THE LONG READ: Celebrity, Vanity & Mythology


Edited in 2020 from an introductory essay by Laura Grace Simpkins, September 2018

Photography has always been a process defined by its fluctuations, possibly more so than any other means of artistic expression. In little over 150 years photography has journeyed from nineteenth-century calotypes and ferrotypes to twenty-first century digital DSLR cameras and has recently embraced our mobile phones. In doing so, photography has gone from being in the palm of the expert to the hands of the masses.

Whilst an image such as that of Alfred Hitchcock taken by renowned fashion photographer Norman Parkinson in 1956, might concisely encapsulate ‘observation’, it is becoming increasingly clear that who we look at and how we look at them changes with time, as much as the medium in question. From the cult of the celebrity, identified by photographers working in the 1950s and 60s to the modern-era of the Instagram meme, photography has become increasingly invasive, penetrating and unforgiving.

Parkinson’s work pre-empts the proverbial explosion of fashion and celebrity photography in the twentieth century, correspondent with the rise in consumerism and advertising in the post-war years. The cultural interest in acquiring ‘things’ anticipated a collective interest in the objectification of the public individual, and by extension, their lives. Such a postulation is articulated by today’s obsession with social media and reality television.

Figures at the centre of media interest have always enjoyed a cult status throughout the years, but with the appetite for the commodification of a life, the desire to survey and stalk those in the public eye developed from the 1960s onwards. With few laws to hinder the paparazzi, the existence of the private space was relegated to a place in the past. From Mick Rock’s explosive 70s rock n’ roll photography we notice how public figures attempted to control and ultimately deflect constant surveillance via the twofold mechanism of humour and theatricality.

When the public acclimatised to, and became weary of, images of celebrities, photographers turned to making the mundane intriguing. The large-format polaroids of Neal Slavin, a world respected photographer and film director, demonstrate that you do not have to capture a famous face to make a glamorous picture. Instead Slavin uses humorous group stagings to satisfy the viewer’s socialised taste for the theatrical.

Neal_Slavin_

Neal Slavin ‘Colony Room Club’

Britons, Slavin’s series commissioned by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television and published in 1986, encourages viewing collections of people – artists, lifeguards and nuns – as representative of one identity. His image of Stonehenge is pertinent to our proximity to this world-famous monument. Through his strategic design of thirteen security team members, Slavin is able to explore the paradox of taking ‘iconic’ images of anonymous people. Through the meteorological drama; Caravaggio-esque, chiaroscuro light; tone and the aforementioned experimental composition, Slavin has created some of the most ambitious and thought-provoking works of any of our photographers, without us knowing, or indeed caring about, any of the subjects.

Now, of course, image sharing apps such as Instagram have revolutionised the distribution of fine art photography. The skill of the modern photograph lies behind the camera and after an image has been taken, demanding an enquiry into what a finished photograph actually is, and what it looks like. All adjustments can occur in post-production, with photographers no longer needing to manually learn about aperture, shutter-speed or white balancing. Even composition can be cropped into place on a computer. The laptop has become the new darkroom.

But the legacy set out by Roland Barthes in his remarkable Camera Lucida (1980), that great portraitists are excellent story-tellers, remains and the taken image is still one of the most powerful, immediate and telling methods of human communication.

Top Photo: Norman Parkinson ‘Alfred Hitchcock’, 1956

 

THE LONG READ: Ceramic Artist Thiébaut Chagué


by Tanya Harrod, design historian and co-editor of Journal of Modern Craft

In May 2012 I visited Thiébaut Chagué at Taintrux in north east France. Taintruxis in the Vosges, an area that has witnessed battles and bloody conflict over many centuries. The Vosges retains a secret fairy-tale quality and Chagué’s home is surrounded by meadows and encircled by small mountain peaks, dark with fir trees and with deciduous trees on the lower slopes, just coming into bright spring-time leaf. One surviving industry in this remote area is logging. It is a good place for a potter with a wood-fired kiln. Chagué lives in one of the austere farmhouses characteristic of the region, with windows and doors framed with red sandstone.

On that visit we drove to the nearby town of St-Dié, razed to the ground by German troops in 1944. It was rebuilt after the war as a place of parks, fountains and good housing. Chagué showed me the famous Usine Duval, a garment factory designed by Le Corbusier as part of this rebuilding process. At the nearby Musée Pierre Noel an exhibition dominated by fine African sculpture and masks included a monumental piece by Chagué, Béance, and a pair of massive pierced forms by Chagué’s friend, the Anglo-Nigerian potter Lawson Oyekan. Both artists looked at home in the company of these historic and contemporary sub-Saharan objects. Nonetheless neither Chaguénor Oyekan borrow directly from other cultures. They are not neo-primitivists.

The awe and wonder that Chagué’s work excites has more to do with being grounded in a place, or rather, a series of places. We visited the town’s metalwork shop where young apprentices are taught the skills of welding, cutting, raising and working metal. In this cavernous space Chagué’s L’Enfer dominated. It is a majestic conoid stoneware form, split open and secured with turquoise coloured epoxy putty, its surface dotted with blobs of melted earthenware body. L’Enfer was cradled within a steel frame, made with the help of Fabrice Perrin who teaches in the workshop. Perrin accepts the strangeness of the collaboration without question. Indeed, throughout the day I spent with Chagué I was struck by his role within the local community.

Nicholas Bourriaud’s term esthétique relationnelle, describing art that produces or prompts human relations, sociability and even conviviality, comes to mind. Of course, Chagué spends time alone in his studio, with its view of meadows and mountains. But his natural playfulness and gift for friendship have led him into communities of all kinds. He has worked alongside the women potters of the Gwari village of Tatiko in Northern Nigeria. He makes the firing of larger works performative and very public -most memorably in the garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum where in 2010 he created an improvised kiln around his mighty sculpture La Soif et La Source.

Chagué’s modus operandi unselfconsciously employs contemporary strategies of interactivity, just as his old teacher the great potter Michael Cardew embraced esthétique relationnelle long before the term was invented. Chagué once organised a community dinner and concert, with 250 people eating off his plates, each one playfully inscribed assiette en glaise. Like Cardew’s Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall (carried on after his death in 1983 by Cardew’s son Seth but now completely gone) Chagué’s house is a collective where he, his children and his friends, students and helpers eat and discuss together at a long wooden table. Chagué’s particular choice of raw clay, is brought as dug from a village near the pottery town of La Bourne. At high temperature it acts temperamentally. Forms split and shapes sag. This is not a concern for Chagué, indeed he relishes the uncertainty of the ceramic process, finding uncertainty a useful provocation –in French a word that has powerful artistic associations. The clay is not purchased for its efficiency but for its tactility and materiality. He disregards conventional ceramic technology, and all his work is fiercely sculptural. It is therefore surprising to discover that all his pieces are built from thrown elements. The discipline of the potter’s wheel with its drive to repetition and symmetry appears remote from the dramatic, fractured nature of these complex objects.

In different ways, therefore, Chagué’s oeuvre recalls natural objects that are willed into becoming art objects –like the rocks mounted on wooden stands and placed by Chinese literati on their desks for contemplation. Today we do not really grasp the significance of Chinese ‘scholars rocks’. To understand the sources of Chagué’s inspiration is a challenge also. He directs me to Michael Cardew’s great essay The Fatal Impact in which Cardew writes on art and the child. According to Cardew ‘being aware that the world is overflowing with some tremendous significance the child has to do something –or rather make something –as a kind of acknowledgement of the mystery. He does it by making certain things mean something, by giving esoteric names, properties and meanings to certain stones, sticks, animals or places. He invests them with supernatural significance and potency’.

Most children lose that faculty with adulthood, but, Cardew goes on, ‘there are always a few who for some reason do not allow that to happen. I wonder what the reason is: were they specially happy in childhood, or specially unhappy?’ Nowadays Cardew’s conflation of the child and the artist, in which the child represents an innocent ‘other’ to which the artist should aspire, is dismissed as a form of Orientalism. But Cardew expresses the urgency and concentration of children’s creativity accurately. His imagery recalls Chagué’s own childhood, when he first encountered clay in his grandfather’s sculpture studio and was delighted by its ‘bonne odeur’ and when, fascinated with fire, he made ‘some memorable fires –one in a dustbin, and a remarkable one on the carpet in my bedroom’. Looking at the trajectory of Chagué’s work –towering and recumbent forms, small, utterly convincing tea bowls, torn, complex, honeycomb structures –is to encounter a continuing sense of urgency and daring, traceable back to those juvenile passions and transgressions.

