Cultural Differences between Sweden and the UK: Holistic Ceramics

“I think for Swedes, art and design and craft—woodwork, furniture, textile, lighting, ceramics, glass, architecture—very much inform one another,” …“There is not always crossover, but it’s a symbiosis; you can’t have one without the others.” – Saskia Neuman, Global Art Manager at Absolut, Stockholm.[1]

A couple of months ago my course visited Borås Museum of Modern Art to see something I was surprised to find in a modern art museum. Not one, but two exhibitions showcasing artists working in clay. The first was by contemporary Swedish artist Eva Mag and the second a retrospective of work by the more traditional potter Kerstin Danielsson. Clay and ceramics, often designated to the realm of ‘craft’ as opposed to high art worthy of a white wall contemporary gallery space, are something I’m not accustomed to finding at a modern art museum. This surprise encounter led me to think about the role of ceramics in Sweden in contrast to the British scene and ponder the more holistic attitude towards art that seems to be present here.

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Figure 1

Eva Mag’s multimedia work consisted of a film alongside life sized ‘body-forms’ made with clay filled fabric skins, wood and wax. In the video ‘Directions and shapes in a woman’s body’ (2013) Mag very physically manipulates blocks of clay into human form, constructing, deconstructing and finally wrapping the broken off clay pieces in the fabric of her dress. Through the film, the process of moulding the clay is shown to be more important than the final piece itself. Another artwork in her exhibition was a block of clay encased in a sewn fabric shell, suggesting the form beneath but hiding all surface. The design tenet of truth to materials is turned on its head. Like in Jone Kvie’s current ‘Metamorphosis’ exhibition at Göteborgs Konstmuseum where aluminium mimics cardboard, concrete and wood, in Mag’s work the materials are mysterious, disguised as other.

But it wasn’t just Mag’s work that made me question the traditional way I know of working with clay, on my course at HDK I have encountered a similar attitude of openness to other materials. I am surprised by the acceptance of mixed media approaches and alternative decorating techniques to glazes. Third year graduate Sara Kallioinen Lundgren often sprays her distinctive pop art style creations with bright spray paint. Others incorporate concrete, thread and fabric into their work and it seems common to introduce elements other than ceramic in displays – earth and gravel, photographs, video and sound. On our recent ‘Room’ course, one of the ceramics students worked exclusively with weaving and fabric. We have also collaborated with students from the jewellery and textile department to work on performance art pieces. There is the attitude that working things out in a different material first can be valuable.

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Figure 2

Back at my home university however I feel there is a more ‘purist’ and perhaps snobbish attitude to ceramics regarding surface in particular. Glaze chemistry and research is something we are encouraged to master while exploring ceramic surfaces through paint, collage and other techniques is perhaps seen as a ‘lower’ form of decoration as it requires less skill and knowledge. This desire to define ceramics according to more traditionalist attitudes appears to extend to the UK ceramics scene in a wider sense too. In contrast to Sweden, Britain has a huge selection of Ceramic festivals every summer – Art in Clay, Potfest, International Ceramics Festival, Earth and Fire and Ceramic Art Wales to name a few. These are exclusively ceramic fairs that typically last over a weekend. While these, alongside the popular TV show ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’ have helped bring ceramics to a wider audience and give makers a great platform for selling their work, it may be that they are also contributing to the wider society seeing ‘pottery’ as something distinctly separate from other forms of art. As an example to illustrate this rift in thinking about ceramics, I can take the names given to the BA courses both here and in the UK. In Cardiff I study on an undergraduate course called BA in ‘Ceramics’ while at HDK the course’s title is ‘Ceramic Art’. The names alone suggest less division between ceramics as a craft and as a fine art in the Swedish art world.

After further research I discovered I’m not the only one to feel that Sweden has a more holistic art scene than the UK. Stockholm based artist Stuart Mayes (originally from London) in an interview with ‘The Local’ (Sweden’s English language news website) explains: ‘I find the Swedish art world to be more holistic, academic and sustainable. Swedes have a much more inclusive and open attitude towards art. I think the English government has quite a conservative perception of art; they don’t really value it as something important and that doesn’t empower me as an artist.’[2] Mayes isn’t a ceramic artist but his observations may also be true for the ceramics scene. To some extent though, the conservative attitude towards ceramics in the UK and desire to hand down pottery skills in the tradition of the British godfather of ceramics Bernard Leach, can be seen as something positive. Schemes like ‘Adopt a Potter’ in which potters are assigned apprentices to learn their ‘trade’ make sure that traditional skills live on and that the sloppy craft of ceramicists like Rebecca Warren and Grayson Perry have something to contend with.[3]
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Figure 3

