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Contemporary Ceramic Art from Sweden on View at The Design Museum in Ghent
Mårten Medbo (°1964) Objects, 2005, Stoneware. Photograph: Patrik Johansson.

GHENT.- Voices is an exhibition of work by ten pioneering Swedish ceramic artists. In curating this exhibition, Inger Molin has chosen ceramic artists from different generations and with very different voices and approaches to their work. What they have in common are that they are natural representatives – and leading exponents – of the dynamism and originality of contemporary ceramic art. Viewed together they enable us to discern something unique about the contemporary development of ceramics in Sweden. Free in their relationship to traditional ceramic art they seek new directions and emphasize freedom of expression. No longer is it the material that is important; but what the ceramic artist has to say.

Frida Fjellman, Renata Francescon, Eva Hild, Pontus Lindvall, Mårten Medbo, AnnaSofia Mååg, Gustaf Nordenskiöld, Kjell Rylander, Per B Sundberg and Kenneth Williamsson their work has been enthusiastically received both at home and abroad. The artists contributing their voices to the exhibition work sculpturally and conceptually, addressing existential issues with humour or as abstractions. Their various approaches and modes of expression are presented in the book Voices, published by Carlsson Bokförlag ISBN 9172037784, with an incisive essay by Sara Danius and Patrik Johansson’s evocative photographs.

Inger Molin, curator of Voices, has owned and run Galleri IngerMolin since the autumn of 1998. In 2002 she was awarded the Dynamo Prize by Sveriges Bildkonstnärsfond.

Take some coils of porcelain clay, fire them in a kiln and tie them together with lengths of orange climbing rope. What is the result ?

A ceramic object signed Gustaf Nordenskiöld. The work, from 2004, is entitled Klyka”. With al little goodwill, the object can be seen as a sort of basket. One might readily place it on the living-room table and fill it with mandarin oranges. This is what we are given.

But there is something else, too : a snapshot of Swedish craft art today. It is only something with the strength of a climbing rope that can possibly hold contemporary ceramics together. Today ceramics wants to go in all directions. It wants to be sculpture, poetry, happening, installations, communication, revolution. And there is basically nothing that can restrain these urges.

When did this happen ? It is difficult to say exactly. But about a decade ago the banks burst. The vessel-form ceased to be mandatory in ceramics. Producing containers was pushed into the shade. Clay became one material among many others. Craft art began to reflect on its nature and it set out to transgress the boundaries of art.

Today it is virtually impossible to determine where craft art ends and art begins. Or, differently put : contemporary craft art has been so successful in crossing borders that concepts like art, handicrafts, craft arts and design are under greater pressure today than ever before.

Two main currents are evident. On the one hand a late-modernist current making itself felt. It finds expression in a sculptural type of art, ranging from an austere, controlled and abstracted organic style to a more naturalistic, concrete mode of expression. This is a daring sculptural operation that emphasizes the expressive possibilities inherent in clay. The clay is often fired though not always. At any rate, the material becomes the bearer of a remarkable range of expression that sculpts empty space in a new manner. The desire to create on an architectonic scale exists side by side with a powerful sensuality. Ceramists can equally well be categorized as sculptors.

On the other hand one can see a postmodernist trend that finds expression in an eclecticism that is as bold as it is systematic. The clay is just one material among others and it may readily be coupled with tape and plastic. Style is history, purity and obsolete ideal. Contemporary ceramists quote, borrow, create pastiches, make ironic remarks, experiment, mix. The not-beautiful reigns. High is opposed to low, sublime to kitsch, beautiful to gruesome, dry to sticky, exclusive to cheap. There is a concept which is seldom mentioned in craft contexts but which needs to be dusted off and put back into use : the concept of camp. In the last few years Swedish craft art has been strikingly camped up. As Susan Sontag suggests in her classic essay, camp is concerned with a love of the hyperbolic, of things that are simply too much, of artificial ruins, of naïve seriousness, of things-that-are-what-they-are-not, like that art-nouveau lamp imitating a swollen fungus or a flower in full bloom. And alongside this preoccupation with camp one glimpses a desire for change, not just of the specific task of craft art but of the society in which this art is produced.