In this exhibition we are both guided and playfully confused by the titles that Chagué has given each individual piece. Some come under the category Albarelle and indeed these upright forms faintly echo their namesake, the highly collectible Renaissance maiolica jars known as Alberelli. But these are jars turned biomorphic and matched by an equally haunting series that come under the rubric Blastoïde –a poetic reference to the fossils of long extinct seabuds, once anchored to the sea floor. Both sequences belong equally to the natural and made world. They are the work of Chagué’s hand while offering echoes of primordial growth during some remote period –Devonian or Silurian perhaps –long before humans walked the earth. At the same time these are highly sophisticated examples of ceramic facture that allow chance to play its part but which also testify to a long-learnt control over clays bodies and glaze materials. And of course they are remarkable because they braid ceramic and sculpture. Chagué’s work has deep roots in ceramic history –but that is not the whole story. Rainer Maria Rilke, writing in 1903, explained that sculpture was ‘a complete thing about which one could walk, and which one could look at from all sides.’ He concluded that sculpture also had ‘to distinguish itself somehow from other things, the ordinary things which everyone could touch’. Ceramics, of course, belongs in both worlds described by Rilke –that of the ‘complete thing’ and of ‘ordinary things’. What Thiébaut Chagué gives us are sculptures that everyone can touch.

Tanya Harrod is the author of The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture, Yale University Press, 2012

THE LONG READ: Material Narrative – The Inherent Eloquence of Clay


by Glen R. Brown, PhD, Professor of Art History and Associate Head of the Art Department at Kansas State University.

The plasticity of clay is key to its natural volubility: its inherent potential to speak materially and so to articulate narrative in the most elemental sense. An accommodating substance, clay moves easily under the energy of a compressive force, whether a disinterested force like gravity or one as motivated as the pressure of an artist’s fingertips as they strive to impart meaning to the world. The ability of clay to hold the shapes that it acquires under the influence of such forces makes it a faithful chronicler of events in a story of creation: a record of the physical genesis of form. Material narrative comes to clay so readily that some who work intimately with the medium feel obliged to allow it a significant degree of self-determination after imposing upon it only the rudiments of form. (Such restraint on the part of the maker in deference to the inherent narrative inclinations of clay is typical of some phases of the Japanese ceramic tradition, for example.) Other makers take the opposite tack, treating clay as a malleable tabula rasa on which to inscribe the full content of their intentionality. Clay has no preference between these polarities; it is amenable to any position on a spectrum from assertive presence to obedient vehicle, from material narrative to content narrative.

In the service of art, clay typically carries multiple, simultaneous narratives that relate to one another in ways calculated to compound meaning. Stories of transition between material states are unmotivated, fortuitous, arising from the natural tendency of clay to respond to the forces that act upon it, but they can be anticipated and even encouraged by the artist for aesthetic or discursive purposes. The result of such encouragement often appears more like a negotiation between clay and maker than an imperious forcing of the artist’s will upon a submissive medium.

Gravity and shrinkage – the latter of which can leave fine networks of fissures in the surface of clay while in the drying stage or even tear gapping wounds in that surface if the drying process is rushed – are two frequent instigators of unmotivated material narratives in ceramics. Their traces relate stories of creation that assert the independence of clay from absolute human control. More common as factors in this mode of material narrative are the consequences of kiln atmospheres, particularly those generated by wood-fired kilns. Flashing – a range of visual surface effects that arise chiefly from differences in oxygen levels as raw clay is transformed into ceramic through heat – and natural glazing, as wood ash settles on clay surfaces and vitrifies, were historically the most common atmospheric influences on material narrative. That these are not represented among the works of the exhibition can in part be attributed to the prevalence of gas and electric kilns today, but, more important, it may also signal a desire among many of the artists to move symbolically as well as literally beyond the vessel, to distance their work from the associations of clay with craft and its historical technologies, particularly the making of functional pottery in wood-fired kilns.

It should be noted that one of the most significant sources of material narrative in both historical and contemporary ceramics does not involve clay at all, except as a kind of stage for the actions of another material altogether. Glaze, a vitreous substance, has been employed since antiquity, to seal the porous walls of earthenware vessels and to enhance the aesthetic appeal of objects produced in all clay bodies. Glazes, particularly lead-based glazes, tend to flow as they melt during firing, creating visual effects more liquid than solid, more active than static. In the finished object, each gleaming rivulet of glaze is a record of a descending migration and each glistening drip marks the point at which molten glass cooled and thickened sufficiently to finally defy gravity. It is no coincidence that medieval Japanese connoisseurs of glaze often found in its effects intimations of the changing seasons. Glaze trails not only embody the physical traces of movement across space; they also materially record time.

Both the metaphorical possibilities and the more directly iconic potential of running glaze are exploited in Thomas Schütte’s Eierköpfe. The aqueous effects of glaze, its translucence and fluidity, readily conjure the albumen and yolk of a cracked egg and the bodily fluids – blood, mucous, and tears – of a human head. Rhetorically these liquids evoke the frailty and ephemerality of life, linking the Eierköpfe to a number of other melancholy narratives in the exhibition involving memento mori. Schütte’s eggheads are manifestly subject to external factors, the force of gravity and the weight of mortality. Though isolated ovoids bearing only the most rudimentary references to facial features, his Eierköpfe are quite different in effect from the similar form in Constantine Brancusi’s famous Sleeping Muse of 1910. The polished bronze of the latter, a material closely associated with the transcendent universals of classicism, makes it an inviolate monument to the persistence of ideal form across eternity. In contrast, Schütte’s Eierköpfe, in their slumping of clay and dripping of glaze, are more closely evocative of organic form, with its bonds to the cycle of life and its inevitable surrender to entropy.

In its raw state, clay serves naturally as a metaphor of the organic, evolving from molecules formed in a watery environment and remaining malleable only so long as that vital relationship with water is maintained. Raw clay and the human body are alike in this respect, with the former typically containing about 30% water and the latter roughly 50%. Despite this kinship, human interaction with clay has almost always resulted in a kind of death of the material. The drying and firing process through which water is removed and clay is ultimately converted to ceramic eliminates the potential for growth that an additive medium naturally embodies, rendering a plastic material effectively inert. Ceramic objects can, of course, acquire a different kind of metaphorical life through utility, passing through time and space and interacting with their environment in ways that both respond to and transform it, but that is life largely in its experiential sense rather than its biological essence. Ceramics as a field has for the most part contented itself with metaphors of this relational sort, but artists not bound to the traditions of a discipline in which function has been an influential, even governing, concept for millennia have felt freer to explore the aesthetic and symbolic possibilities of raw clay. In the early 1970s, for example, California artist Jim Melchert performed his famous Changes, in which he dipped his head in clay slip and allowed it to dry into a crusty second skin, and in the 1990s New York artist Walter McConnell began a series of large, plastic-sheeted terrariums in which mounds of raw clay sculpted into landscapes established temporary biospheres through evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.

Phoebe Cummings, The Fall, 2019

To use clay in this way is to do more than evade the term ceramic. It is to revise one of the oldest aphorisms in a long history of Western reflection on the nature of art: ars longa becomes ars brevis. As it dries, raw clay hardens and eventually sloughs away as dust, evoking the ephemerality of life in the singular: the life of an individual organism, whether a hyacinth or a human being. Raw clay from this perspective equates art and artist mortally rather than projecting the former into an infinite future as an undying surrogate of the latter. When Phoebe Cummings creates a narrative of nature in a raw-clay, site-specific installation she is aware from the outset that none of her efforts, not the mental exertion of envisioning a composition nor the physical labor of shaping the formless medium of clay into the mediated form of sculpture, will result in an enduring masterpiece, or even an artwork at all in the conventional sense. Raw clay differs temperamentally from stone, bronze, or steel. It is restless, constantly changing. Like the artist’s own life, each of Cummings’s installations has a beginning and an end, but in between there is no point of completion. Between the initial masses of raw clay and the terminal masses into which the installation must inevitably be dismantled, there is no stage at which one can say that a work is fully present, fully independent of a process of transformation. The artist ends her engagement of the material once her concept has been realized, but the material continues to transform, slowly desiccating until the day when it must be broken up and removed. Then, all that remains is an absence hinted at in memories and photographs. If there is melancholy in this mortality, there is also a message. Life in the singular is finite, and raw clay can reference this, but raw clay can also evoke life in the collective: the vitality that, like the nature that Cummings represents, transcends any single organism and endures beyond the unending stream of deaths. Raw clay may dry, shrink, and disintegrate into dust, but its remains can be recycled, reconstituted by the vital element of water, and returned to plasticity and the potential for creation.