As a result of working in what feels like a more interdisciplinary environment, my current work has evolved. I have begun to experiment with wrapping fired clay in thread as a form of surface decoration. Our text seminars have encouraged me to look at ceramics in a wider sense too. In these discussions we are each invited to choose a text to explore the theme of the course, however these texts can be anything ranging from a poem to a legal document to an exhibition review. After discovering an article about Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts during our recent ‘Vessel project’ I began working with plaster in a different way to how I have before – creating plaster casts as the finished piece instead of moulds from which to slipcast. The unspoken rules to which I’ve stuck to in the past have been broken. However, since the casting of these forms wasn’t possible without the original clay moulds, isn’t this still ceramic art? Like in Eva Mag’s video, I am still working with clay but it isn’t the final outcome. I find myself eager to explore new ways of making which challenge the idea that a ceramic artist is exclusively a maker of clay objects.

 

Images

Figure 1. Detail from How Much Does a Mountain Weigh?’ by Eva Mag. Source: http://www.evamag.se/works.html

Figure 2. Artwork by Sara Kallioinen Lundgren. Source: http://sarakallioinenlundgren.com/

Figure 3. Detail from sculptural piece I made for the Vessel project. Ceramic and thread.

 

 

[1] Van Straaten, L. (2017, November) An Insider’s Guide to the Stockholm Art Scene. Retrieved from: https://www.departures.com/art-culture/stockholm-art-scene-travel-guide#intro

[2]  “The Art Scene in Sweden in Less Competitive” (2010) Retrieved from: https://www.thelocal.se/20150209/my-love-for-stockholm-has-no-limits

[3] Read more about ‘sloppy craft’: Adamson, G. (2008, March/April) When Craft Gets Sloppy, from Crafts no.211, 36-40

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Slowness, Balance, Roundness

‘In other cultures, time is cyclical. It’s seen as moving in great, unhurried circles. It’s always renewing and refreshing itself. Whereas in the West, time is linear. It’s a finite resource; it’s always draining away. You either use it, or lose it’.

How can we change our approach to time in order to stop our mindless ‘roadrunner’ existences and live more meaningfully ‘in the moment?’. Carl Honore suggests we stop thinking of ‘slow’ as a taboo, dirty word with connotations of stupidity and laziness and start working towards a ‘good slow’, living at a slower pace and rhythm of life.

 

 

Luna (2014)

The other day I re-watched ‘ Luna’ – a mesmerising, ambiguous and totally underrated film directed by the genius Dave McKean and I realised it explores a key theme I want to respond to in my work: balance, in this case the balance between fantasy and reality. The dialogue in a scene around the dinner table exposes how unreliable our mind and memories are and suggests the reality we create is part based on fantasy. We spoke a little about this in Theo Humphrey’s professional practice session today, about how our minds jump to conclusions because we are constantly bombarded with so much data, this is the only way we can make sense of and navigate the world. 

D: I think there’s precious little connection with the real world at the moment, but I don’t think you are crediting fantasy with a proper role here. I’m not talking about ghosts and fairies, I’m talking about our fantasy lives, no, our imaginative lives.
G: You can play around with the words, but it all amounts to the same thing, lack of engagement.
C: Well I’d like to hear what you have to say.
D: Thank you, I just feel there is very little fact in our lives at the moment, very little reality. This is real, our conversation is real, but what’s going to happen in an hour or so? You will have your version of events, I will have mine, and they will both be different. There will be a chaos of memories, misinterpretations, lateral connections and they will all be a fantasy. In fact, everything that you hope for and dream about, that is all a fantasy…and the layers of associations and connections that every second your brain is making as we navigate this world, it is all just a fantasy. And yet it seems as real as the news on TV, the sound of this table, the people we love, and that’s why it’s very important to deal with this definition of fantasy in our lives…
G: What about young Freya here, where do you stand on the great fantasy versus reality debate?
D: The two are not mutually exclusive.
F: Tango. I tango.
C: You dance tango.
F: Mhm. Twice a week. And if you want to see, if you’re really interested in observing the actual balance in our lives between what you call the real world and what Dean here thinks of as our fantasy lives…then it’s poised. Perfectly, in tango.
C: I’d love to go dancing.
F: It’s much more than a dance. It’s a negotiation…between friends and enemies and lovers. It’s where you see how ridiculous we all are in our make-believe lives and our courtship routines and our sabre rattling and our pretence at being self sufficient. It’s where you see how vital life is.

