2004, About the untamable. Gabi Dewald. Keramik Magazin no 2

About the untameable

The work of Torbjørn Kvasbø
There it lies, as if it has been skinned. An enormous body, more or less global in shape, covered by a thin, whitish layer, here and there revealing a cushion-like inflated volume underneath, where it had been ripped or burst open, shredded away or punctured. Testimony to a struggle for expression, a confrontation between forces, a high-energy dialogue. To lift the colossus is quite impossible. Carefully, we make our way around the amorphous bundle of energy which has been bludgeoned with a blunt instrument, which looks as if it is about to rear up between deep incisions and through the sides of which we can peer into the cave-like interior, into the dark inside. The record of a process bearing signs of a fight for shape, birth, death. Did it once used to breathe…? Rigid, we look on… at ourselves?

In fact, it all started out so innocently… first applied works, powerful in form, reduction-fired, dating from the mid-1970s, and Torbjørn Kvasbø is a student at the Institute of Applied Arts and Design in Bergen. These pieces speak of a fascination with clay as a material, and of its metamorphosis at the hands of naked fire, leaving its mark. Kvasbø is not on his own here; in fact, he is going with the flow of the time.

To focus on natural and original forces, on raw energy, as thematic elements, emanating from circumstances that as far as possible remained unchanged, encouraged into being rather than actively created, was very much a political statement in the 1970s. It reflected the philosophy of a generation that rejected the mania that everything was feasible, do-able, of a generation that cast doubts on the apparent blessings of the supremacy of human will over nature. In Europe, this was the decade of major environmental demonstrations: the world was no longer seen as an endless reservoir capable of fulfilling man’s never-ending desires.

This generation did not primarily see nature as an enemy to be excluded or exploited, or against the relentless rigours of which we must protect ourselves at all costs. Instead, it discovered the other side of nature: the side that feeds us, that gives our existence meaning: the beauty of the unsullied, the uniqueness of the completely unspoiled, the majesty of the untameable.

In ceramics, this led to the search for a dialogue with the material. ‘Beautiful’ was no longer an adjective applied to things which are technically perfect from a craftsman’s point of view; it was a term which revealed the natural. Here, things surrounding us every day were seen as a way of accessing a world increasingly excluded from our everyday life. This understanding of vessel and clay is excellently supported by Bernard Leach’s theory that draws our attention to the ‘intuitive and human’ approach to the material and which was now starting to fall on fruitful soil throughout Europe – although his pottery book had already been published in England in 1940.

On the other hand, art had finally succeeded in radically freeing itself from the constraints of the aesthetically pleasing. What the normal person abhors or rejects with a malicious superiority had long been decided in workshops and centres of contemporary artistic creation: art was no longer there to serve; it was there as a means of individual expression. And here we must remember that in the 1960s and 70s the individual must be defined as a political unit – especially where art was concerned. What happened next exceeded the aim for abstraction which undoubtedly ushered in this development, leading to ‘action art’, happenings and performances via ‘art brut’, via abstract Expressionism and the informal. The act of artistic creation was now itself understood as art. What remains is frequently enough merely the trace of this act, the record, the choreography of an action.

Just as art has Jackson Pollock, Joseph Beuys or even the Viennese Actionists, so from the 1970s onwards art’s special branch of ceramics has the American Peter Voulkos. Voulkos used the material’s readily expressive spontaneity that captures and retains every movement no matter how fleeting. Yet he also discovered the static power and inertia inherent in the material, presenting his emotions with a physical opponent. Voulkos then paired the subject of the beauty of inorganic nature with the expressiveness of human feeling, making use of ceramics to do so. He sought an expression for power, even for violence, without at the same time passing any kind of moral judgement, and in the full knowledge that the supposedly civilised human being and the supposedly uncultivated world of nature were in fact closely related, perhaps even coming face to face.