This is, of course, not the case for clay as ceramic. Clay that has passed through the firing process has been deliberately removed from a cycle of change, has been chemically transformed through the burning off of carbon and sulfur, a breaking of bonds with molecular water, inversion of the crystalline structure of quartz, sintering of clay particles together, and, finally, vitrification of those elements capable of melting. Ceramic, particularly high-fired stoneware and porcelain, is more akin to marble ­­­– a metamorphic rock formed from sediment under intense heat and pressure – than anything organic. It is no accident that potsherds are the staples of archaeology; they endure across the ages, preserving their traces of human ingenuity and industry as persistently as documents in stone. Nevertheless, pottery, because it has infiltrated so many aspects of sociality, has acquired rhetorical associations with life. The most mundane evidence of this is reflected in the figurative terminology for the parts of a vessel – from foot to belly, shoulder, neck and mouth; less obvious, but more consequential, are the many ways in which humans have tended to reflect on the life of utilitarian ceramic objects in domestic service, to link them to rituals and rites of passage, and even to treat them as metonyms for those who possessed them in life.

Bouke de Vries ‘Cloud 2’

That which can live must inevitably die, and this accounts in part for the power of expression in Bouke de VriesCloud 2, a towering icon of an atomic blast articulated through a detritus of defunct and dismembered ceramic vessels and figurines. Ceramic is a frangible material, prone to shattering when under tension. When a ceramic object breaks, each sherd rings forever with the traces of destruction. The sherds themselves recall a once-whole form that no longer exists, and in this respect conjure material narratives of violence and death. Cloud 2 employs this association in synergy with the representation of an atomic mushroom cloud to decry the use of high technology for the most terrifying of human intents: the mass destruction of human beings themselves. At the same time, De Vries’ work is curiously complex, embodying antitheses in a metaphor of the cycle of life rather than simply emblematizing death. If the shattered plates and figurines embody destruction, the process of composing them into a new and meaningful configuration is surely one of resurrection, as if the artist looked upon the fragments of ceramic ruin and posed the prophetic question, “Can these bones live?” De Vries, in fact, has made a career of sculpting through resurrection, of salvaging sherds and giving them new life in reconfiguration, sometimes by connecting them with Perspex rods and sometimes through the Japanese technique of kintsugi, in which the sherds of a broken vessel are reconnected with a mix of lacquer and gold dust that not only restores the vessel to wholeness but imparts to it a beauty of experience that exceeds that of any material perfection.

The slumping of wet clay in response to the influence of gravity, the trails left by a glaze as it flowed in molten liquidity over surfaces during the transformation of clay into ceramic, the shrinking and cracking of raw clay as it surrendered its moisture to the surrounding air, the sharp edges of a sherd once part of a larger, now dismembered, form – these are all factors in material narratives that could be called disinterested, unmotivated by anything but natural forces acting on material objects. Such naturally occurring narratives can be exploited to complement narratives of other sorts, but material narratives in clay can also be of a more obviously motivated character. The distinguishing factor is consciousness: the impact of human intention on the physical form of clay. The simplest of such motivated material narratives arise from the process of modeling by hand: an immediate transferal of energy from the artist’s body to the clay body and a subsequent modification of the mass and surface of the medium at the artist’s will.   These kinds of narratives may be nothing more than an articulation of two discernable states or events and a moment, however brief, that links them in sequence: the maker’s finger rested here, and then it was dragged across the surface to there, leaving a faint rill in the wet clay. Such overt material narratives of the process of making are primordial; they have a history that dates back roughly 30,000 years, when Neolithic fingers pinched clay near the fire pits of Dolni Vestonice in Central Europe. At the same time, much of the history of ceramics has been given to reducing or even eliminating altogether these kinds of physical traces and the narratives of making that they convey. The cool perfection of Ching Dynasty imperial bowls, for example, seems to transcend the world in which human hands exert any influence over form, and the uniformity of product sought during the European Industrial Revolution gave rise to ceramic wares more evocative of machine technologies than the hand-working techniques of generations of previous potters.

Material narrative in clay never fully disappeared, despite the perfection of technologies for eliminating it, and in the second half of the twentieth century, it resurged as a deliberately cultivated trait diagnostic of modern ceramic art. It is no accident that this occurred at a time when material narratives in paint provided a sense of radical novelty for Abstract Expressionism. The drips in a Jackson Pollock painting, for example, each materially reflect movement of the artist’s body through space, and, in turn, adumbrate an internal struggle in which the artist’s very identity hung in the balance. In the field of ceramics, the work of Peter Voulkos, the central protagonist in what has been called the California Revolution in Clay, helped to popularize motivated material narrative by introducing to clay the equivalent of Abstract Expressionist painting. Groping, slashing, and pummeling clay and leaving the evidence of this manipulation obtrusive in the finished form, Voulkos created massive platters and “stacks” that subverted the functional nature of the vessel – for all practical purposes rendering it sculptural – and asserted that clay was a natural medium for both material narrative and, through its connotative potential, expressive narrative.

Jørgen Haugen Sørenson

The close relationship between these modes of narrative, the material and the expressive, is epitomised in Beyond the Vessel by the modeled sculptures of Jørgen Haugen Sørensen, which employ the idiom of fingers on a malleable surface to convey the testimony of a witness to the horrifying depths to which human nature can descend. Sørensen’s closest precursor in terms of his material narratives is not Voulkos, a paragon in the ceramic tradition, but rather the sculptor Rodin, whose roughly modeled maquettes in clay are some of the most materially expressive representations ever to have been fashioned in art. Sørensen’s Justizia IV reimagines the torment of Rodin’s Thinker, situating a despondent figure on a plinth from which to contemplate not a multitude of damned souls in the abyss of hell but rather a rising mountain of death manifesting a hell on earth. The rough marks of the artist’s interaction with clay relate more than a story of physical creation: they convey a powerful impression of violence, a scraping and tearing of the clay body, that reflects the presumed actions behind the mound of cadavers, but also, and more important, embodying the turmoil of Sørensen’s emotions while reflecting on the pervasiveness of brutality in the contemporary world. The deeply personal nature of the expression is confirmed, ironically, by the layer of glaze applied to the work as a kind of damper on the subjective. Wishing to create monuments testifying to the injustice still rampant in the contemporary world Sørensen enveloped his sculpture in a monochrome white with the intention of neutralizing some of the visceral material effects and elevating the narrative from the personal level to that of the universal.

Intimacy with clay through the direct actions of the fingers, or simple tools that serve as prostheses of these and largely preserve the immediacy of touch, is the primary avenue by which motivated material narrative is generated in clay, but other strategies are at the artist’s disposal as well. Christie Brown demonstrates that intentional storytelling in material terms is possible when using some of the very tools through which material narrative can be effectively reduced or even eliminated in the working of clay.   Brown’s sculptures are often assembled from combinations of handwork and mould-made forms. In general, moulds promote multiplicity rather than singularity; slipcast forms, for example, can be virtually indistinguishable from one another. Brown, however, utilises press moulds, or casting moulds, and takes particular interest in the physical deviations that can occur between multiples produced through this hands-on technology. Distended features, wrinkles, or cracks can arise and contribute materially to the formation of narratives when clay is removed from a press mould or when a moulded form is integrated into a larger composition. Like the traces of the incommensurable that some Surrealists found in simple details of surfaces – the veins of a leaf, or the raised grain of a wooden floor after countless scrubbings – material idiosyncrasies can be revelatory for Brown, whose most recent works reflect on the psychological implications of animal and human hybridity reflected in the persistence of ancient European folk rites in which participants still don animal attributes in ritualistic regression to an intuitive, instinctive relationship with the world.