What is art ? And what are handicrafts ? This is really quite simple. Art is skill and craft is the work of our hands. In that sense, all who master an art are artists and all work done by hand is craft.

When we talk about art today, however, we seldom think of masters and of skills. We tend to be more pragmatic. By art we mean that which is shown at museums or is displayed on exhibition premises or is made by people who have attended art college. Art can be a monumental painting by Titian, a mass-produced, stainless-steel rabbit by Jeff Koons, an interior by Mona Hatoum or a detergent packet by Andy Warhol. When we speak of craftsmen we mean floor-layers, bookbinders, goldsmiths.

So what is craft art ? Historically speaking the concept belongs to the machine age. One has to go back to the early nineteenth century, the age of mechanization, to understand the concept and its historical charge. Human beings have always modified their surroundings using their hands, as Siegfried Giedion points out in Mechanization Takes Command (1948). The hand is an organic tool that can grip, grasp, press, beat, pull, form, massage, squeeze, scratch and point. The hand is extraordinarily flexible. It is also a highly intelligent and hypersensitive surveying instrument. It really only has one limitation : it cannot carry on working endlessly. But the machine can.

Over the centuries there was no point in talking about handicrafts because all work was basically done by hand. In Hamlet, Shakespeare even speaks af the body as a machine. In this period no conceptual conflict existed between body and machine, between the human and the mechanical. “Industry”, was understood differently from how we understand it today ; “industry” was a matter of being industrious.

During the nineteenth century large-scale mechanization of daily life began to be introduced and new tools, technologies and machines were invented : the camera, the egg wisk, the combine harvester, automated furnaces, the conveyor belt. They all have one thing in common : they function as extensions of the human hand.

It is in this increasingly standardized production culture that the concept of craft art arose. The human hand acquired a new meaning : it became a corrective to everything that the machine represented. Whereas, previously, the body had been regarded as a sort of machine, a clear distinction now emerged between body and machine, between the human and the technological. The concept of art came to be identified with what was human, corporeal and manual as opposed to things mechanical and technological.

William Morris, the principal ideologist of the British arts and crafts movement, held the view that it was absence of a human contribution that made industrial products worthless. A terracotta pot that had been formed by hand was worth more than any amount of Carrara marble polished by machines, Morris maintained in an essay on ceramics from 1882. Manual work needed to be visible to the eye, he stressed, not just with regard to the surface and texture of the vessel but also in its ornamentation.

The logic is easy to grasp. When china tableware and other household items can be mass-produced, ceramists are forced into new domains. The same thing applies to glassmaking. This was why Morris insisted that we should be able to see that items have been made by hand. And from there it was a short step to a new historical phenomenon. The ceramist was no longer just a master craftsman. He could also be seen as a sort of auteur, as a producer of unique artefacts. And these unique artefacts bore the traces of his stylistic fingerprint. The ceramist could now be considered an artist in our modern sense. The concept of the craftsperson as auteur cast long shadows into our own era.

Where does ceramic art belong ? In the kitchen ? Or in the temple .
Everything started in the kitchen. As long as there have been human beings there have been vessels. If clay is an Ur-material, then the vessel is an Ur-form. The vessel mediates between humans and nature. With the help of the vessel we can fill, empty, bail, throw, mix, preserve and store. And that is the simple reason why this everyday item so readily becomes the object of a cult.

The British ceramist Elizabeth Fritsch once claimed that good pottery is paradoxical. A good vessel has an aura that arise in the charged interface between the kitchen and the temple. The vessel is both earthly and heavenly, prosaic and poetic. The very essence of the ceramic art arises from this tension. If the vessel suits the hearth, it alo suits the altar. One need only think of the Japanese tea ceremony to realize how short is the distance between hearth and altar, earth and sky, body and mind.

A vessel is not just a vessel. It also is a metaphor. Indeed it is an Ur-metaphor ; it speaks of our place in the universe, of how we give and take, incorporate and repel. The vessel is part of the grand metabolism. This is why archaeologists generally find pots when they excavate ancient burial sites.

Text by Sara Danius and Patrik Johansson

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