What’s happening in your second week living in Gothenburg do I hear you ask? Well, with care not to turn this into a make-up blog, since I haven’t seen sun in so long, I’ve noticed my foundation has suddenly become five shades too orange for my skin. I’m having to choose each morning whether I’d rather look like Tim Burton’s corpse bride (a less sexy version) or an oompa loompa for the day. So important top tip #1 for students going abroad to study in Sweden – leave that match perfection at home. Bring lots of moisturiser though, if you’re anything like me, the change of climate will dry out your skin like crazy. Top tip #2: Beware day 11. I’m not sure if this is just from my experience or if there’s some scientific reason behind the maths, but yesterday seemed to be a struggle for a lot of people who moved here on Monday last week. It felt like the day we’d been the most tired so far at our new university. So my advice is – take it easy. There are likely to be loads of social events to go to in the first few weeks including pub crawls, buddy group get togethers, info fairs, welcome receptions and so forth, but don’t feel pressure to go to everything that’s organised.
But when you do go to parties and get togethers keep in mind top tip #3: Make an effort to remember faces. Names are difficult, especially since you will be meeting students from across the world, many with names you’ll be unfamiliar with and have trouble pronouncing. But the amount of times in the past few days I’ve asked someone “Who are you then?” and they reply “What, we were at the pub together last week!” and it dawns on me that we had a long conversation only now they’re not wearing glasses or they have a different pink hat on, is a bit embarrassing.
And finally Top tip #4 is basic: Remember to bring all your important Erasmus documents to be signed by the host university. In my excitement to move abroad I may have got distracted researching where to find the best charity shops and somewhere along the line misplaced my learning agreement. Don’t do this. You need to get it signed ASAP in order to receive your monthly allowance from Erasmus. Gothenburg is an expensive city to live in!
I’ve come to the realisation that much of my recent ceramic work has been concerned with ‘the vessel’ without myself being conscious of it. The deconstruction of traditional ceramic bowls and cylinders on the wheel and then reconfiguration of these recognisable vessel forms into a new form with openings that also contains space and holds volume has been central to these experiments.
Our seminar discussing the vessel threw up the question ‘Can’t anything be a vessel or a container?’. Everything is made up of something, even atoms contain a nucleus, electrons and forces of energy. Every sculptural three dimensional form with an inside or outside, despite serving no functional purpose contains in it connotations and metaphors, layers of meaning as well as air, space, darkness or light. Many of the traditional South American vessels at the archives on Tuesday were empty but their insides were a secret, invisible from the outside, guarded from view by the shell of the exterior. These forms contained darkness.
I keep coming back to the small tomb sculpture at the Potteries museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Something about this artefact and the way it holds light, containing a spotlight in the darkness of its interior resonates deeply with me. I recently read Tanazaki’s essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ in which he discusses Japanese laquerware and how it’s subtle beauty can only be appreciated in the dimness of candlelight : “I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen”.
One of the ideas that interested me in the seminar was how objects and things can contain memory, both physically like a USB stick, metaphorically like an old heirloom or more abstractly like the brain and body. My intention though is to focus on something perhaps equally ungraspable – light. Memories feel real and they’re how we navigate the world and construct our current realities but they are only the creations of a complex organ in the body. Light similarly feels concrete and controllable, but the more you think about it , the more magical and abstract it seems. How can I create vessels that hold light, not in the sense of lamps or candle holders but vessels that hold light and shadow in their form, that capture light (whether natural or artificial I haven’t decided yet) and play with the tones of shadow.
The idea isn’t fully formed yet and I expect to deviate along the way, but it’s a starting point. Light and darkness control our lives. I feel more of my attention will be drawn towards that here in Sweden where the hours of daylight are short in winter but the extreme opposite is the case in summer where up north you can even experience the midnight sun.
