Inner Traces is an elemental dance of metal and flesh. It was performed by Michaela Pegum using only her two hands adorned by three gold rings. She explains how this work came about and what she learnt from it.
✿ Can you describe your career in dance?
I started dancing at ten years of age and never stopped really. I went to many classes every week after school and on the weekends throughout my childhood and high school years in Sydney, but when it came to the idea of tertiary full-time study, it didn’t feel right. Perhaps dancing and institutional learning didn’t seem to gel for me.
So I began studies in design at university and kept working on dance projects at the same time. By the time I graduated design school I was thirsting to dance as much as I possibly could. I felt Melbourne would be the right place for me with its more diverse and better supported independent contemporary dance culture. So after getting a role dancing with the Australian Opera, I followed the production to Melbourne with nothing but a red suitcase and began a new life.
I was fortunate to meet some very interesting independent choreographers who might be better described as dance researchers. They worked in experimental, immersive ways exploring the dancing body and this suited me. I enjoyed being deeply engaged and working on longer-term projects exploring our potential for physical expression and how this could speak about the nuances of human experience in honest and unconventional ways.
At the heart of these practices lay challenging, rigorous improvisational techniques which were a way to unlock old patterns and discover new corporeal territory. Working in this way is not just about “the body” as separate from your mind or your brain. It means all of you, including your history and your future. It becomes part of a living, embodied adventure. This is what dancing was like for me, a constant unfolding and re-making of oneself and one’s experience of the world through movement. An offering for you and those watching you, of new senses of possibility.
I kept developing my own practice along the way as I danced for other independent choreographers. I spent many hours in the studio alone each week, and I loved this rich, quiet space of listening, sensation, crafting and breath. I made a lot of solo work, dance films in landscape, collaborated with other choreographers and sound artists and film-makers, and travelled to Europe to attend the festivals and take part in residencies. And I met wonderful people, many of whom are still my closest friends.
Solo works I created include Limina for the Dance Massive festival in Melbourne, Triplet in John Cage’s Musicirus for the Melbourne International Arts Festival and Some Thread of Night for Pieces for Small Spaces at Lucy Guerin Inc. More recently I created a solo work in response to Louise Weaver’s installation for her monographic exhibition Between appearances: the art of Louise Weaver, at Buxton Contemporary. This culminated in a dance film as part of the work Dream Diviner, as well as a live performance within the installation itself.
Performing in the work of other choreographers, I danced in Jude Walton’s Lehte II, performed inside the Heide II building at Heide Museum of Modern Art, and Paea Leach’s The Lines of Birds for Chunky Move, performed outdoors in the sandy underpass beneath the Chunky Move Studios in the middle of a chilly Melbourne winter.
One of my favourite dance film experiences was co-creating Strand with dancer/choreographer Siobhan Murphy and video artist Dominic Redfern, camping and filming on the windy, luminous salt flats of Lake Tyrrell. Site-specific and landscape-based dance works were always of particular interest to me.
✿ Did you start making jewellery after becoming a dancer? How did the two interests relate?
As a dancer, your work is ephemeral. Your experience of your work lies in your temporal sensations and the lasting impressions that are etched in you through the gravity of performance. This is where the power of dance lies and what makes it so unique an art form.
In 2012 in Melbourne, in the freshness of the new year, a deep need surfaced in me to create things that existed beyond the physical parameters of my own body. I wanted to relate to my work, to encounter it beyond being it. I didn’t know why necessarily, perhaps I needed this in order to mature in some way.
I started a Fine Arts degree in Melbourne in 2013, but it was not exclusively jewellery that I was heading toward. It was rather an intimate relationship with material, and definitely in three dimensions. I felt that the gold and silversmithing department at RMIT was the right place to go. I was always interested in both free-standing sculptural work as well as pieces for the body. There is a difference in the relationships one has with both and perhaps jewellery lies between the space of dance and the space of sculpture for me. Like dance, it is of your body. It is a personal expression but you can’t necessarily see it. It can be performative. It is for you, but also for others.
I think growing up dancing and particularly my later, improvisational practice, has contributed to the way I approach materials and making. It consolidated the importance of felt experience in my interpretation of the world. The Inner Traces project, as seen in the video, uses the process of lost wax casting as a reading of the surface of the human body.
In my current PhD research practice, however, where I look at our relationship with landscape and atmosphere, I generate my own hybrid substances. This is part of an endeavour to express the qualities and tones experienced internally by the sensing body.
I work in improvisational ways with materials to explore their possibilities and create sensory languages with them. I developed the technique of growing dense copper slowly into diaphanous organza textile through electroforming. This material’s development took a long time and much experimentation. It was very challenging but I relished this. It was made to express a transformation between states, experienced both environmentally and internally, in particular, the effect of night falling and feeling the visible world becoming enmeshed with darkness.
