it. But I also had something else, something that I hoped would take up any extra space…I had a secret.

Each neckpiece consisted of a handwoven 18ct yellow gold chain with a wire spring clasp. They were woven using a card with slits in the sides to hold each fine wire, in the way some cords are braided. After I had finished weaving each chain, I drew them through a hole I had drilled in a piece of driftwood, to make sure each of their widths was uniform. Onto each of these were threaded beads which I had moulded, cast and covered with 24ct gold leaf. The shapes of the beads were simple, patterned with lines and dots. In order to get into every tiny crevice, I used many sheets of gold leaf, applying it with a soft brush. If it got anywhere near my fingers it would grab onto their oil-bearing surfaces and the more I tried to disentangle it the more it would twist and further adhere to my skin. After a few disastrous sheets where I ended up more gilt than the beads, I took to wearing cotton gloves.

Claire McArdle, Gilty, 2013, installation view, photo: artist.

I hung each neckpiece in the centre of a large black circle. I wanted to create a sense of gravitas, an individual location for each to be displayed and contemplated. Spaced throughout the gallery they filled the void, along with a huge cardboard cut-out of the name of the exhibition, also gold leafed (though this time with imitation gold leaf). To further feature the works in the space, I left the gallery dark with only spotlights illuminating each piece and the title of the show. After weeks of making and hours of installing, the time came to welcome people to the exhibition. It was autumn and the sun was setting as people began to arrive at the opening.

I waited nervously as people came through the glass doors and into the exhibition. Next to the entrance, there was a small one-page catalogue describing the work, in which Zoe Brand had written a text for me about gold, value and appearances. About an hour into the exhibition, Mark Edgoose addressed some opening remarks to the crowd. At the end of his speech, he proceeded to snap off a piece of the work and eat it. The secret was out. All of the gilt beads were made of chocolate and the audience was invited to consume the work.

What had been a serious gallery atmosphere transformed into a joyous event with people laughing and chatting with strangers as they observed and partook in the consumption of the gilt beads. Looking back, I’m not sure this work could happen now with Covid-19 and our raised awareness of each other’s space and potential for infection. But a decade ago, I looked around the gallery with delight as people bit into my work.

A second one-page catalogue with a further text from Zoe Brand was presented and attached to the first with a rubber band, so that the before and after of the reveal were recorded together. A tagline was also added to the title, making it, ‘Gilty, an exhibition experienced twice’.

As I walked around the exhibition I asked if anyone had suspected the deception and the consensus was that it had been a surprise. Before the exhibition, I was nervous as the spotlights on the chocolate had caused the smell of chocolate to become quite apparent to me. But it seemed this had not given the game away. Luckily, I had also tempered the chocolate, so it lasted under the heat of the lights without melting down the boards.

I had to make sure the beads were safe to eat for the audience, so I sourced a food-grade mould-making compound to form the chocolate beads. I washed the chains to remove any contamination from the making process and ensured the 24ct gold leaf was also edible.

When the opening was over, there were no beads left. They spread throughout Melbourne in the stomachs of the audience who came to the opening. The chocolate would give them energy, but the gold would pass through unaffected. The gold chains hung contorted, shaped by the removal of their beads. They would stay this way for the next week as the exhibition continued, with photos of their previous form next to each work. For me, the chains were memory keepers, both of their previous form and the experience which stripped them of it. No longer gilty, just gold.

About Claire McArdle

I am a jewellery and object maker working in Ballarat and Melbourne on the unceded lands of the Wadawurrung, Wurundjeri and Bunurong people. I am currently completing my PhD at RMIT University in Melbourne with a focus on tool use and performative making.


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