Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.

Work

Rise of the Hyper Pot

Originally published in ‘Ceramic Momentum: Staging the Object,’ an exhibition at CLAY Museum of Ceramic Art Denmark in collaboration with Copenhagen Ceramics, 2019.

The most popular pot I’ve ever posted on Instagram (600 likes, but who’s counting?) was by Takuro Kuwata. This young Japanese ceramic artist has taken the world, both virtual and actual, by storm. He is a potter skilled in the idiom of the Japanese tea ceremony, and continues to make teabowls within that hallowed tradition. Alongside these, Kuwata also makes radical reinterpretations of these forms – based on a 17th century teabowl rather as the latest Marvel movie is based on a 1960s comic book. The references are all there, but they have been exaggerated almost past the point of recognition. In his more futuristic works, Kuwata amplifies the cracks of older teawares to earthquake proportions; glaze peels off the irregular sides in thick, buttery layers. The delicate tracery of traditional Japanese kintsugi (gold and lacquer repair) is transmogrified into gleaming metallic ornament, about as understated as a Trump hotel.

Takuro Kuwata, untitled, 2018. Porcelain, glaze, stone, pigment.

Takuro Kuwata, untitled, 2018. Porcelain, glaze, stone, pigment.

 The particular piece I posted featured a liquid landslide of bubblegum pink and sky blue, dripping down over a crunchy shell of egg-yolk yellow.  I knew it would get a good response. It has all the earmarks of Instagram bait: eye-popping color, a strong graphic silhouette, just the right balance of weirdness and familiarity. The photo was expertly lit, too. Kuwata presumably thinks about that kind of thing, for his own Instagram feed has an impressive following (over 11,000, last I checked). And none of this is incidental to the work. Kuwata’s ability to move back and forth between styles gives his oeuvre the quality of a time lapse, or visual distortion field – an effect accomplished with a mere press of the button in a CAD program, but hard to achieve in ceramic. His pots seem to signify two ways of being in the present: on the one hand, a resistant connection to the earth; on the other, the basking, acid glow of a computer screen.

Kuwata is superlative, but he is not alone. Many potters today are finding ways to navigate between the established pleasures of the ceramic medium and more unconventional, aggressively artificial aesthetics. This marks a decisive change in approach for the field. A few years ago, as fine artists began to drift into the ceramic medium, at first diffidently and then with increasing enthusiasm, the overriding rule seemed to be come-as-you-are. A casual, manifestly unskilled style was briefly in vogue. I called it “sloppy craft,” a term that itself circulated online, where complicated phenomena are so often encapsulated short slogans.[1] Professional potters were, understandably, annoyed by this trend. It undercut their sense of craft pride, obscuring the history and sophistication of the medium.

Detail of a work by Linda Sormin.

Detail of a work by Linda Sormin.

 I half agreed with that reaction, but also felt certain that the phase would not last. And behold: now, the fashion is not for what could generously be called “approximate craftsmanship,” but its opposite, an excess of prowess. Kuwata is one of many potters at work today, quite a few of whom are in Ceramic Momentum, who create objects of incredible intensity and technical sophistication, couched in a vocabulary of un-placeable abstraction. In common to this group is an interest in deep surfaces, which may be gradually built up over the course of many firings, or else gorgeously and subtly shaded, as in the work of Mia E. Göransson. Her “near to nature” objects, which are pitched right at the midpoint between geometry and still life, providing the satisfactions of both while also skating free of their generic limitations, and permitting a free exploration of color and form. Something similar could be said for the work of Anders Ruhwald, whose complex and ever-evolving body of work combines the suggestiveness of Surrealism, the slapstick of Dada, and the formal intelligence of De Stijl. Ruhwald often constructs highly controlled environments for his pots, lending them the air of props for an unseen, fantastical film.  Or consider Steen Ipsen, whose works are extraordinarily complex in structure, so much so that they bring to mind molecular models in an advanced chemistry classroom. Further intricacy is introduced through PVC ligaments, which wrap around the base of each globular component and then connect to the next, in a continuous interlaced network. Despite these convolutions, the overall force of design makes the works snap to your attention.

Detail of a work by Matt Wedel.

