Northbound | Nordgående

Giles Sutherland, 1 June 2018

“For vår tids nervøse, undersøkende og lyttende mennesker forblir færre og færre av naturens hemmeligheter skjult, en etter en bringes de frem til observasjon eller gjenkjennelse. Hos flere og flere folk der lever et anstrengt tankeliv, og dertil er ømtålige av gemytt, oppstår der ofte sjelelige virksomheter av det underligste slags. Det kan være aldeles uforklarlige sansetilstander: en stum, årsaksløs henrykkelse; et pust av psykisk smerte; en fornemmelse av å bli talt til fra det fjerne, fra luften, fra havet; en grusom, fin lydhørhet, der bringer en til å lide endog av suset fra anede atomer; en plutselig, unaturlig stirren inn i lukkede riker der slås opp…

“For the sensitive, curious and attentive people who lead mental lives of great intensity, people who are sensitive by nature, notice the steadily more frequent appearance in them of mental states of great strangeness ... a wordless and irrational feeling of ecstasy; or a breath of psychic pain; a sense of being spoken to from afar, from the sky or the sea; an agonizingly developed sense of hearing which can cause one to wince at the murmuring of unseen atoms; an irrational staring into the heart of some closed kingdom suddenly and briefly revealed…

Knut Hamsun, ‘Fra det ubevisste sjeleliv’ (From the Unconscious Life of the Mind) 1890


Artistic collaborations are nothing new and they come in many shapes and sizes, from large collective groupings to smaller, less formal affairs. Here a group of artists, from Norway and Scotland, have come together to create work that ranges across the disciplines of ceramics, painting, drawing, performance and sculpture.  Individually, and collectively, these works are informed by folklore, personal quotidian experience, geology, botany and family history … and much else besides. What unites all of the work is sense of dedicated, intense artistic purpose and an adherence to the principles of craft – the ‘well-madeness’ of things. This applies equally to hand-craft and to the craft of the intellect, although that, in a sense, is a very false dichotomy, because the hand and the mind cannot be separated in this context.

Siri Brekke is based in the town of Leivik on the island of Stord, in Hordaland, western Norway. Her paternal grandfather, Olav J. Brekke, who died in 1982, was an artist-blacksmith who left behind him a wealth of objects and other materials. She uses this rich familial and cultural inheritance as the basis of her work. Here, Brekke has assembled a series of installations, the components of which are formed by representations of her grandfather’s tools – primarily hammers – covering all shapes, sizes and functions. Although memetic, these are neither replicas nor adaptations, but interpretations.  Some are made from moulds and others in free- hand form. In one, Livshjul (Wheel of Life), nineteen objects, placed like the spokes of a cart-wheel, suggest how human life continues from one generation to the next, in a process that involves not only genetic inheritance, but also history, trade-craft, memory and intense emotion. Here we see drivhammer (driving hammers), flatters, pick-hammers, pennhammer (pein-hammers), planhammer (plan hammers), klubbe (mallets) and siseleringshammer (chase-hammers) all rendered indexically, it would appear, as casts in black stoneware, red terracotta and white porcelain.  In another work, Dialog (Dialogue), Brekke has adapted the hammers’ flat striking plane (or face) to form what are recognisably human features, underlining the process of cross-generational influence that serves as the fundament of her work.

Figure 1.  Siri Brekke , ‘Livshjul’ (Wheel of Life) [porcelain, terracotta, black stoneware - 84cm diameter] with labels indicating names of some hammer types. Photograph by Siri Brekke.

Figure 1. Siri Brekke, ‘Livshjul’ (Wheel of Life) [porcelain, terracotta, black stoneware - 84cm diameter] with labels indicating names of some hammer types. Photograph by Siri Brekke.

Figure 2. Siri Brekke, Detail of ‘Dialog’ (Dialogue) [porcelain, terracotta - 90cm x 75cm] Photograph by Giles Sutherland.

Figure 3.  Siri Brekke , Detail of ‘Marg’ (Marrow) [mixed clay, wood - 129cm x 192cm] Photograph by Giles Sutherland.