I feel especially inspired by an exhibition on at Gothenburg’s public library at the moment, ‘Daylight and Objects’ by Daniel Rybakken, which explores illumination. His collection of sculpture objects made from glass and aluminium that border the line between furniture design and installation art (perhaps like Donald Judd) reflect and diffuse the artificial light in the environment to create the illusion of natural light. His theory is: ‘A lack of natural light in a space can create a feeling of being enclosed. An illusion of daylight creates a feeling of an expanded perceived space by giving information about what lies beyond the physical space. The presence of daylight lowers the contrast between the indoor and the outdoor.’ This knowledge must be known by people who work with space – interior designers and architects. I’m particularly interested in the architect Renzo Piano as an advocate for the use of glass and the importance of buildings that let in light. Perhaps optical illusions with light is a path I should explore in the next weeks.
Outside this morning, the generous icing of snow on the ground of my new accommodation at Olofshöjd is beginning to thaw. This is my fourth day in Gothenburg, Sweden since arriving by plane from Manchester via Brussels on January 14th, my third at Olofshöjd, the city’s central student accommodation run by SGD Bostäder. It’s a surreal experience to be an International Erasmus students from the flip side of the coin. Despite the outward similarities, the culture here already feels pretty alien to the UK. I’ve already made the faux pas of forgetting to take my shoes off before sitting down at our local student café and have had some very strange looks when paying for my groceries with cash (everyone here uses card). I’ve also been confused by the sophisticated queuing system here where you take a ticket before waiting for your number to be called, which they seem to have at most reception desks. I’m somewhat familiar with this system in the UK, at McDonald’s for example and when you got your feet measured at Clark’s for shiny new school shoes, but here it’s everywhere. The city’s network system of trams has also been a little difficult to navigate, but unlike the UK where it’s almost impossible to get away with cheating the public transport system, here many locals hop on and off the trams without paying, even though I hear you can get a hefty fine if you’re caught.
Tuesday was our first day at the Högskolan för design och konsthantverk (HDK) on Kristinelundsgatan where David Carlsson introduced us to our first project brief – quite an open project but one that can generally be summed up with the question ‘What is a vessel/container?’. We began with a seminar exploring the connotations and meanings of the two words (in Swedish: Kärlet and Behållare). Are the two synonymous? I don’t think so. A container might be thought of as less precious than a vessel, closed off, while a vessel is expected to have an opening. Container has undertones of functionality and purpose while a vessel might be more decorative, a flower vase. The word ‘vessel’ itself rolls more elegantly and poetically off the tongue than ‘container’.
To help me think about how I want to approach this project I chose three images I felt drawn to that explore the idea of the ‘vessel’:
This honeycomb object ‘Made by Bees’ is by a Slovakian designer called Thomas Gabzdil Libertiny. I found it in a book at the HDK library called Process by Jennifer Hudson. A collaboration between nature and technology – the artists placed a hollow mould of the archetypal vessel into a beehive and the bees subsequently filled in the negative space with wax resulting in a unique organic vessel. Unlike ceramic vessels this will decay and disintegrate, changing form over time. I find the ephemeral quality of this material fascinating. Unless fired, clay will sprout spores and mould too eventually (as I discovered when I left a load of damp porcelain in a box for months and it turned orange). I am also drawn to the playful nature of this object with the use of bees which reference the traditional use of vases to hold flowers. Interestingly vessel translates into Welsh as ‘llestr’ and a beehive is a ‘llestr gwenyn’ – a bee vessel.
I found this image of old watering cans on my phone from a trip to St Ffagans. I chose these more for their aesthetics than anything – the visibly soldered joints, the balance of the forms and crescents. They also made me think about the other components we add on to vessels to make them more functional to us such as spouts and handles, and how these change what the vessel communicates. These above are put together in a way which make them look like they are recycled from other pieces of waste metal.
The third image is of a ceramic vessel I found on Tuesday when we visited the ceramic collection at the archive of Gothenburg’s World Culture Museum. Its rounded base caught my attention because it relies on the form finding its own balance and centre of gravity. Depending on the weight of what goes inside it would sit differently. It reminds me of drinking horns and ice creams – awkward shapes you can’t put down unless you’ve finished eating or drinking from. I like the idea of objects that are difficult and so force us to think and question what we take for granted.