Under the influence of artists such as Voulkos, motivated material narrative gained immense popularity as a sign of modernist expression in the artistic working of clay in the third quarter of the twentieth century, but the logic of the avant-garde dictated that eventually this quality should itself be negated through subsequent revolution. Such negation occurred as early as the Seventies in the experiments of Richard Shaw with slipcasting, a technique selected deliberately to agitate the emotions of hands-on expressionist potters and sculptors. Shaw, and other artists such as Marilyn Levine, went on to perfect a genre of trompe l’oeil ceramics that shifted the emphasis from the material narratives of real objects fashioned from clay to the simulated material narratives of feigned objects merely represented by the works.   Levine, for example, employed the natural fissuring of drying clay to convey the effect of cracking leather in her famous illusionistic renditions of handbags and briefcases, in effect directing the viewer to disregard actual material and the stories it bore of its own physical creation and focus instead on the simulation of such narratives. In this respect, material narrative became subtly fused with content narrative.

Bertozzi & Casoni ‘Autonno’

The Archimboldo-inspired allegorical heads of seasons created by Bertozzi & Casoni are tours de force of an ability to divert the viewer’s attention from the actual materiality of ceramic and glaze to the illusion of material in a cornucopia-like abundance of ersatz fruits, vegetables, grains, and flowers (and even the accumulation of litter that places Summer squarely in the context of environmental calamities that confront us today). Here clay might begin to seem incidental, though certainly it is essential to the surprise aspect of trompe l’oeil art. These sculptures would, after all, provoke a significantly different response were they composed of organic objects rather than fired clay, since the ability to instigate moments of epiphany would be lost. Bertozzi & Casoni achieve the power of illusion, like all conjurers, not by true miracles of transformation but rather through diversion of the viewer’s attention from the actual state of affairs, in this case the real materials comprising the allegorical heads. If this visual sleight of hand constitutes a significant evasion of the kinds of material narratives toward which clay is naturally inclined, it does not signify rejection of the ceramic tradition. On the contrary, Bertozzi & Casoni seem to pay conscious homage to the trompe l’oeil ceramics of the famous sixteenth-century French craftsman Bernard Palissy, whose distinctive “rusticware” simulated organic reality not only through its moulded-from-life components of fish, snails, eels, frogs, snakes, and the like but also through its skillful employment of enamels to complete the picture of unadulterated nature.   Bertozzi & Casoni may elaborate their narratives almost exclusively through content, but their works suggest a profound awareness of the history of ceramics as well as the general history of art.

Such awareness is reflected in the work of many ceramic artists today, just as many artists who work in clay maintain a deep appreciation for the narrative potential of the material. At the same time, contemporary ceramic art ­– whether in general or in the narrower sense of a discipline defined by a specific discourse and set of practices – often tendentiously separates itself from the history of ceramics and patently negates the material narrative natural to clay. The haunting Moss People of Kim Simonsson, for example, may be fashioned from stoneware, but the distinctive surfaces that link their materiality to their content – achieved through an accumulation of paint and nylon fiber – owe nothing to the material nature of clay. In fact, they camouflage it. That such substances as flocking, tool dip, fabric, and even sequins are regularly employed to cover every centimeter of surface in some contemporary ceramic sculptures only underscores the diversity of ways in which clay can be employed as a medium in art. In fact, with little difficulty one could construct a spectrum of contemporary works ranging from those in which clay as a material is eloquent and granted almost complete control over the narratives that it conveys to those in which clay as a material is rendered mute, its potential to elaborate material narratives entirely suppressed. While the relative position of a given work within such a spectrum would at one time would have carried definitive implications with regard to such categories as convention and rebellion or art and craft, today, as the varied work in Beyond the Vessel aptly attests, clay as a medium is arguably freer than it has ever been to simply facilitate creativity.

Bouke de Vries – Beyond the Vessel – Q&A


What does a day in the studio look like?

I start every day at 7am – when the world is still relatively quiet. The inspiration for my work comes from my background as a restorer and I still do some restoration for a few clients I have worked with for a long time. I always start my day with any restoring there is in the studio before doing my own work. As I use a lot of resins with varying drying times I am always working on several pieces at the same time, which makes the work very varied. I am fortunate to have my studio in the garden of my home, so usually have lunch in the house with my partner. I generally work till 4.30pm and then go to the gym and do another hour or so of work after that.

What is your first memory of ceramic?

A large blue and grey antique German salt- glaze jug my parents had, which had to be turned into a lamp after my brother and I broke it while playing.

What was your first use of clay?

I made a few small figures out of hand- rolled clay in kindergarten, which my mother kept. I still have them.

What is the most challenging element to your practice?

Finding good-quality broken pieces to work with. It is important to keep to the standards I have set myself. Finding good things is difficult but exciting.

What is your favourite fable?

Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau, of course).

Are you an artist or a ceramicist?

Artist. In my view a ceramicist is someone who makes ceramics. I don’t. I use existing ceramics as a tool to express myself.

What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?

For a long time, technical skills were regarded as irrelevant but things go in waves and there is now a time when technical skills are being re-evaluated. The nature of my work requires these skills (which I have been able to develop during my decades as a ceramics restorer). There is definitely a renewed appreciation of such skills.

Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?

Never. As with everything, when new methods of making things come along it is always claimed that what went before is irrelevant and will disappear – but it never does. There is always reason for people to work with their hands. It seems dexterity is integral to human life.

Name a book that everyone should read and why?

The Sioux by Irene Handl. Surprise!

Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?

My studio is in my garden and it’s my sanctuary. It’s never a chore to be in there. The 20-second commute and the door I can lock at night are important – to keep that work part separate from my home life.

Why do you think ceramics has endured from ancient times?

Because it is such a versatile material, what it can do is like magic: what begins as the basic raw materials of the world, earth and water, infinitely manipulate-able, becomes something very durable by the alchemy of fire, an amazing and primal technological advancement. You start with rudimentary storage vessels. These get decorated. Then glazes are discovered… and it has never stopped. It’s amazing how every culture has developed their own styles of ceramics and we can still identify these cultures by their ceramics.

Who would be in your ceramics collection?

Grayson Perry (he already is LOL).

What would you make if money were no object?

If I wanted to make something and it would cost a lot of money I would find a way of raising a lot of money.

     

Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details

Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now

Carolein Smit – Beyond the Vessel – Q&A


What does a day in the studio look like?

It starts early in the morning after morning walks with the dog and I prefer every day to be the same, the radio is on a network with only talking people, I don’t listen really, it is just a murmuring sound. I work and sometimes my assistant comes for glazing, she works mostly silent. I want it to be quiet. Dog is snoring under the table.

What is your first memory of ceramic?

I come from a family of artists, there was always all I could wish for to work with. Friends of my parents were artists too and I remember how in the sixties I was in the studio of Rosemarie van Oort, a friend of my mum’s and she worked with clay. She always gave me high praise for my attempts. Sometimes she would ask me to make something, a duck or a pussycat and she would fire it and give it as a present to someone’s birthday, this I do not remember but my mum told me.

What was your first use of clay?

At home and at the studio of this friend of my mum’s, also in art school I have made several clay pieces but I studied graphics so I did not do much with clay at that time. In 1996 I started at the European Ceramics Working Centre in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands as an artist in residence for a three month working time with clay. It changed my life.

What is the most challenging element to your practice?

When a piece has hair or small holes, I have to keep my concentration to stay on it, it takes a long time to finish these pieces.

What is your favourite fable?

It is about a scorpion and a man who have to cross a river and there is only one boat. The man offers the scorpion a place if he promises that he will not sting the man. So they agree and they set off to the other side. When they arrive on the other side however the scorpion stings the man anyway and the man asks him why. The scorpion says, because it is my nature.

What is the relevance of myth today?

Myths and other old stories, fairytales and biblical stories can make you see a point of view that is not necessarily your own. Most of these stories were not only told because they were fun but also to educate and to tell right from wrong.