Detail of a work by Matt Wedel.

The sheer proficiency of figures like Kuwata, Göransson, Ruhwald, and Steen does seem a reaction against sloppy ceramics: the grownups are back in charge. But there is no getting around the fact that this work is also incredibly photogenic. It used to be said of certain actors that the camera loved them, and that is true of these ceramics, too. These new works announce a new visual rhetoric for the medium: one based on saturated color, density of texture, and lack of finicky detail. They are at least as good in reproduction as they are in person. Call them Hyper Pots. Though literally saturated in materiality, they are also primed to perform on the digital stage.   

Should this bother us? It was a long time ago that Jean Baudrillard predicted the “precession of simulacra,” by which he meant that simulations would begin to overtake reality, and set the conditions for its unfolding. In so many ways, the 21st century has borne out his insight: more and more, actual life contorts itself into the shape of its already-existing representations. Cause and effect seem to have switched places. This is true in our politics; it is true in our economics, as attention itself gradually displaces other forms of value; it is true in our film, our fashion. Why not our pottery?

 

Detail of a work by Marit Tingleff.

Detail of a work by Marit Tingleff.

Well, I can think of a few reasons. Previous tendencies in ceramic, though oppositional to one another, have all had in common an insistence on immediacy. The traditionalist approach, associated with Bernard Leach in England and the mingei movement in Japan, laid great emphasis on tactile experience both in the making and appreciation of a pot. Though Leach did rely on photographs to get his message across, most famously in A Potter’s Book (1940), he was a prophet of the holistic, of the “heart, head and hand in balance.”

The subsequent generation of modernists, like Peter Voulkos, broke sharply with Leach’s conservatism but still laid great emphasis on physicality as a primary value. The postmodernists of the 1970s and ‘80s followed the lead of other disciplines like architecture, in emphasizing the façade or surface pattern of a pot - here I am thinking particularly of the British artists like Liz Fritsch. But even they were wary of divorcing themselves too radically from direct presence. The whole point of Fritsch’s mesmerizing “optical” pots was the way they slid and danced in person – photos couldn’t do them justice. The discipline has always maintained a sense of its own ancientness, the idea of a pot as an axis mundi anchoring us in space and time, giving us not a fleeting impression but a sense of depth.

And here we come to the crux of the issue, for I think the best of the Hyper Pots do more than just perform, skidding across the surface of our screens. They also do what pots have always done, exert friction in the flow of life, like a rudder in a swift current. It’s simply that they do this in the digital realm rather than the analogue. As I have argued elsewhere, modern craft has many social and aesthetic roles, but its primary purpose is symbolic.[2] This was true in the nineteenth century, when Arts and Crafts reformers summoned up a largely imaginary medieval past in order to stage a contrast with an unideal present. One doubts that even William Morris himself expected wallpaper and tapestry to bring about the socialist transformation that he so urgently desired; yet he also believed that handmade artefacts could act as a spur to the conscience, encouraging wider understanding of the importance of “joy in labor.”

Detail of a work by Morten Løbner Espersen.

Detail of a work by Morten Løbner Espersen.

Craft’s symbolic role was updated to a more compatible relationship with capitalism in the middle of the twentieth century, when designers sought to humanize their mass-produced wares by infusing them with artisanal qualities. This phenomenon was geographically widespread, with variants in Italy, Japan, and America; but it was in Scandinavia that the model had its greatest triumphs. That success was not a straightforward proposition for producers in the Nordic countries at that time. As demand for their hand-shaped furniture, glass, and pottery increased, it was a constant struggle to balance quality and efficiency. For at least twenty years, though, Scandinavia managed to project an image of exquisite craftsmanship intertwined with progressive design. It was both a look and an ethic, calculated to soften the hard realities of postwar economic expansion.