 

Mysterious objects

I had a conversation with Liam last week about how my ‘tree of pots’ sculpture reminds him of a Rick and Morty episode where a ‘How it’s made’ video is shown for a nonsense invention called a ‘plumbus’. Apparently it’s an ‘all-purpose home device’ and since everyone knows what it does there is no need to explain it. I like how the animators seem to have had free reign to have fun and come up with a silly video for a vaguely sexual looking object that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dr Seuss book.

This reminded me of an episode of British comedy series Black Books where Fran finds an unusual item delivered to her gift shop but can’t sell it because she doesn’t know what it’s for (it’s later revealed that the ‘bald furby’ is in fact a lighter). I like the idea of objects that look as if they have a purpose but you can’t quite figure out what it is or how to use them. It makes me think about the context of objects and how all the tools we create and objects we use revolve around our ‘humanness’. For example, to an alien, the purpose of a screwdriver would be mysterious because they wouldn’t know what a screw was and a series of creatures that had no feet would have a hard time figuring out what socks are for.

I also draw a connection with the work of ceramic artist Harm Van der Zeeuw whose kooky sculptures I saw over the summer at ICF and Art in clay Hatfield. His steampunk style models of machines with cogs, wheels and struts look like they could move or serve some mechanical purpose but it’s all an illusion. In response to my assessment last week, Duncan and Natasha suggested I think about camera obscuras and lenses because of the way my recent work references objects you look through to use. I’m thinking back to the pin hole camera field project last year and thinking about the different devices we look through and into (Optical instruments): cameras, binoculars, glasses, telescopes, microscopes, kaleidoscopes….

 

 

Peer Review Presentation

Peer Review presentation

Context – While in the city centre I came across these bollards outside the St David’s centre inviting passes by to look inside at tiny scenes of people. Artist Jane Edden created the scenes inside eleven bollards, deliberately making them black and white to contrast with the vibrancy and bustle of shopping centre: ‘I wanted them to be little moments of calm so that when people do bend down and look inside they completely enter another world.” The scenes reminded me of photos of the inside of musical instruments like violins, which look like expensive apartments because our sense of scale is distorted. Similarly I hope to play with the space inside the objects I make, drawing people in to a moment of calm.

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Context – This ‘tomb’ ceramic piece in Stoke’s Potteries museum has a hole in the top which casts a theatrical spotlight inside the form. I don’t have any details about its origins but could email the museum to learn more. The beautiful play of light reminded me of the shadows on Youngen’s work at this year’s BCB. How can my sculptures capture and play with light?

Slide2 (800x450)Context – In regards to my making methods Bryan Newman‘s composite thrown and distorted forms are a big influence. I like their playfulness and repetition of the circle motif which is loaded with symbolism.

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Skill – I’m still developing my skill of constructing with thrown forms. I’m learning that it’s best to dry these sculptures very slowly, wrapped in plastic bags to avoid cracking. I’m also aware that this process pushes me to improve my throwing because the imperfections e.g uneven walls in the vessels are revealed when they’re cut up. I’ve learnt to throw in porcelain too but have yet to gain confidence with it to start constructing composite forms. This is something I want to explore in future.

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Skill – In the past, if a glaze didn’t have the desired results, I found a new one. By learning  how to change elements in a glaze to get different effects, I feel confident altering recipes to tailor them to work for me, rather than starting from scratch each time.Slide5 (800x450)Skill – Collaborating on this project has made me consider my work in new ways. I’ve started documenting how I work with film and sound instead of simply static images. Taking time out to discuss ideas with another student rather than a tutor has been fun because some of the ideas are a bit ‘out there’ and probably not really achievable in the short space of time we have.

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Idea – In the past I haven’t thought much about how my art will be displayed as I’m making it, but I’m starting to find myself interested in art that you interact with in ways other than looking at an object on a white plinth.Slide7 (800x450)

Idea – I began by throwing random vessel forms then constructing them without a design in mind but this resulted in pieces that didn’t look balanced and were missing bits and I ended up with lots of leftover forms to reclaim. I’ve started sketching designs then working from these instead, to save time.Slide8 (800x450)

Idea – A friend, Ian Hinchliffe suggested to me the sculpture below would look great on a big scale so you could walk inside it, so I’ve decided to think about how my pieces would look scaled up or down. I want to learn how to use Photoshop to make mock-ups of these as public artwork, thinking about the work of Norwegian artist Siri Aurdal I saw in Venice.

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