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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L5 Final Project Proposal: Hierarchy of Space

Title: The Fantastical Non-Space: Subverting the hierarchy of place

Aim: I want to redefine the way people interact with what might be called the ‘ubiquitous urban landscape’ and more specifically non-places in this environment – spaces that have no identity, diversity or surprise. I am equally interested in the holiness we give to religious sites and places of worship and want to explore how weaving a narrative around the mundane spaces we pass through every day can elevate them to a space of significance.

Why: I want to play with the dichotomy between non-space and the anthropological space by giving unimportant no-places an identity, sense of humour and aspect of diversity and surprise – all the things they lack. In ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ , David Abram uses the example of the clay bowl to illustrate the magic of the everyday : ‘its very existence as a bowl ensures that there are dimensions wholly inaccessible to me – most obviously the patterns hidden between its glazed and unglazed surfaces, the interior density of its clay body’. What we perceive as reality is only a skin of the true essence of our environment. I want people going about their daily routines to get back that sense of wonder you feel at the world when you are a child. I want to give people time to stop and daydream, to think about the spaces we inhabit day-to day and the role of fantasy in our lives.

Background: I first came across the concept of non-places while researching for the room/space project and consequently began working with the non-space of tram interiors to try and highlight the beauty in the everyday, mundane and invisible man-made environments that surround us. I want to develop this further and make work that sits in these environments.

I have also recently been reading about the Slow Movement – specifically Slow food but also about Slow Cities and am interested in how these ideas around slowing down our pace of living so that we have more meaningful encounters with the world around us can be applied to my field of art and design. I will look at examples of art in the public space – graffiti, yarn bombing, guerrilla advertising etc. artworks that draw our attention to the environment.

Method: I plan to create a series of site specific works around the city of Gothenburg, turning non-spaces into spaces of significance or interest. One method would be to create ‘relics for a non-place’ by spinning a made up/fantasy narrative about a space, turning these sites into fictional places of pilgrimage. I am interested in using augmented reality through QR codes or apps such as Augment and Aurasma alongside the sculptures to communicate the made up stories/legends associated with a certain place. I am not sure yet if the work will take the form of a series of photographs.

I intend to use writing as a ‘material’ as well as method for generating ideas for what my work should be about. I have never used this approach before but I would like to try and respond to a space by writing poetry/fiction and then working from that. I want to spin fictional narratives around spaces. I feel inspired after seeing a piece by artist Remy Dean about a fictional letter found in an attic. How important is truth in art if the story is good? I have also been thinking about the work of Jospeh Beuys – Beuys frequently blurred the lines between art and life, and fact and fiction, by suggesting that what one believed to constitute “reality” mattered more in matters of human action, social/political behaviour, and personal creativity than any definition of everyday reality based on traditional standards of “normalcy,” or social codes of so-called “proper” conduct.
http://www.theartstory.org/artist-beuys-joseph.htm

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Joseph Beuys, Sled, 1969
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Beddgelert – The legend of Gelert the Dog
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Mythical Locations on road signs in Didcot, Oxfordshire (once labelled England’s ‘most normal town’)

Keywords: fiction, non-space, unexpected, joy, magic, holy, narrative, relic, religious art, altars, pilgrimage site, humour, truth…

Primary research choosing sites to work with – Borrow a camera and respond through photography, sketching, and writing.
Examples of non-spaces/low spaces : Underpasses (Banehagsgatan)..Concrete
Industrial area tram stops (Gamlestadstorget)
Car Parks (Nordstan)
Centralstation

Also visit and respond to places of worship in the city – Masthuggskyrkan, Oscar Fredriks Church…

Thoughts that arose in the feedback session: 

  • How do I define what I consider a non-space, which writers influence my POV? Can natural spaces also be considered non-spaces? Consider different people’s perspectives of spaces, non-spaces might not be invisible/insignificant to everyone.
  • Do I have a political motivation for the project, what does it communicate about urbanisation and gentrification?
  • Will people stumble upon the artworks or will I create a guided tour/app for people to discover them?
  • Will my stories be entirely fiction or should I research the history of Gothenburg to base some of the information on facts?
  • Will I work with one site or multiple?