Are you an artist or a ceramicist?

Artist, I just use clay and glaze and such because I can make the things I want with them. Normally in the morning I have a small hesitation before I stick my hands into the clay, I am not fond of the consistency and the dampness, but once I have started it does not bother me anymore.

What is the relevance of ceramics today?

It seems that more artists with no ceramic training are beginning to make works in clay, it is good to see what boundaries they push and cross being not bothered by ceramic conventions that trained ceramicists sometimes have.

What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?

Technical skills make it easier to achieve what you want. If you are constantly held back in making something because you have no technical skills, that is irritating. For me, it is not something I think about much, I invent as I go along. It is nice if you are not clumsy and have an open mind to possibilities and solutions that are unconventional.

Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?

I see more and more how artists are returning to the ‘old’ techniques. But also very exciting developments where clay is being 3D printed or designed by a computer, I like both. Important is what you do with it.

Why do you think ceramics is becoming popular amongst today’s youth?

That is also because a lot of contemporary ceramics are very exciting. I always say that there is nothing I cannot make from clay, it has no limits for me.

Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today?

Because there is such a lot of exciting ceramics, both in art and design.

Who is your hero or heroine?

Bertozzi & Casoni and funnily enough they look at me in the same way.

Name a book that everyone should read and why?

Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, a story that keeps turning around and around, a lot of horrible details and beautiful images are being depicted. Unusual way of telling a story, surreal.

Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?

We had our house built about ten years ago to the size we needed. My husband is an artist as well and we have two large working spaces and a modest space to live that is adequate for two people and two dogs and the best roof terrace for miles around with stunning views. We live in a very small village just beside Maastricht. From my studio I can see into the garden, it is quiet.

What technological or other advances have made you able to push the boundaries of your material / practice?

Having a large kiln and a device to lift heavy sculptures. Working with larger galleries and knowing that transport is not my business.

What is the biggest problem or challenge you see with ceramics today?

Transporting the works and getting the sculptures to their destination in one piece.

Why do you think ceramics has endured from ancient times?

It is a material that can serve any artist or craftsman to make what they want. And the result is mostly beautiful, I am a sucker for beautiful things.

Who would be in your ceramics collection?

Bertozzi & Casoni, Simone van Bakel, Malene Hartmann Rasmussen, Claire Partington, Katsuyo Aoki, Bouke de Vries, Phoebe Cummings.

What would you make if money were no object?

The same as I am making now. I don’t think that ceramics materials are very expensive and thus see no limits.

What is your philosophical approach to making?

It is not very difficult to like my work. Everything shines and glitters, is adorable and the details of eyes, tongues, noses and ears are endearing.  People love that kind of refinement, it can bring back memories of precious Meissen porcelain. That’s just the way I like it. I want people to love my sculptures. I want them to lose their hearts to it and I use all I can to make them do so. At the same time, I want to make this loving not too easy. It’s painful, fragile, unfulfilled and sometimes dangerous. Where are the boundaries? Where does innocence become guilt? Life become death? That is what my work is about. The tension brought by emotional dilemmas, trying to separate right from wrong where everything evolves out of clumsiness, coincidence and misunderstanding.

In my work these dilemmas exist as a complicated knot of conflicting messages. I think that the turning point where seriousness becomes melodrama, beauty turns into overkill and love becomes hate, makes a subtle balance that is very annoying and at the same time very interesting. Humour sneaks into my work when I am making it, I never make sketches before I start, I need it to be an adventure. The highly detailed works allow my thoughts to wander and combine several things that sometimes are not very logical together but do make sense in the end. When I am working in my studio, I go from one work to the next, combining several thoughts and fascinations. I love cabinets of curiosity, Wunderkammer, scientific collections, museums with devotionalia. All these collections contain images that are related to art, but also to other areas. They show the exceptional, the strange, the rare, to secure the scientific order. They lift up the supernatural to restrain the whims of nature. They suggest order and security. At the same time they warn us for chaos that will occur as soon as we let go of this proposed order. They are images that scare us and also restrain that fear. The ambivalence makes us look with admiration and disgust.

Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details

Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now

Kim Simonsson – Beyond the Vessel – Q&A


What does a day in the studio look like?

Days are very different. I usually work with a few sculptures at the same time. I like to listen to podcasts or music when I sculpt.

What was your first use of clay?

I started to work with clay seriously when I was accepted to Aalto University to study ceramics. I applied as a joke. I wanted to be a painter but didn’t get into the Art Academy. At the Aalto University I realised that sculpting is natural for me so I stopped making any kind of functional ware.

What is the most challenging element to your practice?

Everything outside of the studio work that is demanded of the artist nowadays. In studio I guess it’s the first 50 cm of the sculpture.

What is your favourite fable?

I think that all of the fairy tales that we are grown up with in Scandinavia from Hans- Christian Andersen to Astrid Lindgren can be seen in my work. Maybe Moomin is my favourite fable, if you can call Moomins animals.

What thing or person is your greatest influence?

I use as an inspiration for the faces of my characters a bust made by Camille Claudel that is displayed in The National Museum of Norway in Oslo. I live in the countryside surrounded by big forests. They are also my sources of inspiration. On the other hand, popular culture, contemporary art world and video games influence my works. I have always been interested in history, art history and mythology in particular. They play an important role in my works. I was raised in a home that belonged to the Seventh- day Adventist Church. The trauma from secession of the religion in my teenage years is part of my works.

What is the relevance of myth today?

As the western world is getting more secular, we want stories that don’t have a moral element to them. We want to believe in something more than the everyday life, that gives as reason to wait for something exciting that will come or happen.

Are you an artist or a ceramicist?

When I was studying I always wanted to make sure to everybody that I was a sculptor and not a ceramicist. Later on, when I have gained better self-esteem, I didn’t really care how people would characterise me. I do all the ceramic work myself with a skill that I have achieved by working a lot, so I have a skill and I am a craftsman.

What is the relevance of ceramics today?

Ceramics is indeed very popular at the moment in contemporary art. It is affordable for young artists who want to do sculptures, since for example casting bronze requires large infrastructure around you. With ceramics you can do pretty much anything you want; express yourself in any kind of shape or though from modernist to figurative and narrative.

What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?

For me it was necessary to learn the skill to make my sculptures because I couldn’t afford somebody else to do them.

Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?

It’s not all about making something concrete to this world but also about the therapeutic part of working with our hands. The human hand is so amazing and we have trained it over tens of thousands of years – that it is something humans have to use.

Why do you think ceramics is becoming popular amongst today’s youth?

It is an affordable material and you can sculpt or do anything from clay. It also has a lot of reference points in our culture from utility ware to sculpture.

Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today?

Ceramics has been for so long in the fringes so there is the excitement of something new.

Who is your hero or heroine?

A Canadian friend always joking told me “Don’t be a hero”. Maybe we would need less heroes in the world.

Name a book that everyone should read and why?

The Bible to understand what the fuss is about and understand that it’s written by mortal human beings and not God. I suppose most Christians haven’t read the Bible.

Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?

I work and live in Fiskars Village, Finland. It used to have manufacturing of the famous orange scissors. Nowadays the factory is situated ten km away and the village is known for its artists, designers and craftsmen. One third of the population is in a creative field. It is very inspiring to work there and it enables many kinds of cooperation. I also have a studio at the Arabia Art Department in Helsinki, part of Iittala & Arabia Design Centre. The Art Department was established in the 1930s along with the ceramic factory and the main focus has always been unique ceramic art. Nowadays the factory no longer exists but the Arabia Art Department Society carries on and develops the Finnish ceramics art heritage in the same space it was established decades ago.

  

Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details

Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now

Jørgen Haugen Sørensen – Beyond the Vessel – Q&A


What does a day in the studio look like?

The sooner I get started in the morning the better it is, because if I start later in the day there are too many things that have occupied my mind. I should be as undisturbed as possible before I start, so I’m fresh. At the same time, I must also have a pretty clear idea of what direction I want to go in, otherwise I can’t do anything, I cannot search my way to a sculpture, I must have a pretty clear idea of what I want to do.