 If the Arts and Crafts movement reflected an incipient stage of modernity, and the midcentury “designer-craftsman” ideal its apex, then we might see contemporary object production as a response to our own postmodern, late capitalist condition. Search on the tag #ceramics on Instagram, and you will immediately be presented with an infinite array of reference points. Many of these posts are as artfully composed as Kuwata’s, landing in the small dimensions of a smartphone with an almost audible pop thanks to a defined silhouette, strong color, and deftly written caption. (For a masterclass in this secondary artform, see Ayumi Horie’s feed @potsinaction, which currently has nearly 120,000 followers.) As the images unfurl on your screen, you may well be struck by a sense of equivalence, tantamount to interchangeability. Past and present, traditional and futuristic, local and cosmopolitan, functional and sculptural, conventionally beautiful and purposefully ugly: all of these qualities are pounded flat into a single frictionless plane.  

 That compression is not unique to this discipline, of course. The same is true of any other medium with a long history. Hence exhibitions like The Forever Now, staged at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2014-15, which sought to explore atemporality in contemporary painting.[3] This feeling – that our present is compounded of a brimming, unstable accumulation of past moments – was foundational to postmodernist thinking in the 1980s. At that time, this sense of pervasive simultaneity was not widely shared; it was discussed within the tight circles of theorists like Baudrillard and David Harvey (who described the phenomenon as “time space compression”), as well as in avant garde practice, as in the paintings of David Salle and Jean-Michel Basquiat, or the sculpture of Jessica Stockholder.[4] Now, their predictions have come true. Anyone who can enter a search term into Google Images can have the vertiginous, tumbling experience of endless association: a clothes dryer for your brain, with the setting permanently stuck on spin.

 Ceramics is inherently resistant to this sort of mediation. Its tactility is one reason; pots are made to be touched, and turned in the hands, in the round. Then too, there is the discipline’s extremely strong relationship to place. These days, ceramic supplies are shipped all over the world, but until very recently, for reasons of cost and convenience, pots tended to be made primarily from materials that were available nearby. Certainly there were exceptions. A global trade in cobalt emerged during the height of blue-and-white porcelain production in China and elsewhere; already in the eighteenth-century clay and glaze ingredients were transported in vast quantities to Staffordshire (the potteries prospered there because of available fuel and transport links, not raw material). But for the most part, pots have served as anchor points for national identity. They speak loudly and proudly of location – indeed, of the earth itself.

 We should understand the Hyper Pot not simply as anti-technological, though, a rear guard gesture. Rather, it is a knowing manipulation of such tropes, a way of juxtaposing material authenticity and pure appearance. These objects give the people what they want, and then some. The overstatement is an invitation to consider the conditions in which objects, in general, exist today. Tactility, you say? Here you are: running rivulets and slag-slides of glaze, as in the work of Matt Wedel. A sense of place? How about several all at once, a veritable whirlwind tour of world ceramics, as in the work of Michael Geertsen, whose newest work combines gilding (an allusion, perhaps, to kintsugi), drips of Chinese oxblood, and celadon glazes, and European formal vocabulary in a single pot. Or else an extreme exaggeration of a single tradition, as in Morten Løbner Espersen’s integral vases, some of which could be seen as maximalist takes on the Korean Moon Jar. If the traditional Choson Dynasty version of the form is like the full moon on a clear night, then Espersen’s pots are like the actual lunar surface, filled with craters, pockmarks, and gleaming reflections.

Detail of a work by Bente Skøttgaard.

Detail of a work by Bente Skøttgaard.

Then there is the work of Bente Skjøttgaard, which has always been distinguished by its vitality, as if a fluid movement had been caught in mid-air. A particularly distinctive form seems to lurch forward on multiple uprights.  In some of her more recent works, the glaze seems to take on an independent life of its own, as if straining to achieve autonomy from the clay substrate. Erik Steffensen of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, has commented memorably that Skjøttgaard addresses her material “in much the same manner as a runner or an existential philosopher,” perfectly expressing the admixture of muscularity and intelligence in her creations.[5] In their extreme fluidity, they outperform the slip-and-slide operations of computer design. Yet they are made using the ancient technology of the potter, and nothing more.

 Notable in all this work, and of the Hyper Pot in general, is a cult of the accidental. Not to be confused with sloppy craft (which involves actual lack of control), this is a tactical deployment of chance operations in the execution of the work. It is another way of reflecting on contemporary conditions – the seeming randomness of digital connections, which is actually governed by algorithms nested within other algorithms, a cascade of profit-based logic to which the everyday citizen has no access. Against this, the Hyper Pot stages a spectacle of individualistic control. Far from indicating a lack of skill, the arbitrariness is carefully cultivated.

