Ann-Sofie Gremaud: Material Paths

Thóra Sigurðardóttir´s work in Mosfellsbær Exhibition Space  2011

Photographs, graphite drawings on paper and charcoal drawings directly on the wall are the materials used by Þóra Sigurðardóttir in her current exhibition Material Paths (spring 2011). Her images pose broad-reaching questions about the paths that material can travel.

The inspirational starting point for this work is a collection of folk pottery in traditional Danish peasant style, collected by Danish artist Anne Thorseth, with whom Sigurðardóttir has worked in an on-going creative collaboration. This pottery is typical of the 19th and 20th centuries and was common for everyday household use in rural homes. In spite of its former central place in domestic life, knowledge about this pottery is sparse. Unlike the porcelain designed and produced in Denmark for bourgeois customers, this handmade pottery is mostly unmarked, leaving its exact origin and creator in question. However, whether viewed as a material object or an historical item, this pottery has a distinct connection to the soil and its minerals. First, it has the direct connection of having been created from clay/minerals stemming from the loam found in the fields. Secondly the pottery is associated with peasant culture and thus with the fields and agriculture characteristic of earlier Danish society. The traces of this culture still dominate the Danish landscape.

Some elements of the present exhibition have appeared in Sigurðardóttir’s earlier work, in her collaboration with Anne Thorseth, My place / Your Place (Mit sted / Dit sted). In My place / Your Place, an ongoing joint project, each artist begins and proceeds from the other’s environment. The differences between the artists’ respective homelands, Iceland and Denmark, become the conceptual foundations for artworks in various media. In this approach, in which objects and landscapes are foreign to one artist but familiar to the other, new perspectives emerge. The pottery, a familiar cultural object, and the Icelandic landscape alike take on outlandish qualities from a new angle, through foreign eyes. The pottery used here, its patterns and color, have been treated before in this context of interplay between Sigurðardóttir’s drawings, prints and photographs and Thorseth’s images of the Icelandic landscape. Prior exhibitions have focused on the untouched reaches of Icelandic nature and elements of the cultivated Danish landscape. In Sigurðardóttir’s present solo exhibition the pottery collection reappears as a part of this land – as your place.

In Sigurðardóttir’s artistic process, a single cup or jug is scrutinized – its patterns processed, enlarged through a plotter and reinterpreted in graphite. The fact that each object is handmade and has a unique form and decoration is emphasized by this method, which enables us to immerse ourselves in close-ups of material and decoration. In the drawings the patterns of the ceramic slip are transformed and thus given the chance to unfold in the new materials and format.

The transparency of the drawings allows different interpretations of the patterns to emerge through layering. The layering draws attention to the lightness and materiality of the paper as well as to the different sketching techniques. The drawings accentuate the outlines of the patterns and let them emerge as intertwining fields, light and dark. Each individual drawing is a unique pathway consisting of a retracing of the movement of the potter’s hand. In this way the drawings become reinterpretations of the uniqueness of each marbling process and the objects in clay and glaze are reinterpreted in new materials.

Various ways of understanding material paths may be found in the works of spatial philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991). His influential theoretical work La production de l’espace (1974) includes a discussion of the relation between space and material. Lefebvre emphasizes modern processes of fabricating products and objects. In these processes the possibility of industrial perfection mystifies the origin and creation of the object. Thus the traces of processing and handling, as well as the connection of the raw material to nature, are concealed. This robs the receiver of a full understanding of the object based on the knowledge of how it came to be, its path from nature to finished form. When looking at the pottery incorporated into these artworks, we get a sense of the shaping and turning of the clay as well as the movement of the hand of the potter leaving swirling waves of color. As the pottery and its patterns are reconceptualised, our experience of it changes. The patterns are reframed and enlarged, and thereby potential new interpretations are invited. The drawings refer to the pottery, but are at the same time autonomous images. In this way they include both the microcosm of the ceramic pattern and a macrocosm of the roads, paths and sedimentations of an imaginary landscape.

Another echo here of Lefebvre’s theory of space and form is the importance of the context in which the viewer or receiver places a given object. To us the jugs are relics of past time, elements of past culture, and thus are historical objects. For some viewers they evoke personal memories while to others they are outlandish objects from a distant time and place.

The unpretentious pottery may also evoke home life. Through their use and materiality the jugs and cups form a connection between domestic life and nature. And in their manufacture they also represent a developmental journey from earth to cultural object. The reality of our industrialized and digitalized society and our decreasing interaction with nature has changed our relationship with natural raw material. In this context the pottery also has an air of the unfamiliar. We may therefore neither recognize its immediate connection with earthen ground, nor see its familiar household role. Still the pottery’s appearance and Sigurðardóttir’s drawings coax out the pottery’s lingering connections to both the ground and earthly materials and to memories of its past creation and use.

The patterns of the drawings may remind us of the swift strokes of the potter through the layers of material, and also of the slow sedimentation of soil strata shaping the landscape. These layers are as immediate in Sigurðardóttir’s drawings and photos as they are in the pottery. In this way complex paths of time and material resonate. In Lefebvre’s texts, paths and roads form intersections of time and space because they are lasting witness to the movements of past times and societies.

As a whole, the exhibition poses questions about time, space and movement. It does so by invoking our direct and imagined connections to the earth – as homeland, cultural landscape or simply as material.

English transl. Sarah Brownsberger 2011