Malene Hartmann Rasmussen – Beyond the Vessel – Q&A
What does a day in the studio look like?
I start the day by walking to the studio together with my little dog Django. My partner Sylvain and I live in the North London area called Seven Sisters and my studio is a 10 minute walk from there. When I unlock the door downstairs, Django runs as fast as he can up the stairs and wait for me there. I usually make coffee and he gets a snack and lies in front of the heater to warm up and rest. Sometimes I have a kiln to empty or a firing to start otherwise I unwrap the sculpture I am working on and begin modelling. I listen to Danish radio or Spotify, music means a lot to me and I can’t work if the quality of the sound isn’t good, so I bought a nice B&O speaker for the studio and often play pretty loud music. The hours go by quickly and at 1pm I have lunch. I work until the afternoon and then I take Django for a walk, sometimes to the coffee shop nearby, they serve a beautiful flat white that I enjoy while doing a bit of social media and emailing.
Most sculptures take 3-4 weeks to make and I usually work on 2 or more sculptures at the same time, as the clay has to dry a bit to hold the weight as I build upwards. Alongside modelling the sculptures I make glaze and colour tests, I think about the properties of the glaze and how it can enhance details in the surface or soften up the shape. Two days a week I have my assistant Leah around, she helps making small parts such as feathers, berries and snails. She is a great help and a very skilled artist too. I usually work until evening and walk home together with Django just in time to make dinner with Sylvain.
What is your first memory of ceramic?
My best friend in school was called Linda. She was from Sweden and her mother was a potter. I often went to her place after school and remember looking at all the pots they had at home. For my birthday Linda gave me a tiny slip decorated terracotta pot with painted birds her mother had made.
What was your first use of clay?
My first use of clay as a child was making small figures and buildings for a snow landscape. My mother was a teacher in the nursery where I was, and we made clay there together. At home I painted the objects and we made a landscape with cotton snow and placed a church, houses and small red hatted Nisser (gnomes) dotted around. We did that every Christmas.
What is the most challenging element to your practice?
Time. My work is very time-consuming as I strive for perfection. It is hard to decide when I piece is finished as it can always be better.
What is your favourite fable?
When researching for my recent installation Troldeskoven (In the Troll Wood) I got hold of some old books from the antiquarian store with stories and sayings told for generations from mother to child in rural Denmark. The stories evolve around trolls and subterranean spaces on the island of Bornholm. I lived on the island for 3 years while studying ceramics and some locals still believe in them. In the daytime the trolls live inside rocks or inside tumuli, the grassy mounds of earth raised over Viking graves that are dotted all over the landscape. At night the grass and soil rise up on glowing poles forming a roof. Inside you see the trolls dance and drink and if they invite you in to drink with them, all the soil and grass will fall down and bury you inside forever. the Danish word “bjergtage” (taken by the mountain) originates from these stories, “bjergtage” is the Danish word for bedazzle. The strong bond between myth and language is something I find fascinating.
What thing or person is your greatest influence?
What is the relevance of myth today?
In my opinion there will always be a need for myths. It is connected to our inner life and feelings. It is a way we make sense of events that can seem senseless and a way to digest the difficult.
Are you an artist or a ceramicist?
What is the relevance of ceramics today?
There is an endless beauty in ceramics. The way the luscious glazes flow into details and the way that different coloured oxides bleed into each other is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. The tactility of the material is a perfect mediator to convey emotions.
What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?
For me skills are freedom. Mastering your material enables you to make anything, there are no limitations, your imagination has free reign.
Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?
Since the beginning of time humans have used their hands to make, I find it hard to imagine a society where all creativity is purely based on thought.
Why do you think ceramics is becoming popular amongst today’s youth?
Education has gradually become more and more academic. Ceramics is the counter-effect of this. A lot of it might just be fashion, thinking of all those sloppy craftspeople out there with thousands of followers on Instagram. I am sure they will have found another material in a couple of years. What I hope stays is ceramics a legitimate subject to study and in time I’m confident that people’s preconceptions about who you are just because you work in a certain material will change.
Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today?
A need to get your hands dirty, an escape into something tangible. The immediate quality of the material and the fact that you have to work with the material, the symbiosis with the clay and the feeling that you are not always in control. It is a natural material that you can dig up in your garden, so I guess there is a back to basics thing going on. The sculptural qualities of clay have been used for centuries in bronze casting as it is a superior material for modelling. Now artists have finally got their eyes open to the beauty of this versatile material.
Who is your hero or heroine?
Name a book that everyone should read and why?
I do not attempt to engage myself with everyone, but a recent book that made a great impact on me is Entwined the biography about the Outsider Artist Judith Scott written by her sister Joyce Wallace Scott. Outsider Artists/Art Brut is a great inspiration, I’m very fond of artists like Henry Darger, Augustin Lesage and Louis Wain.
Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?
I moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art in 2009. After graduating I stayed and later I met my partner Sylvain here, so I stayed instead of going back to my native Denmark. The studio is my hideaway. It is a complete escape that I can’t live without.
What technological or other advances have made you able to push the boundaries of your material / practice?
My process is very hands on, I do not use any technology for the making. That said technology is important for my practice in getting the work out there. I do prefer getting inspiration from books, experiences and memories and try very hard not to spend too much time on Instagram and other social media, they do shape your creative output and that is something I am not interested in at all.
What is the biggest problem or challenge you see with ceramics today?
The ceramic educational systems and cultural organisations are the biggest challenge to ceramics. They seem stuck in a past where there were solid definitions of what craft, art and design were. Today you see fine artists working in wood fired ceramics and potters making performative and conceptual sculpture. I do not see any problem with that but having worked both within the ceramic world and the fine art world, I have experienced lots of preconceptions about who you are as an artist when you work in clay.
Why do you think ceramics has endured from ancient times?
It is a hardwearing material. You find ceramic work that is over 25000 years old and still intact. To me that is a super material. Just the idea that one of my sculptures could last that long is mind blowing. There is a tacit knowledge in the material, you can pass on a lot of information to the receiver. Not just historical facts on making processes but also ideas and feelings. There is the uncontrollable part of it too, the transformation from soft and malleable to hard and static that happens in the kiln. You have to let go and lose the control to the kiln. The firing always adds something to the piece… not always good though. It is a living material and that is fascinating.
Who would be in your ceramics collection?
We do collect ceramics as both my partner and I know a lot of artists working with clay. One of my favourite pieces is a present from New Zealand artist Jim Cooper, it is a psychedelic dog with a very cheeky grin.. it looks like him. Another one is a Medusa Head from Carolein Smit that stares at us from high up on the wall. I would love to have a piece by German based Leiko Ikemura, Danish artist Marianne Nielsen, Swedes Frida Fjellman and Klara Kristalova or American Allison Schulnik. Of historical ceramics on my wish list is a Martin Brothers grotesque monster or one of Jean Carriès Gothic beings. The Danish Symbolist artist J.F. Willumsen is another favourite of mine.
What would you make if money were no object?
An art installation on the moon.
What is your philosophical approach to making?
Feed your brain, close your eyes and look within.
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