Contrast and Contradiction
Ceramics is full of contrasts: it is soft when you work with it and hardens when you fire it. It’s easy to impress but difficult to finish. It's being used to make unique designs, but also for piles and piles of serie produced bricks. Sensitive sculptures are formed with it, but also the greatest kitsch. The dividing line between those contrasts is not always hard. Between the extremes there are many nuances, there is often a soft transition.
I observe different trends in ceramics which can lead to serious discussions. A maker who mainly works with clay for reproducable, functional series, is involved with the material in a different way than a visual artist. The question how it was made is important among ceramic-makers. The visual artists who works with ceramics rather starts from 'why is it made', 'what is the expression of this work’.
Ceramics as a material, comes in many forms and requires just as many techniques and skills. Craftsman often focus on those technical aspects and the expressive approach takes second place. A artist on the other hand, works out an idea and looks for te best technique and material to make it.
The approaches are different but also have a large overlap in the use of the material and its processes. It's sometimes quite confronting how different the points of view can give contradictions in the way of working and presenting. I think technical skills and knowledge are important for both craftsman and artists. The artist cannot work without having a clue about knowledge about technical behaviour of the material. The craftsman needs the inspiration of the artistic way of working. It's fascinating how the contradictions and contrasts in ceramics gives inspiration in all directions.
Sometimes I struggle with a sense of guilt. The urge for making, for the physical flow while creating in clay, is unstoppable. It's a feeling I can't live without, which I don't want to miss.
You hear from athletes about the addictive feeling of the rhythm, the trance that exercise gives them. Kneading, controlling and working the clay with my hands gives me a sense of necessity. I make, I feel and it grows.
If you build something, you execute a plan. Your idea takes shape. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't… you scribble right, you fail, try again. The process is full of discoveries, wonders and failures.
This continues in the firing, which creates ceramics. In this firing new compounds and chemical processes are created, which irreversibly solidify the piece. The clay has become ceramic. The plastic skin has dried up, hardened and petrified. The next phases fascinate and amaze me every time: By combining powder rocks, mixing and applying them in certain ways to the clay, a new skin is created that varies from clay to glass. The layers, the depth in colors combining with the underlying skin can strengthen and deepen a shape. It’s a rich craft, an old guild. It’s magical and the whole process fascinates me.
The process is also repelling… because it requires a lot of energy, often from fossil fuels. The firing generates big amounts of CO2 and costs a lot of money. Sometimes I can't account for who or what I use so much energy. I struggle with mixed feelings. I doubt and get bogged down in restraint. I feel guilty. I create for the sake of making, for the sake of the process… with a lot of failures. Those failures contain an interesting learning process that nourishes me as a maker but leads to irreversible shards.
I balance between the fascination of the 'makers guild' and the accompanying 'makers guilt'.
The role of a plinth, for me, is crucial in the presentation of a piece of work. In ceramics it is perhaps even more important than in other art directions. The purpose of an object is defined by how you present it. Imagine a bowl: if this bowl stands on a pedestal, a certain distance is created. Because the unspoken rule you may not touch work on a pedestal. This bowl becomes a sculptural bowl, a work of art. If this same bowl with a sculptural appearance is placed on a table, you give the intention you can put an apple in it and the bowl is an apple bowl.
Because the meaning of the object in ceramics can vary quite a bit - from functional, design, technical object to sculptural art object - the presentation plays a major role in clarifying this meaning. In sculpture this is less present: functionality is not one of the meanings of a sculpture. In the applied arts such as textiles, glass, interior design, graphic design and ceramics, the dividing line is much more blurred because they can be given different meanings. The maker gives this meaning. The pedestal therefore plays a very important role in ceramics.
For me, the plinth means a pedestal: a supporting form that takes the object standing on it to another level. Literally and figuratively. A plinth can also be an extension and form a connection in material, color and size. A pedestal sometimes forms a contrast between the object and the environment: like a frame that blends into the environment. Sometimes the plinth is also a protection to create a certain distance to secure the fragile workpiece. The pedestal tells the viewer about the work.
When I make things I try to create an image. Sometimes that process is well-considered: I make a design, plan it, find a technique and work out the idea. On the other hand sometimes the image is blurred and it forms while I am making. The creation process flows, grows out of my hands. Image creation is often a combination of these two ways of working. In addition, I regularly fail to create the shape I had in mind. I slip because the clay is doing something different than I intended. I could then go back a few steps and start over but I also enjoy letting go of that plan and see what happens: serendipity. This unplanned creation is particularly instructive and grows through wonder. A slip-up creates something new or challenges me to try something new. And since things can easily go wrong in ceramics, my process often depends on coincidences. This creates extra layers in my work which are not the result of thinking. The process is a sequence of choices partly made consciously and partly made unconsciously. It is a fascinating game to experience which I want to show it in my work.
I often ask myself: why am I doing this? My work holds a mirror for me when I ask myself these questions. It turns out there are always reasons why I make certain choices. But at the moment when I am making choices, I am often not aware of these reasons (yet). In this way I realize again and again my creative process is a balancing act between thinking and feeling. It's a game I like to play. Isn't failure a way of playing? Or is playing a way of failure? Making art is playing game. It is a safe environment where you are allowed to fail without (bad) consequences.
How do you deal with the valuable legacy built up in ceramics over 20,000 years? My philosophy-teacher once asked me this question. I just recently started working with ceramics at that time. I gave an answer that its history inspired me, but certainly didn't hinder me.
But I often think back to that question and in the meantime my opinion has grown…
The history of ceramics is old, very old… it is sometimes a heavy legacy… It feels like so much has already been done, discovered and experienced. Isn't everything already made? How can you stay original in a craft that has created for thousands of years? You are influenced by everything you see, you process your impressions in your work. You try to look for something new and be authentic in it. It is sometimes frustrating everything seems already been done. Perhaps it is rather the urge to search for originality that hinders me. Because it does create a barrier. The umpteenth bowl, endless cylinders… certain shapes move along and come back again and again. Contemporary, contrarian, original… is what you're looking for as an artist-designer. But how can you stay original?
It's slithering and balancing. I search in shapes and in techniques. I keep experimenting and failing. And every time I try to remain open, full of amazement and curiosity. Where it rubs and does not grow harmoniously, there is something fascinating. It is the fascination that feeds the curiosity. And the curiosity drives me… to solutions, to new insights, to slides of misfires, to leaps of my heart. It is a game of repulsion and attraction. The history of ceramics lies on my shoulders like a blanket, protective and at the same time quite heavy. But I can't live without a warm blanket.