I am buzzing with thought.

I am starting to develop the conceptual framework for my honours thesis. The thesis consists of a body of work, plus an exegesis (studio report). I have been reflecting on my previous body of work, seeking a tangible link between the conceptual and aesthetic aspects.

In the series Precious Things, I was exploring the concept of preciousness through material and form. The symbol of the gemstone (in this case, in faceted, crystalline forms) was satirised, being made weightless, becoming essentially empty. In the series Picnic Gems, the symbol of the gemstone was used to exalt banal materials (in this case, plastic crockery) to the state of precious object.

Picnic Gems are created by layering old plastic crockery between layers of resin, such that the profiles of the plates and bowls and cups become like geological striations. I like the idea that this becomes a metaphor for the life cycle of objects (broadly speaking): materials are extracted from the earth, used  by humans, only to be discarded back to the earth via landfill.

I’m not by any means saying this process is ethical or beautiful – on the contrary, by treating these discarded objects as precious material, I am attempting to comment on the way in which we assign value to materials and objects, and the point at which that value becomes defunct (ie, when it is discarded)

This led me to consider the reasons why we assign value (I mean ‘worth’, monetary value) to certain materials. Before introducing the massive complications of economics and social politics, I think there are three prominent factors at work:

  1. Rarity — consider gold. Supposedly, there have been a mere 8,333 cubic metres of gold mined in human history, equating to the volume of a cube with sides just over 20m. (I wont mention the figures on the amount of earth rendered dead in mining that.) It is also estimated that there is less than half of that amount remaining in the earth.
  2. Functionality — Again, gold is a prime example of this. Gold is an amazing metal to work with. Disregarding its aesthetic qualities, gold is the most malleable, ductile, alloyable metal. The ductility of gold means makes it ideal for the electronics industry. In goldsmith terms, gold is the ideal material. It is so malleable that one gram can be beaten to cover a square metre. (in number terms, gold has a density of 19.3g/cubic cm, compared with water at 1g/cubic cm – so 1g of gold has a volume around 1/20th of c cubic cm. Tiny!) Gold can be beaten so thin that it becomes translucent. It will strongly reflect red and yellow light, making it highly effective filter of infrared light waves. I probably don’t need to elaborate more.
  3. Aesthetics — I don’t know whether this would come under a socially-driven value, but I’m going to say that there are some fairly universal perceptions when it comes to the aesthetic value of a material. Having said that, there are some amazing variations in what different cultures value and what is highly prized. Sadly,  I think these differences are becoming more scarce – the instantaneously-propagating phenomenon of western media (referring particularly to the internet and the *ahem* art/culture/fashion blogging trend of late), in my opinion, has lead to a kind of homogenization in aesthetics. (I’m not saying this is a bad thing, nor is it an absolute thing – the web 2.0 phenomenon has also enabled access to information and ideas which may have been previously all but lost – but this is an argument for another day…).

Wheww… So my theory is that these factors combined – each aspect coalescing with each other – help to define the value of a material.

I hesitate to define a fourth category to this — that of symbolism. A material develops a symbolic value over time, which is influenced by (and subsequently influences) its value, as derived by the three point above. Think of the gold, silver and bronze medals of the Olympics. Think of diamonds as the symbol of marriage or ‘eternity’. To push this point even further, consider the trend of remodelling old jewellery into new pieces, or even having the ashes of a loved one turned into a diamond.

It is here that my interest lies – the complex ways in which we comprehend and attribute symbolism to objects and materials.

In the course of preparing this post, I had been reading some work of Jean Baudrillard, French philosopher and cultural theorist. Turns out, he had a similar approach to “object-value” theory. More on that next post, but you can check out the wiki page for a brief overview. Presently, I am reading bits of his 1981 book “For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign”.

And yes, that is a made-up word.