The Ghosts of Sunday Morning
When an artist submits an application for residency at the European Ceramic Work Center, the first people to evaluate it are the advisors. This is a team of skilled makers, currently six in number: Sander Alblas, Froukje Van Baren, Katrin König, Peter Oltheten, Marianne Peijnenburg, and Pierluigi Pompei. They carefully review the submissions, setting to one side the projects that seem wildly improbable, hard to understand, or impossible to realize. They mark this pile: highest priority for acceptance.
The advisors’ role in the Center – recently rebranded as Sunday Morning @EKWC – is not easy to summarize. But over the five decades of the institution’s history they have been the continuous link. Initially a modestly scaled communal pottery located in the town of Heusden, the organization moved to ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1991, and four years ago to its present site in Osterwijk. At these three different facilities, the Center has served more than 1400 artists. The advisors are in many ways the heart and soul of the operation. Their primary role is to provide advice, but they may also lend a hand in the making of the work, assisting as necessary in the processes of making, drying, glazing, and firing, preparing a mold, or managing digital rendering and fabrication. They also help resident artists in informal ways, helping to connect them to resources locally or further afield in the Netherlands, or simply offering moral support. One thing they are not is fabricators, who simply receive a design and execute it, no questions asked. Nor do they share in the authorship of the works made at the EKWC – they’re quite clear on this point – not even in a collaborative sense. The role of the advisors is at once essential and circumspect, totally hands-on, but done with the lightest of touch. The Center has world-class equipment, a high caliber and wide range of participant artists, and by this point, an international stature in its own right, which adds luster to any project undertaken there. But when people say that this place is a kind of creative paradise, it’s really the advisors they have in mind.
When I was approached to curate an exhibition on the occasion of the EKWC’s fiftieth anniversary, I knew immediately that I wanted to tell the advisors’ story. One of the most striking things about the organization is its democratic spirit; every artist is treated the same, with identical opportunities and identical expectations (they take turns making dinner, for example, the only aspect of the residency that gets competitive). Previously though, as pretty much everywhere in the art world, a hierarchy has been observed. Attention and publicity has been reserved mainly for participating artists, with the advisors operating behind the scenes. Recently, there has been a tendency in contemporary art to be more transparent about production models, including the crediting of various types of fabricators. I wanted our show to be part of that new way of thinking, and even to chart new ground. Rarely if ever has an art museum exhibition showcased the skills and perspective of the technical staff. That is what I wanted to do.
Eventually, I proposed an idea to Ranti Tjan , the imaginative and enterprising director of the Center, and to Timo De Rijk, the equally enterprising director of the Design Museum Den Bosch. The Center’s greatest asset has always been its own extraordinary productive capabilities: why not ask the current staff to remake past works? This would allow us to represent the achievements of the EKWC while putting the spotlight on the advisors, right where I wanted it.
They agreed. With some assistance from a team of supporting technicians and interns, the six advisors would be asked to recreate more than thirty works, each one the original conception of a past artist resident. But these would not be literal copies. That would be impossible, in purely practical terms. In many cases, we would not have the original artwork to refer to, and the advisors would instead have to base their own creation on a single photo, perhaps inferring its overall three-dimensional shape from an image showing only one side. In any case, none of us wanted to mimetically reproduce an artist’s work. That would trespass to a degree on their authorship, precisely the mistake that the EKWC aims to avoid at all costs. The advisors’ recreations would be new things in the world, portraits of past works, not duplicates.
As the conversation proceeded, we decided to further emphasize this quality of interpretive transformation by adopting two rules. First, the recreations would all be made in a single material: white earthenware clay, covered with a coat of white slip. Surface decoration, glaze effects, or other coloring would vanish, leaving only the pure form. This would lend the display a visual coherence, and equally importantly, would convey the idea that these objects had only partially returned from the past. We began calling them ‘ghosts.’ This approach seemed appropriate not only to the occasion of an anniversary, but also to the character of the medium. Fired ceramics have a somewhat haunted quality, in the way that they preserve for all time quick and incidental occurrences – a maker’s fingerprints, the inscribed line of a tool, the slump of the clay itself.
The second rule had to do with scale. We were presented with a dilemma: the works to be recreated were highly various in size. Some were very large. In some cases, we did not have precise dimensions. So how big should these ‘ghosts’ be? The advisors themselves came up with a brilliant solution: they would use exactly the same amount of clay, 25 kilos before drying and firing, to make each work. Though this regulated the task, it also introduced a fascinating wild card. Objects made of solid clay would of course be smaller than ones that are hollow-cast. A small functional object, like a cup or a piece of jewelry, would become gargantuan; monumental sculptures would be reduced to tabletop size. This solution also placed great emphasis on materiality, a principle subject of the show. The consistency in terms of quantity gave the project another interesting angle: it would be a physical demonstration of the myriad things one can accomplish with a given amount of clay.
With the two guidelines in place, the advisors set to work, displaying their customary energy and hyper-competency. They subjected the earthenware clay to a huge diversity of processes: wheel-throwing, sculpting, mold-making and casting, coiling, slab-building, 3D printing, CNC carving. When each piece was completed, the white coat was applied, sheathing its surface particularities, making it a recognizable member of our spectral family. Then it was fired, rendering it – what? A sculpture of a sculpture? A reverse prototype? A miniature monument? A large-scale souvenir? It’s hard to say. Together, however they would constitute a memory-tour of the EKWC’s history: a show of absences, made present.