 Some potters put obstacles deliberately in their own way, knowing that in transcending them, their work will attain new heights. Martin Bodilsen Kaldahl, for example, adopts the methodology of an obstacle course in planning his intricate, tubular compositions. His goal is always to avoid the obvious, and in this he entirely succeeds. Though the results may appear modernist and abstract, the history of baroque ornament is encoded in them, much as the long trajectory of Japanese tea ceremony wares is reconfigured in Takuro Kawata’s pots. As in certain buildings and objets d’art from the seventeenth century, it is impossible to say where architectonic form and eccentric decoration give way to one another.

 Pernille Pontoppidan Pedersen also intentionally interferes with her own work by incorporating stones such as marble and granite in her clay. She also gravitates to stacked forms, which seem to contradict themselves. Some are as chaotic as the Mad Hatter’s tea party, others so orderly that they seem like careful archives of their own making. One example of the latter idiom, from 2014, bears a title that could be the slogan for Hyper Pots in general: “Casual Mineral Materialities.” Of course, there is nothing actually casual about it; the work serves as a compendium of Pedersen’s alternately found and created, dead and delicious surfaces. It is a little quarry from which whole bodies of work could be mined.

 Though many of the artists included in Ceramic Momentum do hail from the Nordic countries, including most I have discussed so far, it is an international show. This is important, and appropriate. One of the most striking features of the Hyper Pot is its cosmopolitanism. During the latter half of the twentieth century, progressive currents in ceramics (as in other media) tended to be geographically centered. Idioms like Abstract Expressionism and Funk emanated from California. Avant garde explorations in Italy (Lucio Fontana, Leoncillo Leonardi), Japan (Yagi Kazuo and the Sodeisha group), and Britain (Carol McNicoll, Gillian Lowndes, and Alison Britton) all had their own distinctive tenor. There is no such point of origin for the Hyper Pot. Like the broad referential content that is compressed into its compact forms, it seems to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once.

Detail of a work by Steen Ipsen.

Detail of a work by Steen Ipsen.

 In 1957, the theorist Roland Barthes observed that plastic combined the qualities of utter banality and complete omnipotence. At one end of an injection molding machine, he wrote, there was nothing but “raw telluric matter.” At the other emerged “the finished, human object. And between these two extremes, nothing; nothing but a transit.”[6] What plastic did for materiality, in the postwar period, digital technology is now doing to experience. The very texture of our lives arises instantaneously and mysteriously. The forces to which we are all subject combine in obscure ways, and to confusing effect.

 It might seem crazy to suggest that ceramics can stand against all this. Yet look at Anton Alvarez’s series Alphabet Aerobics. Every bit as camera-ready as the other Hyper Pots in this exhibition, they are quite different in that they have little of the skill, and none of the temporal overlay that most of the other objects possess. (And it is worth noting that Alvarez comes from a design background, rather than that of a trained ceramist.) What they do have is extraordinary immediacy. Each is the trace of a unique extrusion, which he treats as a form generator. With each of these objects, he seems to create another syllable within a still-emergent language, one that can tell only a single story: the story of clay’s own shaping.

Detail of a work by Anton Alvarez.

Detail of a work by Anton Alvarez.

Here, and in every object in Ceramic Momentum, we see how valuable this medium can be as a way to negotiate the present. The “transit” that went missing in the age of plastic, and then came to define the contours of our perception, is now being fixed in the work of clay. An ancient medium grounded in functional necessity, it has been recast in recent years. Symbolic these pots may be. But they are still necessary equipment for our uncertain future.

[1] Elaine C. Patterson and Susan Surette, eds, Sloppy Craft: Postdisciplinarity and the Crafts (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

[2] Glenn Adamson, Invention of Craft (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[3] Laura Hoptman, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014).

[4] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989).

[5] Erik Steffensen, “Elements in White,” http://www.skjoettgaard.dk/text-1.htm.

[6] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012; orig. pub. 1957), p. 25.

WritingMarci LeBrun