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Gold: Power, Beauty and Regret

If you’re aiming for Gold (and at some level who isn’t?), go to the Port of Marseille, France’s rough and tough Mediterranean port town. There in the country’s most creative contemporary museum, called Le Mucem, is a gold show. It lasts all summer sheltered from the hot sun by architect Rudy Ricciotti’s concrete lace façade. Gold laureate wreaths on ancient Greek and Roman heroes. Gold braided gowns by Dior. Gold bricks. Gold crowned Renaissance prophets. Louise Bourgeois’ transgenic gold beast with multiple voluptuous breasts.

Like the Mucem’s expo last year on the history, politics and exploitation of coffee, the new collaborative gold show takes a global perspective on the magical metal’s role in unleashing greed, celebrating unmatched beauty, rewarding craftsmanship and design, and marking the sadness of personal loss. The original idea for the gold expo hatched itself more than two decades ago when archaeologist Philippe Jockey, then a young scholar with a metal pick, found himself extracting samples of gold ore in the Peloponnesian mountains of Greece. “Yes, gold is the most malleable of all metals and the most resistant to corrosion, but not all gold is the same,” he told me, explaining how it is often mixed with other raw metals as a natural alloy. In the most commonly occurring form gold comes blended with the metal family called tellurides, which includes silver, but elements of copper and platinum also show up in raw gold. So-called pure gold almost never exists except in nuggets where the other elements have disappeared due to the effects of rain and sun. What interested Jockey back then was determining what sort of gold the Greeks had used to decorate their marble creations — some of those pieces more than 3000 years old.

Thanks to that exploration, undertaken long before Rudy Ricciotti had begun his preliminary drawings for the Mucem, Philippe Jockey embarked on a lifelong reflection on humans’ relation to gold and how they have molded and manipulated it. “GOLD” finally draws on the collections at a dozen other museums and includes pieces by, among others, Yves Klein, Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia.

Louise Bourgeois

Wealth accumulation has long dominated gold’s story from the fable of the Golden Calf to the presumed stock of 36,236 gold bars at Ft. Knox. Gold, however, has multiple other meanings: burnishing the ego, a mark of security, a sign of power. Beyond all these and across cultures gold has often possessed another sort of value as a durable and sacred offering to the gods. Indeed, recent archaeological research reveals a fundamental division between the Romans and the Gauls, or Celts, concerning gold. For the Romans, who built the first great so-called global empire, gold coinage became dominant across Europe. The Romans in their sense of superiority looked down on the “Barbarian” Gauls, never suspecting how much raw gold they hoarded in their sacred tombs — gold deposited with no aim at trade but simply as an offering to their multiple deities. That cleavage between collective, sacred value and the developing idea of market value and measure has marked political and cultural behavior across Europe for centuries and continues to haunt contemporary French politics today.

As this complex show reveals over and over, gold has equally performed as an elemental tissue linking art, beauty and the sacred. Gold’s mixture of fragility, mutability and durability has for thousands of years given itself to the notion that art, however simple, however baroque, addresses some greater force within and among us: a fundamental sense of transcendent being, of beauty as a measure of life beyond the ordinary and the temporary. No other natural element, even diamonds, has matched gold.

Golden Handcuffs by Gucci

And yet, gold is rarely far from danger and tragedy. The dark warning of the golden handcuffs (here by Gucci), or in another piece by Liza Lou, “The Damned” driven from Paradise. But surely the most moving objects in the Mucem’s Tour of Gold are the bracelets, the necklaces, the blouse pins from lost ancestors hocked to the pawn broker to pay the next month’s rent. An Anglo-Irish couple, Gethan&Myles, spent 10,000 Euros buying up pieces left by desperate families at the municipal pawn market, then placed the pieces in plexiglass boxes mounted on walls throughout the expo. Beside each piece or set of bijoux, they attached the personal story behind them. A young woman in exile whose mother gave her to a young couple along with a gold cross; she only learned of her real parentage after her adoptive parents had died. Another studded bracelet from a couple’s grand wedding, hocked after hard times to pay rent and electricity. Aside from a few pieces whose owners Gethan&Myles could not find, everything will be returned to their original owners courtesy of the Mucem once the show closes in September.

Pawned Golden Cross


Frank Browning © 2018

Frank Browning was an editor at Ramparts Magazine and later a science reporter for NPR. He has lived in Paris since 2000. He is the author of eight books including The Fate of Gender(published June 2016), The Monk & The Skeptic, An Apple Harvest: Recipes & Orchard Lore (with Sharon Silva), Apples: Story of the Fruit of Temptation, A Queer Geography, The Culture of Desire, The American Way of Crime (with John Gerassi)and The Vanishing Land.


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