So Voulkos was one of the ceramic sculptors who helped to establish clay as a medium for free sculpture. Although in ‘arte povera’ – and certainly by those frequently mentioned doyens of Modern Art Picasso, Chagall, Miró, Chillida etc. -, the fear of ceramics had been overcome, the widespread desire of young ceramists to make sculptures out of clay still did not feature in really decent specific training courses.

Torbjørn Kvasbø also began his artistic journey as a potter, making crockery. All the signs of the times seem to fit here with his personality perfectly, with clay the ideal match. Indeed, his is a personality that wanted to do more than just make tableware. It is very noticeable here how all his utilitarian forms have a completely confident feel about them, right from the beginning: his pieces are sturdy, stable and exciting. Their outlines are clear, their volume always full of power, the decisions made by their designer with an unfailing assurance even though the colouring is always muted, and the proportions harmonious and unfussy. He distances himself increasingly from his British examples and takes his bearings initially from what often appear to be awkward, asymmetric and wildly fired forms of Japanese tea ceramics, or for example, ancient Korean pieces. The difference is, he goes one step further: a series of small cups made in the 1980s show in their own language – albeit with a timid voice – the path Kvasbø wishes to pursue: starting from a narrow base, they broaden out upwards, their walls buckling and bending in a strangely disconcerting manner, almost as if something inside them was twisting and turning, pressing the still wet clay walls outwards in the process, before finding somewhere else to go and hide.

The ‘uncertainty’ of the material as it yields to every ‘impression’, concealing so much within itself, becoming so many different things, depending on what and how outside influences impact upon it, seems to remind a man so at ease with moulding as Kvasbø of the unknown within himself. And Kvasbø gives in. The willingness of the material to react arouses in him the willingness to allow things about which he himself is unsure – even internally; in fact, he even initiates and challenges them. Hence, using active sculptural gestures he pursues the moment which he has long since triggered through the use of wood-firing and/or salt: the incalculable moment of spontaneous development wrought by forces over which man has no real control.

But now he speaks of those uncontrollable moments within man himself. One of his main themes is the incalculable element in one’s own inner self. The impact and determination with which he pursues this moment go far beyond matters of mere aesthetic preference: the pieces seem to be moved, impelled by an inner restlessness, a restlessness which once it is acknowledged starts to take over. From now on it is the motor for new work, providing impetus with a worrying intensity and increasing urgency. First, merely a rip appears in the edge of an enormous bowl; then the wall of a vessel bursts open, revealing countless tiny porcelain tentacles trying to make their way out; superimposed clay surfaces are unable to contain the forceful movements within and dramatic fissures start to appear.

Increasingly we find constructed forms, and as Kvasbø develops his method in keeping with his own experience, the parallel with the design process on the wheel becomes evident: there, too, the clay is shaped by the pressure of hands from outside AND in. The difference is that the volume is actually created by the fingers as they work inside the wall, continuously pressing outwards. The sculptor transfers this technical widening procedure from the deepest inner working to his constructed pieces, making this circumstance a subject in its own right in the process. Unlike artists who are not expert with the material but who are merely fascinated by the possibility of working with clay additively or subtractively, Kvasbø draws on his many years of experience with ceramics. The way he manages to completely liberate the skilled moment of throwing from its attendant circumstances, exploiting it, offering an interpretation of the content in the process and linking it with his intention, demonstrates his artistic supremacy, the result being an oeuvre unique in style.

He makes honeycomb-like structures, house-like forms (which he calls ‘boxes’) or sarcophagus-like trunks (‘troughs’), i.e. enclosed systems or containers within which a kind of excess pressure seems to dominate, resulting in deformations apparently caused by an inner pressure (similar to the earlier open vessels): little elements start to burst away, the superimposed clay skins start to split along their length, entire walls start to lean outwards, ceilings start to lift off, containers start to swell, boxes start to warp. Porcelain particles worked into the pieces start to break out, yet remain attached in the bases. For the observer, these are worrying signs of an incalculable, mysterious hidden process, a process which is undoubtedly enormous in scope, a restless force, increasing all the while. A phenomenon is at work, something which is striving to create space for itself.