Sometimes my assistant comes and helps me with building something in clay, either after a sketch I’ve modeled or from a drawing – clay is heavy and Benjo helps me build it up, and then I proceed alone. Some days we have to make a mold of something that I‘ve finished or a cast from a mold, or we must hollow out a sculpture I’ve modeled – and preferably nothing else of practical value/measure.

Some days I only paint a fired sculpture. I use ordinary acrylic colors and apply a layer of wax, or I have longer periods where I only make drawings in my office.

What is your first memory of ceramics?

The first impression of clay is one my mother gave me. My brother and I would be left alone at home when she’d go to work. Her being a single parent meant that she had to work a lot to keep us alive, so she bought modeling clay for us to sit at home and model. It was plasticine of course – damn – we didn’t have clay at Amager. My mother was also a kind of a resistance, freedom fighter during the war, and so she sometimes hid weapons and the like in the kind of undercover shop that she was running from our house. And then one day my brother Arne and I crawled into some cabinets that ran along the wall under the windows, and here we found a room and we crawled in, it’s what children do. In this room we found gray packages with something printed on the oily wrapping paper and we took the contents out and sat down to modeling, happily. When my mother came home she got a shock the moment she saw us sitting there on the floor using her dynamite as modeling clay. The dynamite, by the way, was in fact really good modeling material because it is actually a plasticine – just without the explosive material in it.

I first got in touch with real clay when I became an apprentice. I had stopped going to school, I actually did not finish school because my school was turned into a hospital during the war. But I had to do something in this world and my mother wanted us to have an education. So, I was sent to a ceramics factory to become a plasterer and a potter, a place called Ipsen’s Widow, which was a ceramic workshop where they made large vases and petty bourgeois ceramics for every home, so this was where I started. I was trained to make molds for ceramic pieces with 50 wedges at a time, they were very fine shapes for very intricate things and that was what I learned – I was 15. They had a master named Sørensen, who modeled all their models and I stood next to him and he liked me very much, because I was always modeling things and then I could fire my stuff in the factory kilns. That was where I first got the idea of how to model and make and then fire something and then it was finished.

What was your first use of clay?

The first day at work I got two or three small, plaster molds that were handed out, which I had to fill with clay. I’d press clay into the molds and these little weird things came out of them, they looked just like tiny pillows. Then I was given a long sequence of numbers, which I had to scratch into the wet clay. I couldn’t really understand what it was, so I asked the other workers what I was working on and they said, that these were corpse-candies, used when you burn corpses. You put one of these into the corpse’s mouth before starting the burning process, so once they were fired you could collect the ashes around the numbered clay, which would remain solid as it is refractory clay, and check the number to see who it was. So, this is how I started my ceramic career, by making corpse-candies.

What is the most challenging element to your practice?

It was probably when I had my first exhibition – with just three sculptures. Immediately afterwards, the gallerist got me a studio, and I was very young and had not done much really yet and there I was I suddenly, standing in a large studio – which was my own studio, and I was supposed to be a sculptor. I think it was the worst moment, it was a very big challenge.

Or when you are asked to make something that is large-scale for a public space in a city and you will change a whole neighbourhood by doing it. Carrying out a large-scale sculpture and getting everything in working order; financially, conceptually and getting it to work within a larger entity, is a very big challenge. But if, by challenge in my practice, you mean in my work, I would say it is the actual performance that is the most important thing to me. I have to choose a method amongst many to do whatever it is I am doing; how to model the clay to express my idea in the best way. There are many ways, you have a thousand choices you can make but you have to choose only one of the countless ways to do it – that is your challenge.

What is your favourite fable?

It’s The Shadow by H.C. Andersen, the story is about the idea of the look-alike – one’s shadow, the drama of it all. It is one of the strangest stories ever. The shadow that takes over and finally there is nothing left of the man himself, it verges on Kafka, it’s very beautiful. H. C. Andersen is a wonderful writer, who has influenced me and my upbringing. His tales meant a lot to all young people and children back then. H.C. Andersen was someone who was read out loud and explained to you, his fables and fairy tales were very important.

What thing or person is your greatest influence?

My mother’s story of course has influenced me a lot… Something that has made an impression on me quite early, was the sculptor Niels Hansen Jacobsen’sThe Death and the Mother; it was terrible and left a strong impression. It is actually a portrait of a H.C. Andersen tale. The mother is sitting with her dead child and death comes behind her with the scythe to take her child away and this is of her own choosing, to protect her child from a terrible future. But meeting many writers, has probably been of the greatest influence. I was very fortunate to become friends with many even when I was very young. When I moved to Paris I lived with the writer and poet Birgitta Trotzig and her husband, the painter Ulf Trozig and they introduced me to another level of literature. Throughout my life I have been very lucky to meet fantastic writers and poets and to this day they have a great influence on me and my thinking.

What is the relevance of myth today?

I find it difficult to answer, because I think that our whole story is like a myth. Our own situation is what I use in my work. I don’t think there is any reason to use old myths – myths and stories, because what our time unfolds to us, is so important to tell I do not see the other as something… and I cannot use religion or I cannot use old myths. I do not use them because I think the time we live in, is so exciting and there are so many images right now, and all of that is enough for me. It is reality in the present that draws those images inside my head – it is from them that I make my own images and only them. It is from reality that I form my motives. When I make a sculpture like the National Feeling it is the feeling that motivates the work, because you have Nationalism that is germinating, so I want to express that feeling – of how it looks and then I arrive at a point, that it must look pretty much like this.

Or with That’s Why They Call Them Dogs, I’m actually thinking of humankind, in certain situations, then you could also have called the work: “That’s Why They Call Them Humans” – and in this way, my way of thinking becomes my kind of “myth” – I make my own myths through what I see.

Are you an artist or a ceramicist?

I believe I’m probably mostly an artist, as I am not a ceramicist in the sense that I don’t care much about glazes and the actual chemistry of glazes that many ceramicists do and have a great knowledge of. I don’t particularly use the different expression you can get from glazes; I just use a glaze, like a painter buys colors from a color dealer. Ceramicists have the patience to do endless tests and samples, but my work wouldn’t benefit from that.

There was something very funny when I was an apprentice at the ceramic factory. They had an attic where they kept a huge number of models from former ceramicists, names that I cannot remember now, but it was a wealth of stories that were left there in the attic, which I thought was fascinating. And some of the stories, some of those things, I was asked to copy. Since I was no good at doing something on an assembly line, they put me to do something that was very difficult instead.

I should do the “panther hunter” and whatever else they were called, intricate battle scenes and such, but it was a powerful first impression. The world of images that is possible in ceramics, because that kind of pottery from around the turn of the century culminated in amazing images all together. They were Art Nouveau, and were all full of myths.So later, when I entered the School of Arts and Crafts, I had incredibly bad taste compared to the other ceramists, because I modeled myth-like images, and they only went for design. Theirs were so very clean and everything whereas mine were just swamped with those things – heads of monks, all such strange things, images of drunkards lying in ditches, or slaves in chains, almost social realism in small sized ceramics, as I had done in the factory – and sold to the workers – and made extra income from.

What is the relevance of ceramics today?

To me, it is relevant, because I use it to make three-dimensional images, for this purpose clay is amazing and cheaper than bronze and many other materials. Clay is as quick as a drawing; it is very relevant because it is very immediate compared to other materials. Clay is fantastic, you can do anything you like, you can make very accurate things, you can make bombastic things. Clay also has the ability to be modeled more or less roughly. It’s like a huge alphabet; and it is the oldest material. When humans first found a lump of soil that was like clay, they bent down, picked it up and immediately made an image of a little fat lady that they could carry in their pockets.

What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world? I think it’s great that you can still exist in a situation that has remained the same since the very beginning. You pick up a lump of soil and form an image in it – and you can do it with your bare hands. You need nothing else but your hands and perhaps a stick and you will be able to do it – it may be that the sticks have been honed a little more today, but it doesn’t really matter. In a way it is the most primitive and also the oldest method we have. Compare it to any other material, such as painting, where the paint has to be grinded, if you want to do something with iron, you have to forge and heat and hammer it up and all that; video needs specialist equipment, it all depends on an entire other process.

