Volume 37 No. 5
KIFF SLEMMONS. COLLABORATION IN ABSENTIA
Framed by silver bezels darkened to resemble wrought iron or blue steel, exquisitely knapped stone projectile points serve as tacit evidence that the drive to perfect technologies is hardly exclusive to the modern age. In Kiff Slemmons’s most recent work a respect not only for the skills of ancient artisans but also, and more important, for the adherence of those artisans to the highest of aspirations for their craft makes what might have been mere whimsical appropriation a moving reflection on some of the most praiseworthy facets of human nature. The series pays homage to ingenuity and adroitness, but more significantly it gives due recognition to the value of human patience and persistence: specifically, the dogged determination to achieve perfection that has invigorated human endeavor since the days when life truly was nasty, brutish and short. By giving a prominent place in her pendants to ancient stone artifacts and restraining her contributions to a complementary status, Slemmons is clearly less intent on emphasizing her own mastery of materials than on asserting that humans have always sought a better way—a more efficient technology and a more pleasing aesthetic—even millennia ago when their efforts were by necessity directed principally to the task of staying alive.
Through her use of ancient objects Slemmons courts controversy in this period of heightened concern for preserving cultural patrimony, but her practice is not without substantial precedent in the long history of jewelrymaking. The earliest people to recycle antiquities were the ancients themselves, who in their wanderings through the campsites, burial grounds and ruined cities of their forebears scavenged bits of the past to employ as tools, wear as ornaments, or simply marvel over as incontrovertible evidence that the present was not all encompassing. How many Egyptians over the millennia between the Old Kingdom and the New donned ancient amulets lifted from the shifting sands at Saqqara or extracted from the silt of the Nile after the annual flood? In the Americas, the Aztecs, in awe of the vast deserted architecture of Teotihuacán, made pendants of the figurine fragments they discovered in that crumbling city’s empty plazas, and in Europe the stylish set during the Renaissance repurposed ancient Roman seals and cameos as gems in their rings and necklaces. In these and countless other instances across human history the reuse of antiquities as adornments was clearly more than expedient. In the most interesting cases it might even be said to reflect a psychological imperative to wrestle with some of the most fundamental questions about human identity.
For Slemmons, integration of Neolithic stonework into jewelry was a natural extension of the found-object use that had characterized her work from its earliest phase, but at the same time it constituted something of a departure from that practice, since not all found objects are of the same class. Age and rarity make the projectile points substantially different from pencil stubs that one might find at the back of a drawer, but more important the Neolithic points bear evidence of attitudes about tools and making that seem fundamentally different from those conveyed by a sharpened pencil. “I decided that these were another kind of found material,” Slemmons explains. “I was taken with the points themselves, the refinement in making them, and the fact that they were handmade things. They were tools but you couldn’t help but see that they had slipped over into something else, that when the makers were making them they saw them as beautiful in some way, so they kept them and didn’t use them. They were tools made by hand that at some point slipped partly from necessity to ceremony.”