Kvasbø repeatedly looks for forms that give these developments a frame which, because it is familiar appears to contain the forces. In many cases, the circular element of large bowls occurs; likewise, the forms of houses and coffins also give the impression of a familiar, legible context, lessening our feelings of concern caused by the pieces. The structures that appear, imposing a calming order on entire surfaces, fulfil the same function. But what has been threatening to happen for a long while finally happens: the enclosed volumes give way under the strain. Tearing apart, their tattered edges roll like fat skins against the inside which now becomes visible and unprotected.

So Kvasbø leaves behind defined form. And as is always the case, once we have knowledge of something, there is no going back. The systems are opened up; we see the inside and the consequences of explosive discharges. However, there now follows yet another phase, a phase in which he constructs enormous honeycomb wheels reminiscent once again of biological structures. There is now no mistaking the thematic treatment of the potentiality of sheer force and aggression.

He places deformation pure and simple at the focal point of his work, as the result of a traumatic external influence. And in so doing he confronts violence. It is no longer a hidden, unknown thing that imposes its will from who knows where: now, it is the artist himself. It is quite clearly his actions as a sculptor which leave their dramatic mark. A series of long sculptures is created, whose inner recesses hint at the imprint of a human body. And, moreover, if it appeared all the while that the pressure came from the within, this impression is now mightily counteracted by the act of invasion, by violation from without, through the penetration of amorphous bodies as they become clearly more capacious. As the pieces increase greatly in size, now measuring more than one metre in diameter, we finally have the feeling that they are an appropriate match for the sculptor, as he appears to pitch himself into them, as he touches them, maltreats and injures them, often with an apparently sinister intent, the victim of his impatience, attacking relentlessly. There no longer exist any formal considerations between Kvasbø and his material; it cedes to the expression of pent-up force, following his intuition. In its rage and passion, its wildness and power it reminds one of the amazing work of August Rodin. The founder of modern sculpture, Rodin’s work was always the expression of emotional excitement, with its restless surfaces often fragmentary in nature adding to the overall feeling of intensity.

Suddenly, at this very point in time, the force of fire and the firing process as a means of expression recede into the background. The surfaces are now monochrome; they become lighter, too. Suddenly it is the light alone which modulates the deeply punctured, inflating forms. Kvasbø fires some of his enormous pieces as earthenware in the electric kiln. And this is where for the first time colour comes into play, not just as clay skins or slips of another colour, but last of all as high-gloss glaze in powerful colours.

This is the moment where splendour takes centre stage, where the violence and uncontrollable forces which had earlier imposed themselves are now given abstract expression and withdraw into the distance. The moment of fight, the animal, recede into the background. Whereas before they were glazed the pieces reminded one of eviscerated animal bodies, the shining layer of colour now banishes all reference to things of the body, causing instead the majesty and beauty of the untameable mentioned above to become the subject matter. Yes, the tactile quality of the material is retained, but the gestures become the bearers of free formal elements. These derive from the inherent physical laws of clay and glaze, and create intellectual and spiritual recognition beyond the emotional element.

And ultimately, in the two most recent developmental phases of Torbjørn Kvasbø’s work (since the end of the 1990s) it becomes quite clear that his intention is not landscape, volcanic eruptions nor the description of nature marked by wind and fire. Indeed, at no time were these intended references. Instead, man himself is his sole concern, man with all his peculiarities, passions and longings. It is the existential struggle between the humane and the animal, between natural desires and human obligation, between basic emotional instincts and their cultivation which is so necessary if co-existence is to be possible.

Torbjørn Kvasbø is impressively unerring in his choice of subject and rigorous in his artistic development. What inspired him from the very beginning, this expression of the untameable which man shares in his soul with nature, from which he comes, what links him with nature, and what nourishes and torments him at one and the same time, Kvasbø has freed from pre-existent images and transferred it to a free sculptural form which he places at our disposal.

Gabi Dewald
Copyright: Event organisers, the author

The author is a freelance journalist and art critic. She is also editor-in-chief of KeramikMagazin/CeramicsMagazine.