Figure 3. Siri Brekke, Detail of ‘Marg’ (Marrow) [mixed clay, wood - 129cm x 192cm] Photograph by Giles Sutherland.

Rebecca Brown, who trained as an illustrator, combines various disciplines – drawing, painting, ceramics and printmaking – to create vessels which combine narrative and the semblance of function, although her bowls, bottles and vases are usually only formally linked to their original use.  Here Brown’s works recalls mariners’ lore and superstition, in particular the practice of breaking egg-shells to prevent their use as boats by witches, recalled in a children’s poem, by Elizabeth Fleming, in the 1930s:

Oh, never leave your egg-shells unbroken in the cup;
Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up,
For witches come and find them and sail away to sea,
And make a lot of misery for mariners like me.

Brown has dipped her broken egg-shell fragments in porcelain slip and fired them so that the forms are stabilised but still retain their original fragility (somehow also conjuring the idea of extreme, but futile, diplomacy redolent in the phrase ‘like walking on egg-shells’). These egg-shells, ‘interpretations’ of the original form and object, retain a strong connection with Brekke’s media (especially porcelain), and with her way of working.

Figure 4.  Rebecca Brown , 'Fleet' [porcelain - variable dimensions]. Photograph by Peter Haring

Figure 4. Rebecca Brown, 'Fleet' [porcelain - variable dimensions]. Photograph by Peter Haring

Brown has used the ‘archetypal’ form of the bowl as what might be termed a ‘narrative vessel’ and it’s no surprise to find that the collaborative duo BIOSENARIO (Tone Boska and Kjersti Sletteland) also use the bowl as the starting point of their work. These too may be termed a kind of ‘narrative exploration’ but as well as folklore, they delve into contemporary stories and events, as well as dreams, incorporating all manner of complex, funny, frightening, provocative imagery in the process.

Working together at the same time and in the same place, Boska and Sletteland enter into a kind of dramatic dialogue, where one artist’s shaping of the clay into various weird and wonderful forms will engender a reciprocal response. It’s a kind of dance of the imagination, where heads and faces, vermicular forms and biomorphic masses squirm and writhe, like the entanglement of dreams. These are narratives, diaries, visual journals of the psyche, caught and frozen, fired and captured in clay.

Figure 5.    Biosenario  (Kjersti Sletteland and Tone Boska), ‘A Difficult Door to Open’ [porcelain - 24cm x 22cm x 37cm] Photograph by Peter Haring.

Figure 5. Biosenario (Kjersti Sletteland and Tone Boska), ‘A Difficult Door to Open’ [porcelain - 24cm x 22cm x 37cm] Photograph by Peter Haring.

It’s tempting to dig deep here; to expose this inner, collaborative world to some kind of quasi-psychoanalytic method. But that is another realm and dimension.  Nevertheless, the darker aspects of the Norwegian soul that lurk near the bright, cheerful and clean surface, exposed here, finds an echo in the ugly beauty of Hamsun, Ibsen and Munch.

Kjersti Sletteland, working independently, has created a Jesmonite frieze, appropriately mounted high on the gallery walls. It shows in stark relief, various moulded elements, in a repeated pattern. Sletteland offers this a critique of Modernism, which posited the idea that such ornamentation was a form of superfluous indulgence: “They [Modernists] saw ornamentations’ floral repetitions as a result of manic actions and obsessive thoughts,” Sletteland has commented.  The elements of the architectural coving – ergonomically-shaped walking stick handles, chair legs, brushes – seem to play on these sentiments, teasing and cajoling them, insisting that repetitive patterning is a ‘hard-wired’ aspect of human expression.

Figure 6.   Kjersti Sletteland , 'Element 3' [Jesmonite - 125cm x 40cm] Photograph by Peter Haring.

Figure 6.  Kjersti Sletteland, 'Element 3' [Jesmonite - 125cm x 40cm] Photograph by Peter Haring.