I begin a process for new work with a sense of something felt that becomes articulated in words along the way. But for some of my pieces, I don’t believe that words could ever wrap all the way around them, and I wouldn’t want them to. They have their own physical language that I hope speaks to our direct experience of the world and the nature of meaning that is generated here. This is where the connection with dance lies also. It trusts the intelligence of the sensing body/mind and its great capacity as a receiver and reservoir of knowledge that is not always accessible by the conscious mind.
In my material practice, I am still listening, the same way I listen in the dance studio, or in the environment. But the listening happens between body and material, in the formation of something new, which is transcending both.
✿ What role do the rings make in your video of the hands? What would it be like to make the video without rings?
These rings are detailed pressings of the heartlines in my family’s hands, cast in gold. The pressings incorporate the heartlines of two or more family members linked together so it is not clear where one stops and the next begins. They are an expression of the shared space of love and the networking of lives and histories.
My family lives up north, in a different part of Australia, and in wearing the rings they come into my company in some way—in a psychic and emotional sense but also in a more grounded physical sense as I gaze upon the impressions of the skin texture.
In dancing with the rings, a dance of the nuances of relationship, the intention and sensibility of the movement was heightened by this feeling of company, of being more than one. Through moving with the rings, I became aware of their tactile powers. Their cool glossy interiors slid subtly along the fingers, eliciting a sensitised consciousness of the skin, this interface that both contains us and connects us with the world around us through touch.
I shot the video without the rings initially as my aim was to express the relational nature of the works through a different medium and I thought that the rings had the potential to distract from that if they were perceived as “jewels” from a distance on the screen. Although rings can be considered adornment I wanted these rings to be “quiet”, to speak quietly about the lives and relationships of the bodies on which they are worn, and in repeating the texture of the hand they are worn on, I hoped they would embody a nakedness and an honesty. But would this come across on screen?
When I remade the video with the rings though, I was happy with how they accentuated the tactility of the skin and personified the hands and the movement. I recognised a woman wearing her rings and I began to think about her life, about the significance of these rings and why they might be important to her. Without the rings, the hands become abstracted over time. This is no better or worse, but for the purposes of the video speaking to this very personal jewellery series, the rings brought a subjectivity, a personal quality to the video and the movement.
✿ Did you make the rings?
Yes, I made the moulds and waxes and had the rings cast with a company that uses 100% refined, recycled precious metals.
✿ What generally is the personal role of jewellery like rings on the body?
I think wearing jewellery is about grounding something that is of great value to you, that is originally ephemeral in its essence. Whether that is love, a historical family narrative, a memory, an ethic, an idea, or a certain feeling or state of being. Jewellery is a way to ground that something by channelling it into material and bringing it into your presence, allowing you to hold it there, wear it close, and keep it a part of you. As an art form, jewellery, like costume, has increased transformational power on a personal level as it becomes part of your body, and the reach of this identification with the qualities of the object might be more than we consciously realise.
I actually wear less jewellery now than I used to since studying and thinking about it over the years as I have, but when I do wear it I feel its gravity much more keenly. I enjoy the collision of immanence and transcendence within the jewellery object as both a portal to a particular state of being or memory and an immediate phenomenological encounter with a resonant artistic entity that draws you into the present moment.
But essentially I experience jewellery as “company” and am fascinated by what is happening within this encounter, the animistic dynamics and the affective ability of this unique material form to change the way I feel and to hold me with it.
Inner Traces is a bespoke collection available at Pieces of Eight gallery. Michaela casts the heartlines in yours and your loved one’s hands and interlaces them to create a piece of jewellery. More information on the collection can be found here. Enquiries can be made at email@example.com.
About Michaela Pegum
Originally from New South Wales and now based in Melbourne, Michaela is an artist working across the realms of sculpture and contemporary jewellery. She also has a history and practice in contemporary dance that informs her material processes. Her work is an exploration of felt experience, garnered through the deeply embodied and poetic relationships we form with the natural world. Working in explorative ways to develop material languages that are nuanced and sensory, Michaela explores the qualities, tones and temporalities that constitute the fabric of relations between the sensing being and their environment, and the broader ethical implications of our personal encounters with land, life and atmosphere. Michaela is a current PhD candidate at RMIT and is presenting her completion exhibition in Melbourne late in 2022. She is also a finalist in the Victorian Craft Awards to be held in April this year at Craft. Follow @michaela_pegum
Like the article? Make it a conversation by leaving a comment below. If you believe in supporting a platform for culture-makers, consider becoming a subscriber.