Every cloud has a silver lining.

Susie Stubbs

Mother Nature vs. the jewellery designer: Susie Stubbs finds out how an Icelandic ash-cloud inspired the latest contemporary art exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery

There are many things in life worth railing against, but Mother Nature isn’t one of them. Rough seas, floods, snowstorms, ash clouds: she has a whole host of disasters at her disposal to remind us that we are little more than mindless ants milling about on the Earth’s surface. So when jewellery designer Jo Bloxham was grounded by a volcanic ash-cloud, she had the good grace to accept her lot. And then she did what any self-respecting Mancunian would do: she decided to make the most of it.

In April 2010, Jo had been at a jewellery symposium in Mexico City. Suddenly stranded in a city far from home, she met up daily with fellow designers to check the news and berate the airlines for refusing to fly (they wouldn’t budge until the skies were clear: according to a BA pilot who had flown through an ash cloud from Mount Galunggung in Java, flying in such conditions is “a bit like negotiating one’s way up a badger’s arse”). The cloud remained stubbornly in place for almost a week, and it was then that Jo had her Big Idea: why not stage a jewellery show based on this collective experience? And so Under that Cloud was born. The exhibition features new work by 18 of the world’s leading jewellery designers, and every bit as dazzling as their work are their accompanying stories : tales of fear, resignation and inspiration. A taste of these stories is below – for the full experience head down to Manchester Art Gallery and give thanks that Mother Nature’s roving eye hasn’t recently alighted on you.

Under that Cloud, Manchester Art Gallery, Moseley Street, until 15 April 2012. Free.

1. First-aid Easy Mantras for Air Passengers Involved in Travel Disruption Due to the Ash Cloud, Gemma Draper. “The first person who told us that a long dormant volcano in Iceland had resumed its expulsion of smoke and ash, a dense cloud that was forcing the closure of airports in Northern Europe, seemed to us an inspired storyteller. Our subtle system of certainties was still protecting us, keeping our planned agendas untouched. The surprise took a while to sink in.”

2. When Skies Were Silent, Andrea Wagner. “Airspace in Northern Europe was closed for six days. For the first time I realised how vulnerable our travel system… really is. We take the rapidity and ease of modern life so much for granted. Yet nature’s calamities can greatly disrupt all that. But there was also beauty; a peaceful silence in the skies. I couldn’t help but intensely envy all whose destinations hadn’t been effected; like being able to fly home on golden wings.”

3. Swarm, Nanna Melland. “Most species move to some extent, despite the fact that it is energetically costly and can involve great, life threatening risks, but… in difficult habitats without suitable food, migratory strategies are essential. The migration of humans in the last decades, helped by the development of airplanes, has had a severe impact on our social systems and nature, but it does have both positive and negative consequences. There is a fragile balance between order and chaos.”

4. Anatomy of Fear, Agnieszka Knap. “I want to illustrate the condition of being part of something but not being able to connect with it emotionally. Something that creeps up slowly, becoming larger and larger so that in the end there is no point of return: you must face the fact despite how unpleasant or scary it turns out to be. When I was told about the volcanic eruption I continued my stay in Mexico City as if nothing had happened. It was very interesting to watch the different reactions of my co-passengers, certainly better than confronting my own fears. Some people were calm…others panicked and devoted all their time and energy to trying to get home, most often without success..”

All images copyright Jonathan Keenan, courtesy Manchester Art Gallery.

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