Ingeborg Blom Andersskog’s work, which combines aspects of sculpture, installation, performance and drawing, conjures Paul Klee’s famous dictum that drawing is about “taking a line for a walk”.  In one project, Walking and drawing for 110 km from Lærdal to Øye in Vang, documented here on film, Andersskog takes this definition literally. Accompanied by the atmospheric music of Mari Kvien Brunvoll, the film shows Andersskog on a journey in central Norway following the King’s Road over Filefjell (Filefjell Kongevegen). The road is named after King Sverre of Norway (1184-1202) who travelled the route with his army. The existing road was constructed in the 1790’s, over the Filefjell mountains at the head of Sognefjord.

Figure 7.  Historic print by P. F. Wergmann (1802-1869) showing the Kongevegen

Figure 7.  Historic print by P. F. Wergmann (1802-1869) showing the Kongevegen

Figure 8. Kongevegen

Figure 8. Kongevegen

Here Andersskog uses a road marker with biodegradable paint to trace her route through the stunning beauty of Norway’s landscape, following the twists, turns and at times amazingly straight sections of the pre-industrial pathway.  Like much of Andersskog’s work it was a test of physical and mental endurance, leaving a visible, if impermanent mark on the landscape.

Andersskog takes this idea from exterior to interior space, retaining much of its essence, including the performative aspects, and creates large drawings using marker pen on paper, which is attached to the gallery wall.

Figs. 9-18. Ingeborg Blom Andersskog, ‘Outside In’ (acrylic marker on paper - 180cm x 220 cm). Photographs by Peter Haring

A dot is her starting point, then using the dimensions of her own body, and referencing Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, she slowly, meticulously, with metricity, creates a line that is approximately circular.  Once the first is complete, a second follows, inside, and so on until the circle becomes full of concentric shapes, solid, eccentric, flawed, organic. Eventually, we are looking at the growth rings of a tree where each climatic variation and external event is mirrored in the rings.

Jenny Mackenzie Ross is a consummate craftsperson – a potter, ceramicist and sculptor whose work is a reflection of place, climate and ecology. Ross’s workshop is located in an converted mill on the eastern shore of Caithness, at a latitude of approximately 58.3 degrees north, roughly equivalent to Stavanger, in Norway.

Ross’s pottery, well-made and technically sophisticated, feeds into her work as a sculptor, which is deeply influenced by the ecology of her environs.  Her work, Coralline Tide, references the coralline algae, Maerl, living structures that combine aspects of geology and botany. Ross combines stoneware and porcelain with organic life forms such as reeds and grasses and fires these in ceramic kiln. The organic carbon burns out, leaving an indexical trace in the ceramic, which appear like vascular vessels that run through the fired clay, in the same way that letters run through a stick of ‘rock’ once popular in sea side resorts.  

Figure 19.   Jenny Mackenzie Ross  ‘Intrusion’ [soda fired stoneware -  23cm x 25cm x 15cm]   Photograph by Peter Haring.

Figure 19.  Jenny Mackenzie Ross ‘Intrusion’ [soda fired stoneware - 23cm x 25cm x 15cm]  Photograph by Peter Haring.

Figure 20.  Jenny Mackenzie Ross , Detail of ‘  Coralline Tide '  [soda fired stoneware, porcelain - variable dimensions] Photograph by Peter Haring.

Figure 20. Jenny Mackenzie Ross, Detail of ‘Coralline Tide[soda fired stoneware, porcelain - variable dimensions] Photograph by Peter Haring.

Once assembled in combination, these forms assume an appearance that resembles bones and stones, beguiling the viewer with their visual and haptic ambiguities.

This work of this group, assembled en masse, in a series of complex juxtapositions, becomes more than a sum of its parts. Viewers will perceive, and set up, all manner of linkages and interconnections, both visual and abstract, between the works. Like all good art, these meanings take time and imagination to absorb. It is time well spent, rewarding us with a sense of the brilliance and talent of the artists, as well as their sensitive poetic references to nature and the human environment.

Northbound Nordgående will tour to Thurso Art Gallery (28 July to 8 Sept), The Bonhoga Gallery, Shetland (22 Sep to 11 Nov) and, in 2019, to Fjell Festning Museum, Bergen.