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Susan Cohn: Artists own up to being boring in a brave show of self-deprecation

From The Saturday Age, 18 August 2017
by Ray Edgar. Photography: Joe Armao.

Jeweller Susan Cohn decided to have some fun with her critics.

Susan Cohn leans in close, imitating the conspiratorial chatter among critics of her work. “That Susan Cohn makes donuts,” she says in an emphatic stage whisper. “It’s a bit boring.”

The successful jewellery designer hears the epithet all the time. Not just directed at her donut-shaped bracelets, but as a cheap shot directed at many creative endeavours from architecture to art, fashion to fonts.

Far from being defensive, she finds the subject fascinating. In the exhibition Boring, Very Boring, Cohn tries to unravel what boring really is. Defining the lazy argot, she says: ” ‘Boring’ is something you choose not to engage with. ‘Very boring’ means you have engaged with it and you just don’t want to know about it.”

One work – Identity Humdrum – underlines the condition. Taking the ubiquitous sterling silver identity bracelet beloved of teenagers, Cohn doesn’t engrave a name but inserts 49 synonyms for boring: ho hum, mundane, tired, super boring.

“I wanted to take a boring piece of production jewellery and play with what happens in traditional jewellery and [other design] trends,” she says. “As teenagers we all had them. They do a cycle and become the ‘in thing’ again.”

Cohn’s identity bracelet avoids being boring by subverting the cliche. Instead of a name, it has a gag that comments on how predictable it can be. It takes something glitzy and calls it boring.

Alongside many different forms of jewellery, Cohn has been making donuts since the 1980s, using materials that range from gold to various industrial materials. Its hollow form has even doubled as a handbag.

Naturally donuts abound in the exhibition: a vitrine full of mass-produced versions in boring beige and floor-to-ceiling columns of clear plastic donuts in which Cohn doubles down on boring. Not only are they repetitive, but a one-line political joke. (Cohn points out representatives from the parliamentary front bench and Senate staring out of each clear donut, and recalls a curator once provocatively summing up her donuts’ resemblance to the female form: “He called them c—s, so boring political c—s felt natural,” she says.)

To broaden the boring discussion, Cohn asked 20 peers to contribute. The pieces explore what designers find boring in their work. Each suffers a boring fate, from the too raw (Vito Bila’s recycled Tray #4 ) to the overcooked (Sally Marsland’s Vessel), the too cute (Sam Mertens’ tea strainer with the slogan “children and hot fluids should be kept apart”), to the trendy (Liv Boyle’s upcycled Watertight bangle, made from rubber found on the beach).

Perhaps the only thing worse than saying something is boring, is not saying anything at all. Anna Varendorff’s white necklace suffered from polite non-commitment. “She put the piece in three exhibitions and no one noticed it or made any comment on it,” says Cohn.

Boring they may be, but the designers don’t consider them failures. “Most thought it was part of the process,” says Cohn. “The success of a piece depends on a really strong idea,” she says.

As for including past work that she considers boring, Cohn says she would include her Memphis-inspired bracelet (yes, donut) with colourful jagged saws appearing to fly off and the cocktail glasses she made in the ’80s that were extremely popular. “I made so many of them that it just got boring. I just couldn’t do them any more,” she says. “But I don’t have any to include.”

The self-deprecating show is a brave endeavour. Candidly detailing one’s boring work opens the floodgates, risking further criticism: “Never mind the donuts Cohn, what about those aluminium disc earrings that everyone wears? How could you forget those?” Despite their elegant refinement, don’t the earrings suffer the same fate as the identity bracelet, not to mention ubiquitous design classics from Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif orange squeezer to the Eames Lounge and Ottoman?

The popularity of the earrings did wane for a while, she admits. “People stopped wearing them for a couple of years because so many people had them. Then they suddenly decided it didn’t matter and started wearing them again.

“That’s going to happen because the idea of boring is subjective. That’s one of the keys of it – and it can change. You can think that’s boring today and tomorrow it’s not and vice versa. It’s a flexible thing. Which is the intriguing thing about it.”

Start to question boring and you wonder about the gallery itself. Doesn’t the pristine minimalist architecture of Anna Schwartz Gallery subscribe to postmodern architect Robert Venturi’s famous putdown “less is a bore”? Perhaps, but it also means that “people don’t look hard enough”, says Cohn.

Indeed the purist architecture of Denton Corker Marshall, who designed the gallery, continues to find infinite variation interrogating a reductive language of sticks and blades that play with scale, detail and function from small design objects to buildings. Some might find it boring, but stop to look and there’s a rewarding inventiveness to be discovered.

As much as designers might try to adjust for a potential bored response, people can find anything boring, so why buckle? Cohn agrees: “People think the donuts are boring, but I’ll be playing with the form for the rest of my life.”

Susan Cohn: Boring, Very Boring, Anna Schwartz Gallery, 185 Flinders Lane, Melbourne until September 2.