With clay: nothing. It’s right there in front of you and you can just pick it up and shape it, – it’s you and your hands, it’s the meeting between person and material – quite simply – and that is what makes it so beautiful. In our technological and digital world, it is quite astounding that there is something that has all that history in itself and still works. It contains an ethics and an aesthetic within itself, the material has it all.

Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?

A good friend of mine – a poet once said: “Don’t forget that one day you will go into a museum and see a plastic bucket in a display case – and there will be a guy saying: ‘Imagine what they could do back then!’”

Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today particularly amongst the younger generation?

Because it is free from all artificial matter,it is an original material – that’s why. There is nothing in between the secrets in the clay and the pictures in your head when you get a lump of clay in your hand. Then you press, then you make a head, then you continue on making whatever it is, that’s what happens with clay. What other material would you compare it to? Video? To make a video there are so many obstacles before you can do anything with it, it is not something you can just go to. You don’t have to be educated to work in clay. Young people may be tired of all the technology and lights – to make music today, they must have a scene and smokescreen and flashing lights – they can’t just sing a song. There is no one who just stands up and sings, they have to have all that apparatus behind.

Young people are looking for an authentic experience, just like singing a song, it’s exactly the same. It’s your own pristine material. You don’t have an entire Apple company between you and an idea, which still has to find its form, it’s a very delicate moment. Technology manipulates. Apple computers, PCs manipulate you just as plastic toy tools constrain children. With clay it’s your own conversation with yourself. It can be difficult at first, with no assistive devices. But once you get there, then there is nothing between you and the material. I also think that people are looking for something original, clay is completely immediate, and already existing in our minds somehow. Think of the milk bowls that you could buy once. Each village had a pottery workshop because they did what everybody needed in the kitchen – it’s all gone now. Præstø, Sorring, if you look at a map from that time, you can see that there were ceramic workshops everywhere, that is, potters. They are all closed and I don’t think they are coming back either. Now it’s something else, ceramics today is more artificial. But I don’t think that ceramics will become so popular as it once was, that potteries will arise again around countries. Very little of that kind is left, instead ceramics has become more decorative or artistic.

Is it a disadvantage that it has been lifted to an artform?

You can say that – it’s a bit like what happened with photography. When you started to make art-photography, well, photography in its original form died a little – just like what happened to jazz, when you started making jazz as an artform and compared it to classical music – then jazz died out to some extent overtaken by pop music and the like. I think why ceramics has become popular amongst today’s youth – the way it has, is because it has emerged as another thing, as a means of expression, so it has moved from pottery to become an expression in clay, its own expression. People are looking for themselves in the clay.

Who is your hero or heroine?

Nicola d’Arca from Bologna, is truly great. His Pietá from the 14th century; a group
of sculptures in terracotta in full size, is incredibly done, so he is my hero in a way. From the very first time I saw his work, it has remained in my head ever since – there are of course many others, but within the field of ceramics, he stands out as one of the most amazing I know of.

Name a book that everyone should read and why?

I read a lot of poetry because it is clean – it is like sculpture – or ceramics for that matter, all the superfluous is taken off, it says exactly and only what needs to be said. What others have to use four hundred pages to express, poets can say in four lines. One can also say that people should just read, there are so many books I could recommend – I always read, since I discovered that you can be in the best company with the greatest minds of all time by going to a library. A library is a great invention where you can find all the books you need, I almost think it would be unfair to mention only one, because there are so many – It’s a gift. But please read Dostoevsky, Proust, Musil, Joyce, Kafka, Hermann Broch, Thomas Bernhard, Birgitta Trotzig, and all the poets.

Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?

My studio is a place where I stay, the place I live; my workshop is a place where I’m alone, where I can think and find the images I keep in my head. But I can work anywhere – I’ve travelled around the world and worked in many different places. When I was very young for about ten to fifteen years I lived in small hotels and I liked that because it was so non-committal. In Oaxaca or in the Netherlands, we were many people working in the same studio, it did not disturb me that there were other people when I was working.

I enjoy having my own studio because there is space and I can close the door – this is of course an ideal condition for me, but otherwise I have worked everywhere in foundries and when I was young at the ceramics factory. We would be 4-5 people in a room and they talked and shouted to each other and it didn’t bother me, I can concentrate anywhere. That’s because I can shut off everything, I can shut myself inside and be myself, anywhere. I can turn off the outer world, it’s very easy for me. When I am filmed or photographed, then I try to be open to it, but I am not actually there as a human being, I walk around in my own thoughts most of the time. Music disturbs me because I think sculpture and the kind of visual arts I make require silence. It’s like being down in an aquarium and looking around, to be closed inside of oneself – there is no sound at all. The same is true if you go into a church or some other large room where there is silence, it is nice when you are looking at pictures, but if you have music playing at the same time, it immediately mixes with the picture and becomes a part of the picture and this is a little annoying to me.

What technological or other advances have enabled you to push the boundaries of your material / practice?

A crane.

What is the biggest problem or challenge you see with ceramics today?

The selling. Also because marble and bronze sculptures have gained a greater value which I think is wrong, as it is in fact the same thing. Ceramics is the original piece itself and not a print of anything, it’s unique. A clay work comes directly from the hands of the artist, whereas bronze has gone through a long process and marble many times has been copied and enlarged from a model. I just think that clay has all the possibilities and that’s what is fun about it.

Who would be in your ceramics collection?

I already have a nice collection of pre- Columbian, Indian, Chinese, Turkish, Mexican, Japanese, Neapolitan, and antique ceramics. I would like to have it enlarged, also by more contemporary works: A Francisco Toledo, a vase of Alev Siesbye. In my imagined collection, I would also like to have a Bindesbøll, a Jorn, a Picasso wouldn’t hurt. A tight collection of some Japanese masters.

What would you make if money were no object?

I would have liked to make a house, a large decorated house in ceramics, with sculptures on the outside as a part of the architecture – that I think could be fun. I should have made a tower together with Asger Jorn and Echaurren Matta, we planned to build a tower on the island of Ven, and I am sorry we didn’t manage to do so. The idea was to build a tower so big it could be seen from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, which was just opposite the island of Ven, mostly because Jorn wanted to piss Jensen off, the then proud creator of Louisiana. We applied to do it at the clay factory Hasle Klinker on Bornholm, but they didn’t want us.

What is your philosophical approach to making?

It must be here and now, what I do and that I am a witness of this time – and I pass it on, so – “I think, I see”– many of my works are contained in that title.

      

Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details

Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now

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?

My childhood.

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?

Artist

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?

Alejandro Jodorowsky

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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Claire Curneen – Beyond the Vessel – Q&A


What does a day in the studio look like?

I have occupied many studios over the years, some wonderfully atmospheric, although freezing cold, others exciting and edgy but somewhat challenging after dark. My studio at the moment is at the end of my house, it is warm and bright, I built it there as it was a perfect solution when rearing a small child. As the teenager years loom, I’m I now ready for the new larger studio away from domesticity. I expect this will be my last studio.

What is your first memory of ceramic?

My father brought home a ceramic bird when I was 10 years old. He had been visiting his brother in Madrid and discovered his wife had been making ceramics. It was a round plump shape, which felt good in the hand. What seemed significant at the time was the fact that this object was made by someone I knew and better still a family relation. The Bird joined the collection of other random objects that came home after my father’s many visits.

What was your first use of clay?

When I was 19, I made a series of teapots with varying spouts, handles and lids and they clearly demonstrated no function at all. I loved their sculptural possibilities and the problems a teapot body, spout, handle and lid presented. These limitations provided endless permutations on form, yet the teapot was always there.

What is the most challenging element to your practice?

The endless self doubt.

What is your favourite fable?

Bluebeard. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a wonderful unsettling interpretation of this fable.

What thing or person is your greatest influence?

Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery has been a constant go-to reference for me. It challenges every aspect of my being, a painting that is utterly beautiful and complex. The skin of the Christ figure is translucent and fragile, very much like porcelain. The whole scene depicted has a uniquely charged presence.

What is the relevance of myth today?

Myth is a good way for us to be able to explain the unexplainable.

Are you an artist or a ceramicist?

Artist is my preferred term, but ceramics is a way into how one reads and understands my work.

What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?

