the precious, the miniature, the mundane

I’m following the train of a thought here, and very much bouncing off the ideas of Felix — who has just written a superb post about the joy of the tiny, one-inch, button badge. The tale of her numinous birds — separated from their childhood context, immortalised on a badge, then re-united with their original source — really gets to the heart of the allure of the badge-object, and has made sense of why I find badges so appealing. Its got me thinking generally about the miniature, and the metonymic.

If you are wondering what on earth I mean, you will find both in the work of Edinburgh Jewellery artist, Grainne Morton.

(image courtesy of the artist)

Morton works with found objects — tiny pieces of old lawn and lace, details, buttons, scraps of things — and, through a precise and very beautiful use of settings, combines all this wee stuff into small, numinous objects. In the brooch above, for example, the floral setting joins the unconnected scraps it contains, lending them the cohesion of a single, lovely thing. But what is so interesting about Morton’s work, to me, is less the formal unity of objects like this one, but rather the way that, in other of her pieces, the tiny fragments of stuff suggest themselves as figures or metonyms: they seem to be the last remaining parts of an absent whole. For example, the wee details in the piece below seem to be bits of a half-remembered story; what remains of a buried memory; the relics of a lost narrative that can’t ever be told again:

(courtesy of the artist)

The setting does so much work here. It acts like a spider-diagram of memory — drawing threads and connections between the different fragments — but it also lends each fragment the luminous quality of a piece of stained glass. Through the setting, the piece becomes a window, shining out of a pale-blue past which will never be regained. Proustian jewellery!

Miniature, wearable objects have long carried this kind of metonymic function (that is, as parts of an absent whole). In the Eighteenth Century, wearing a miniature portrait of one’s beloved made a presence of their absence as the tiny representation of the person stood in for the person themselves. When combined in lockets, friendship boxes or mourning bracelets, the miniature took on an even greater commemorative potency, as actual parts of the lost person (such as hair) might be preserved alongside their image. Wearing the fragments of one’s sentimental attachments about one’s very person reached a sort of peak in the eye miniatures popular at the end of the century:

(© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

These miniatures were often produced following bereavement, and there is so much more to say about them than I can here*. What really interests me, though, is the way that this particularly powerful part of a person suggests (in a very distinctive way) the lost memory of the whole person: a memory which, like those called up by Grainne Morton’s brooches, will never be fully regained. For it is not just the past, or memory, or the dear thoughts of your beloved that you see in the eye. It is loss itself, looking right back at you.

Grainne Morton’s pieces do not (of course) suggest The Void, but I think theres an obvious comparison to be made between the use of settings in her work and that of this eye miniature. Surrounded by jewels, and jewel-like itself, the eye is made precious by its setting. It is made into a separate thing — a fragment separated from its whole — a tiny detail that, because it is broken from its context, can now be looked at, scrutinised, properly treasured.

It is Grainne Morton’s use of settings that makes her brooch of pale-blue fragments seem so precious and evocative. And this brings me back to Felix’s button badge, and to badges generally. Setting any detail or fragment into a tiny wearable badge-thing has an effect that is just powerful as that of the portrait miniature. It makes the scraps precious, as well as calling up the wonder and absence of a lost, proustian whole (See Felix’s post again!). And what’s so great about badges (unlike eighteenth-century miniatures) is that they are cheap, portable objects that everyone can wear. As such, they highlight how the ordinary is also immensely precious, intensely numinous. This is what’s so fantastic about the work of the Mundane Appreciation Society. By setting incidental stuff in an object that is tiny and lovely — but also democratic and accessible — their badges make jewels out of the everyday.

*See Hanneke Grootenboer, “Treasuring the Gaze: Eye-Miniature Portraits and the Intimacy of Vision” Art Bulletin (Sept, 2006). See also Marcia Pointon, “Surrounded With Brilliants: Miniature Portraits in Eighteenth Century England” Art Bulletin (March, 2001). The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an incredible — and quite spooky — collection of late eighteenth-century eye-miniatures.