Image sources:
http://www.artnews.com/2015/03/20/academic-artist-scholar-shaman-joseph-beuys-on-his-mystical-objects-in-1970/
http://www.notey.com/blogs/road-signs
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMll6yQaH1A

 

Initial Research – St Fagans

Last Tuesday we made a trip to St Fagans National Museum of History just outside Cardiff – an open air museum which contains buildings from different historical eras from all over Wales. We were asked to identify the five things below as a starting point for making.

  1. Functional artefact that intrigues you: Tiny windows

Surprisingly for me, the artefacts that I found most captivating were the buildings’ tiny windows. Lots of the houses at St Fagans where built at a time when glass was expensive or even when windows were uncovered and protected only by cloth or animal hide. As a result most are tiny squares that you have to make a conscious effort to interact with, looking in or out of. To us today, used to big windows that let in lots of light, the tiny windows appear almost prison-like.

I began thinking of how windows are interesting metaphors and remember discussing how in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights they are an important symbol of the division between nature and society, the threshold between the outside and inside world. Looking out of a window you can only see so far, you have a narrow viewpoint. Thinking about today’s ‘Collections’ presentation and how some of the images I chose were linked by the theme of ‘journeys’ ( a journey through life, travel, a walk…) it strikes me that in films looking out of windows often prefigures a long, soul searching journey, or at least the decision that something needs to change.
While researching windows in popular culture I then came across this short but fascinating article called ‘The importance of staring out the window’ which says

The point of staring out of a window isparadoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds’.

The article goes on to suggest that in a better society people would not have to feel guilty for daydreaming while staring out of windows, it would be seen as time well spent and reminded me of words from a poem called Leisure by WH Davies:
‘What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.’

As a result of this train of through, I want to consider ways people could interact with objects I make by looking inside them through openings or ‘windows’ of sorts. I want to explore the spaces inside objects. 

Playing around making tall forms on the wheel last week one of my pots got twisted and resulted in a beautiful swirling form inside the vessel. I love the throwing lines that are visible, they have a rhythm to them like a pulse or heartbeat. Could this interior form reference blood vessels, or the concentric rings of a tree trunk? Thinking about the power of repetition relating to collections, what if I had lots of forms similar to this, growing together?

2. Decorative artefact that complements its environment: Hanging objects

Not exactly decorative objects, but the way kitchen utensils were displayed by being hung, especially in the castle’s kitchen interested me. Although they’re useful artefacts they almost become a form of decoration. The rhythm of the vertical lines put me in mind of soundwave graphics as well as the first piece of work I ever saw by Anne Gibbs – a collection of hanging slip-cast forms.

3. Restful space: The Castle gardens

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I came to the castle gardens toward the end of our day, looking for somewhere peaceful to sit down for a break. Thinking about working in this kind of environment I thought back to throwing at La Perdrix in France and how I enjoyed the peacefulness of working outside in nature. I decided if I was asked to create an outdoor sculpture to be situated at St Fagans it would be growing out of the lake like the lily pads.

4. Disturbing space: Bedroom at Abernodwydd Farmhouse

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Carved into the headboard of the large sturdy four-poster bed was the word ‘death’ and a stick man holding what looks like a bow and arrow. It made me think of how much history the bed had, generations of families must have been born and died in the very same one. This farmhouse and the other ‘long-house’ Cilewent Farmhouse were dark, smoky and claustrophobic spaces even in the brightness of mid-day and would have only been lit by dim rushlights.

