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

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