Skill is vital for us to articulate our ideas and this enriches the experience of what is being communicated, but it is not everything.

Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?

No and this is very unlikely to happen, although the media would like you to believe otherwise.

Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today?

Ceramics is visceral and has a certain honesty which is rooted in craft. Crafted objects give you something to believe and the world of art needs that now more than ever, ceramics is a good antidote.

Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?

I have occupied many studios over the years, some wonderfully atmospheric, although freezing cold, others exciting and edgy but somewhat challenging after dark. My studio at the moment is at the end of my house, it is warm and bright, I built it there as it was a perfect solution when rearing a small child. As the teenager years loom, I’m I now ready for the new larger studio away from domesticity. I expect this will be my last studio.

What technological or other advances have made you able to push the boundaries of your material / practice?

Not much has changed in technology when working with clay, my hands are my tools.

Why do you think ceramics has endured from ancient times?

Because it is ancient and still bound up with mysteries and it tells us so much about the past. For us to understand ourselves we must delve into the past and ceramics holds many of those histories.

Who would be in your ceramics collection?

Johann Joachim Kändler in particular the Meissen goat at the V&A.

What is your philosophical approach to making?

I think Woody Allen says it all in this quote: ‘To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love, to be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy, therefore, to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness – I hope you’re getting this down.’ Woody Allen, Love and Death

      

Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details

Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now

Phoebe Cummings – Beyond the Vessel – Q&A


What does a day in the studio look like?

I have only very recently made a studio at home. A lot of making happens on site, using clay directly in the space where it is shown. This way of working initially grew out of financial necessity as I was unable to afford a studio or the cost of firing, however, it quickly became an intrinsic part of the work itself. Over the past fourteen years I have continued to work in this way, often in very different environments; from Hawaii to the Arctic, museums to factories. Increasingly, and since having children, I try to prepare components at home that I will take with me, this has happened mainly in my kitchen and now I have a separate workspace in the garden. I tend to have a lot of plants in the studio as well as clay, it is important for me to look at the structures of growth and details of real plants, even if those I make are imagined.

What is your first memory of ceramic?

We had a set of willow pattern bowls at home, I remember my mother telling me that they contained a story. I was about five at the time and thought if we smashed the plate there would be a piece of paper trapped inside with the story written on it. She taught me to look more closely at what is written in an image.

What was your first use of clay?

I used to go to a pottery class as a child. I can clearly remember the satisfaction of making something with my hands. Our group exhibited in the local art gallery and on reflection I think that was an important experience. It was the first time I think I felt visible in society, I was aware that making gave us a voice.

What is the most challenging element to your practice?

Clay is a challenge, it is constantly changing, which is also why I am so drawn to it. Dealing with shrinkage can be difficult, it is important to understand how things break as well as how they’re made, I respond to that understanding in how I construct the work.

What is your favourite fable?

I am not sure I have a favourite, but I enjoy the way fables offer an alternative version of reality and the possibility to learn and grow from fictional stories.

What thing or person is your greatest influence?

Artist Jefford Horrigan was a visiting tutor when I was studying at the Royal College of Art. He really shifted my understanding of how I work with clay and gave me advice that I still draw on. Amongst many other things, he told me that I could make work by the side of the road if I needed to, don’t make excuses, just get on and do it. That was so important after I graduated, I declared myself bankrupt and had to find a new way of working, he gave me confidence and that push just to get on with it.

What is the relevance of myth today?

Stories and fiction have always been important to humanity, I think today advances in technology give us different experiences of reality as part of our everyday life. There is such multiplicity to who we are and how we exist and interact with the world around us, for me myth is part of that. Written fiction is often a starting point for me, writers such as J.G Ballard, Ursula K Le Guin, Virginia Woolf and W.G Sebald have been particularly significant, I see parallels between working with clay, a monochrome substance, and written language, both of which can construct vivid worlds with structure and texture. I am increasingly thinking about writing as a resting point of the ephemeral sculpture I make, considering how I might document sculpture through writing, sometimes as fictional memories of the piece. Maybe there is always an element of myth around how a work that no longer exists is retold in the present.

Are you an artist or a ceramicist?

Artist seems the simplest term to describe what I do as it encompasses a wide range of practices, but I am clear that my work is rooted in craft and specialism in ceramics. I use traditional ceramic techniques and my thinking has been shaped by a close relationship with materials and appreciation of decorative arts. The outcome of that however is usually temporary sculpture made from raw clay. The fleeting existence of the work also has a close connection to performance.

What is the relevance of ceramics today?

I think ceramics has always been relevant to humans across cultures and time periods and continues to be so. We experience it through objects for use and as an artistic medium, how we use it shifts and evolves. Our definition of ceramics is less rigid today, for example the work I make never makes that transformation from clay into ceramic with heat. Clay and ceramics touch so many areas of our lives, some we pay little attention to such as in mobile phone technology or radioactive waste management. I believe the relevance of ceramics as an artistic material today is deeply connected to relationships between body and material; physical and sensory perception. As humans I think we seek connections, and clay responds to the simple press of a finger, maybe that plays to our innate desire to communicate, in a very basic way it confirms we exist, there is action and consequence.

What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?

For me, technical skills give me greater opportunities and possibilities in what I make. I can choose how and what I want to communicate through making, it may sometimes involve pushing against those skills or traditions as well, but by having that knowledge of material and process I remove certain limitations. There is a great satisfaction to making and direct involvement with materials and I think it can lead to innovation across a wide range of fields.

Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?

I am not opposed to technology or machine production, but I don’t think it can ever completely replace making by hand. I think they offer different possibilities, individually and combined.

Why do you think ceramics is becoming popular amongst today’s youth?

Perhaps recognising a need for physical, material experience in reaction to our increased interaction with the digital world and ‘virtual’ reality.

Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today?

I think there are always waves of interest, things rise and fall, ceramics has never disappeared, there are just fluctuations in where the interest comes from, who uses it and in what way.

Who is your hero or heroine?

Nature.

Name a book that everyone should read and why?

Ursula K Le Guin’s Direction of the Road would be a good start, it is written from the perspective of an oak tree. I love short stories, Lydia Davis is one of my favourite writers, brevity interests me in both senses of the word.

Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?

I don’t see a studio as a necessity, the way I think and work with clay is part of who I am so that moves with me. I am fortunate to now have made a workspace at home, and I appreciate the chance to work close to my family. Over the past 14 years I have worked without a fixed studio space and I enjoy the interaction of working in different places, meeting new people and responding to different spaces.

What technological or other advances have made you able to push the boundaries of your material / practice?

In terms of how I make things I work with traditional ceramic processes and use very few tools. The internet and the ease with which we can connect to the rest of the world has enabled me to work in the way I do, I think without the possibility to work internationally it would have been hard to sustain my practice.

What is the biggest problem or challenge you see with ceramics today?

In the UK we face challenges to do with education, the closure of ceramics courses in universities over the past decade and the rising cost of tuition fees has radically changed the provision and access to ceramics training and education. However, from that new opportunities and ways of learning are also emerging which provide different models and provision. I think it is important to embrace change and opportunities.

Why do you think ceramics has endured from ancient times?

I think it is part of a primal need to create and to interact with the material world around you. It is such a varied material, it has so many differing qualities and such rich potential, it has always had something to offer, across time. I think the directness of working with clay is also important, it will listen to anyone’s hands, it rewards touch.

Who would be in your ceramics collection?

I love Gillian Lowndes work, the combination of materials, risk and yet a sense of calm. The work of contemporary artists Marit Tingleff and Sam Bakewell would definitely be on my wish list too, and historic pieces, some Palissy, Meissen and Sevres without a doubt. It would be a big collection.

What would you make if money were no object?

Time is the biggest luxury, I would love to work on a project over a longer period of time, years, and to have the funds to dedicate my time to that.

What is your philosophical approach to making?

I am more interested in the way we experience materials and objects, how they change and interact. There is a flow, and I try not to fix things or hold them still for too long, I try to allow the material a voice and agency. I think an anthropocentric viewpoint is part of many contemporary problems in the world, When I observe plants I can’t help but think what fools we are in comparison.

Phoebe_Cummings_(Study I)      Phoebe_Cummings_(detail Study II)

Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details

Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now

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