Making the Invisible Visible
Torbjørn Kvasbø’s ceramics
Torbjørn Kvasbø’s ceramic works have always made me feel uneasy. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that they are difficult to interpret. Abstract as many of them are, they do not lend themselves easily to explanation. In an attempt to understand what this ceramic output is all about, I have looked to books and periodicals for an answer. This has only served to increase my puzzlement. Does the written literature about Torbjørn Kvasbø tell the truth about his art?
“His works appear to be expressions of a wild and unhampered landscape,” writes art critic Lotte Sandberg. A critic in the Swedish periodical Form writes about “petrified eruptions from the bowels of the earth”. Art historian Gunnar Danbolt sees the process as a transition from nature (sand, clay and water) to culture via the firing process, after which the pieces again regain the appearance of natural phenomena. Like Pompei after the eruption of Vesuvius, he claims. It would appear that Kvasbø’s artworks are first and foremost a natural phenomenon. They imitate natural processes and become stories about the passage of time: cracks and uneven features “become the rings of a tree that chronicle their impressive age,” in Danbolt’s own words, even though the work in question is only a few days old. These descriptions depict Kvasbø’s work as pointing backward in time. They describe what has taken place before we meet the objects in a common present. The materials and the wood firing technique that Kvasbø uses is seen as being synonymous with nature and something earthbound. This is certainly a very legitimate interpretation, but I feel that it is misleading. This insistence on nature can lure us into believing that the artist’s work evolves almost organically, as matter-of-factly and arbitrarily as any other natural phenomena. The fact that this interpretation underestimates the diversity of these objects is no less serious. Once they are interpreted via a nature metaphor, it is not so easy to be open to other views. Though I do not have the last say about what Kvasbø’s ceramic art is all about either, I would like to point to two themes that invite some alternative interpretations to those that have dominated the literature on his work to date.
What types of artefacts does Kvasbø create? Sculptures? Objects? The latest works tend mostly towards these categories, but the retrospective exhibition touring in Norway during 2005 revealed that the original point of departure was utensils. Objects for use are thus one of the relevant alternative contexts. There is tension in the dichotomy between functional objects and pure art objects. In fine arts the functional aspect determines where in the hierarchy a ceramic object fits in, while in the field of ceramics a value distinction is normally not made between applied art and free form. To work in the no-man’s-land between these categories is to work within an unstable category with regard to deciding what type of object is in question. But with their strong legacy of a material culture, all ceramists know that utensils are just as much bearers of meaning as pure artworks are. Yet works of applied art are easily overlooked in daily life. “In our daily contact with things, they often become one with their function. They thus become so transparent to us that we can lose sight of them. We make use of them with an intimacy that prevents us from seeing what they are. Because utensils are so much a part of our habitual world, it is only their ‘pure serviceability’ that we focus on. When confronted with a work of art, however, we are able to see something else. As representations of art, things take on a dimension of unfamiliarity,” writes philosopher Dag T. Andersson in a discussion of Heidegger. When Kvasbø exhibits functional objects or uses them as a motif in more sculptural types of pieces, he renders them visible again. Heraklit once said that objects are fond of hiding themselves. The truth is perhaps to be found in the grey zone that exists between revealing and concealing. In any case, I believe that what Kvasbø is doing can be characterised by the catchwords revealing and concealing. Many of his objects carry with them the memory of other things although they no longer have that function, such as a trough, a chest, a house or a platter.
Clay is mute, yet it can absorb all kinds of information. As Tony Cragg has expressed it, “I move, it moves”. As expressive as Kvasbø’s works are, they seem to me at times to have been exposed to some rather aggressive treatment. The material has been stretched to its limits as evidenced by cracks, tears and other “wounds”. Some of the forms are reminiscent of a torso, but by far the majority are body-like without being figurative portrayals of bodies. The corporeal associations are thus more implicit than explicit. They are created by the heavy, flesh-like quality of the clay, and by surfaces that remind one of skin with all its depressions and hollows. Bulges erupt from inside like blisters that cause the surface of the skin to burst, while at the same time there are holes resulting from a penetrating motion originating on the outside. This movement from the inside out and the outside in causes the works to pulsate and breathe. But holes and fissures and fragmented body parts also speak of another drama, one associated with mutilation and death. These associations are reinforced by the most recent works, which consist of large, heavy coffin shapes over which a human figure is placed as though lying in state.
Kvasbø’s corporeal objects are simultaneously seductive and repulsive, beautiful and hideous. A compound feeling of this type is typical for a sublime experience that can be defined as satisfaction combined with dread and fear. Perhaps this is where the key to my unease lies? The English translation of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s book about the painter Francis Bacon was published in 2004. What he writes about Bacon’s world of images can apply to Kvasbø’s work as well: “Bacon’s deformed bodies and screaming heads are not expressions of suffering,” he claims. “What we are witness to is a localisation of the limitations of figurative expression. Bacon paints neither suffering nor the possible source of suffering, but rather the effect of it – he attempts to make the invisible visible. The invisible violence that permeates the human being in the dichotomy between an organism and disorganisation… In art and painting, as in music and literature, it is not a question of reproducing or creating new shapes, but of capturing energy.”
Revealing the invisible can hardly be a function of all types of art, but it applies very well to expressive art of Kvasbø’s kind. He speaks through experiences that are incorporated into the materials with great expressive energy and authority, but it is a voice that is beyond what we have a vocabulary for. Emotions and energy are played out in the creative process and it is quite likely that we would gain insight from a psychoanalytical approach if we wished to dig more deeply into these experiences. Not because psychoanalysis can offer explanations for what the objects represent, but because it encompasses tools that can help us to understand how art is able to fire the imagination and inspire fear as well as desire; in other words, how it is able to make us feel uneasy. But there is no tradition in Norway for using a psychoanalytical approach in analysing ceramic objects, just as there is no tradition for drawing on feminist theories about art as a gendered activity. Perhaps that would explain why it is nature and not body or gender that have predominated in discussions of Kvasbø’s work.
Since antiquity, our culture has given privileged status to the sense of sight. We speak of visual culture and visual media. In this tradition sight represents distance and analysis, detached from the body and emotions. But we also communicate with each other through our bodies, and we experience art as much as sensory beings as detached spectators. Another corporeal aspect of Kvasbø’s objects is that they are extremely tactile and they remind us that the sense of touch is important. To touch and be touched are inseparable. This type of approach is not an obvious one for an art historian like myself. I am trained to use a critical and analytical language, but this often results in scholars placing themselves in a superior position with regard to art and the artist. I have sought a different way of dealing with art for a long time, a way that implies a more equal encounter. Professor of literature Arne Melberg has described such an encounter as the act of listening and answering. Listening requires that one diminish the distance between art and criticism, because it is not the critical dimension one is listening to, but the voice that speaks via the work of art and that asks to be met with trust. The result of my active listening process in the encounter with Torbjørn Kvasbø’s work was not a discussion of explosive natural phenomena, but rather of a drama of a more existential and emotional character. It turns out that I am not alone in this way of viewing Kvasbø’s work. After having written the above, a copy of the catalogue of Torbjørn Kvasbø’s retrospective exhibition came into my hands. The editor of the German periodical KeramikMagazine Gabi Dewald writes in her catalogue essay that “his intentions are 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.” It is this struggle these massive and monumental shapes invite us to react to.
Translated from Norwegian by Francesca Nichols