5. A building with an interesting human narrative: Prefab house ‘Tin palace’

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Image: www.peoplescollection.wales

This aluminium bungalow is an example of the prefab houses that appeared after the second world war to house people who had lost their homes in the bombings. With so many refugee crises in the world today, the housing crisis and people losing their homes due to rising water levels, it felt relevant to today’s world. These bungalows were manufactured by factories that produced aircraft during the war. Rather madly, a factory which, during the war created war machines to destroy homes, in peace time became a factory to rebuilt homes.

Collections

Over the summer we’ve been asked to explore the theme of ‘collections’ documenting each of the following five:

1. A collection you have visited in person
My friend’s dad collects old milk bottles. There’s a room beside their kitchen where they’re all kept, lining the shelves from wall to ceiling with even more flowing from crates on and underneath the table. Most come from Wales but some from London where it was discovered the family’s ancestors used to be milkmen. Most date from around the 1930s but some date as far back as he 1880s, the older ones having wider necks. Here the collecting is an action, an ongoing process, collecting for fun.

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2. An historical collection
I visited Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-trent where they produce slipcast Burleigh ware. There they keep a collection of all the old plaster moulds the factory has used over the years and new designs are often inspired by this collection. It describes how tastes in ceramics have changed over the years from the flowery, intricate complex vessels of the past to the simple and sleek modern ones of today.
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3. An artist who references collections in their creative practice
I travelled down to visit my flatmate in Eastbourne over the holiday and she took me to visit the Towner Art Gallery where I found this unusual collection of discarded dogballs collected by Jo Coles, a Brighton based artist. Here is the statement from her website (http://www.jocoles.com/) : I walk and I collect. I connect with a place through the objects people leave behind. I use these small details from human life to evidence living history. I save these objects for posterity before they disappear into the ground or are collected by street cleaners and whisked away into landfill. I’ve created order by imposing a system of collecting on these seemingly random pieces of rubbish.
Coles’s collections describe our ‘throw-away’ culture, elevating the everyday to intriguing works of art.

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4) An unconventional collection
I came across this creepy collection of mannequin limbs and torsos in a field recently while working at a music festival. The theme of the festival was surrealism so I suppose that’s enough of an explanation for them to be there. It’s an interesting collection symbolically though, in an art gallery context it might be interpreted as a kind of anti- war protest with references to the horrors of concentration camps. Plastic bodies suggest that human lives are as disposable as mass produced goods.

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5) A collection you have encountered in your own home
This collection of junk sits underneath our bungalow, most of it only kept because of its sentimental value. It includes the dolls house dad built for me, the threadbare mustard yellow chair that used to be my granddad’s, random books, CDs, children’s toys and golf clubs that are unlikely ever to be used. It’s a pile of things that don’t really belong anywhere else in the house but to an outsider might communicate lots about the type of people we are. It’s a personal collection that wouldn’t have any resonance with people outside my immediate family and yet you’re likely to find a similar collection of ‘homeless’ objects in any house.

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Food for thought

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“People don’t live on the Disc any more than, in less hand-crafted parts of the multiverse, they live on balls. Oh, planets may be the place where their body eats its tea, but they live elsewhere, in worlds of their own which orbit very handily around the centre of their heads.” Terry Pratchett – The Last Continent

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“All we have to believe with is our senses: the tools we use to perceive the world, our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted.” Neil Gaiman- American Gods

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“He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.” Neil Gaiman – American Gods

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“Look at me, more than thirty years have passed and I am different. It’s not true that memories stay fixed in the mind, frozen: they, too, go astray, like the body. Yes, I remember a time when I was different. I would like to be the girl in the book: I would be happy also just to have been her, but I never was. It wasn’t I who attracted the Englishman. I remember that I was malleable, like clay in his hands. My love affairs…that’s what interests you, right? Well, they are fine where they are: in my memory, faded, withered with a trace of perfume, like a collection of dried flowers. In yours they have become shiny and bright like plastic toys. I don’t know which are more beautiful” – Primo Levi – A Tranquil Star

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“Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.” – Jonah Lehrer