The International Worls Contemporary Ceramics Exhibition
'Adventures of the fire', Korea

Køppe Gallery Copenhagen

Elemants in White, Solo Exhibition
Galerie Marie Lund, Paris

By Henrik Most

Bente Skjøttgaard likes to experiment. As a ceramist, she sees the potentiality and limitations of the unformed lump of clay and of glaze as a fluid that transforms as her supreme challenge. With the exhibition ‘Mellemistid’ (Interglacial Period), she has found inspiration in the tree – that living, robust and monumental piece of organic life that has survived man for thousands of years – in order to break away from the stereotyped archetypes of ceramics. The works feature clay as a basic material consisting of microscopic stones from mountains, worn down and decomposed by water, ice and wind in the course of millions of years. This brown substance is like some paradoxically fertile raw material that places itself here at Bente Skjøttgaard’s disposal in the interglacial period of our age. The result is at one and the same time harrowingly present and almost weirdly mysterious, full of experienced life in fired clay with glaze and dull and gleaming surfaces that capture fibrous bark, dirty protuberances and sinuous roots at their snail’s pace. They cry out against accepted taste for what ceramics is able to and ought to do. There are no traces here of the earlier ample glazed dishes, bowls and vases (2000) and the symmetrical, luscious vases from (2001-03), with their viscous bonbon glaze that had solidified in mid-firing – rather a further development of her rampant ramifications (2003) – a labyrinthine abstraction on nature’s occasionally self-provoked miracles and momentarily conceived in cube-like lattice-constructions.

The outer reaches of ceramics must in general be said to be Bente Skjøttgaard’s ‘bull’s-eye’. Her works strike home in their radical, conscious break with finery-laden ceramics when she explores the possibilities of the impossible with no-nonsense persistence.

It proved possible where it seemed impossible, with the floor vases the height of a man, and it now manifests itself in fluctuating works as a distribution of a yet more scattered diversity. One meets head-on the smallest broken-off branch and its curved form, naked, stripped branches, rough protuberances and a heap of intertwining roots – dense, thick, squashed, squelched and tremblingly turbulent. And then part of this small, naked branch reappears, though this time like a Log Vase modelled in a hollowed-out giga-format, plus a triadic glaze mix of white, pale pink and grey vertically challenging the rounding of the base. It is disordered order seemingly seized from nature’s own chaotic and yet harmonious cosmos, without ever being a mimetic impression, but always an artistic adaptation. One to one and one to a hundred, both alien and familiar – and, what is just as important: a universe of the experiences of a unique ceramist in modelling in the service of the fiery imagination one cannot but explore: nose to the fore and sniff out the works from their outer shell, the inner darkness.

Nature is known to be both frightening and fascinating when the entrancing wood is in leaf and then crash, bang, is suddenly overthrown by violent storms and lightning and is completely overturned – revealing an underground network of roots. Then we glimpse a different world of intertwined organic life, split into a jumble of enormous tentacles. One is terrified and exhilarated at this kilometre-long miracle – beautiful yet incomprehensibly mysterious. This is where Bente Skjøttgaard gets to work: she pulls up the root, i.e. the traditional conception of the beautiful, of harmonious proportions and the golden section we live with as the dregs of a drive towards utter symmetry. Or could it possibly be a form of defence, a narcissistic turning away from our own sullied thoughts? No wonder, then, that Socrates’ remarks about the transilluminated body as being healthy, physically and mentally balanced, influenced our world-picture and became a collective sop. In the present works, this view shifts towards the innovative – lacking the given proportions that normally cause us to sigh in honeyed bliss at the dainty stature of ceramics. Here, new sensations are fostered that are closer to the sublime experience – which in turn is closer to the blend of dread and danger of whipping branches, threatening cliffs, or claps of thunder. It gives rise to inner turbulence of the self – what the philosopher Kant referred to as ‘Erschütterung’ – an abyss opens up and invades man’s paradise-like primordial state, pointing to the transience of all things. We are forced to leave the sluices open to the great constructions of heaped-up tree-trunks and branches, plus the occasionally industrially-shaped pipes, sloshed over with dull, white and gleaming green glaze as well as black slime. Forget the ceramic art nouveau membrane of earlier works; we are now moving beyond a common code for the immediately familiar: the bowl, pot and dish have been swept away – for ceramics is not only tamed forms but a brute reservoir of strength from Bente Skjøttgaard, who examines the limitless potential of the aesthetic in ceramics and invites us to do likewise. Here, shapes are to be understood as a cessation of slow motion, where the amputated limbs of trees turn against themselves at their loss from being deprived of the trunk that once constituted them. What happened? Was it nature’s own rhythm of warmth, cold and storm that caused it? Are they the debris of an interglacial period? A fertile age where it is a question of being on one’s toes and doing one’s best. Nature thrives; civilisations are created and make their mark in a period that lasts a maximum of 10,000–15,000 years before a paralysing new ice age lasting 100,000 years consigns everything to the ultimate freezer in the form of ice-blocks. Or have we ourselves sawn, hacked and disembodied these organisms in the name of culturalisation, because we have to draw attention to ourselves before everything is over and done with once more? The answer is incomplete – it must be so, just as the works are on the side of the unfinished and are a matter of coming into existence – an always incomplete existence – always in the process of being formed.

The final phase of the works cannot thus be attained and assume a complete form (identification, imitation, mimesis) of nature, but are to be found in a proximate zone – a zone of inseparability and indivisibility between nature’s own forms and our own cultivation of them: hollowed-out tree trunks with knotted protuberances and funnel-shaped, truncated branches emerge as the precursors of the vase. In order to achieve such a complex, surprising aim, the glaze is poured over these coarse beings from several angles. First, green copper glaze, then greasy white matt glaze. When the glaze is reduced in the kiln, a thickening is formed that alludes to Bente Skjøttgaard’s abstraction on the rough surface of the bark, with rifts of inner, red tracks. The thinker Michel Serres speaks of turbulence as a condition of everything. Smoke that twists skywards, mountain streams that suddenly constrict, the lazy, slow graceful mixing of liquids with their spiral movements, the corkscrew swirls along river banks, the streaks of a wake and the streamers left by jet planes. Turbulence is widespread everywhere, in all that is alive or is dead, in the natural and the technical. And it surprises and fascinates us all the time when Bente Skjøttgaard challenges the nature of the glaze; she knows it well, but it also knows her – and together they make new discoveries of colour strokes and projections on the surface of the ceramics. Anything else would be utterly boring and predictable for both Bente Skjøttgaard and us, her public.

But nor is it her role to pat us on the head – it is good for us to be harassed and shaken out of our own conceptual world, even when it challenges our taste and aesthetic set of rules, i.e. our customary view of beauty. For what is that? If one looks at the represented works at the exhibition ‘Mellemistid’, there is no easy-grown answer. As an observer, one is called on to hang one’s coat of good taste on a peg back home and to go beyond one’s own thresholds as regards aesthetics and anti-aesthetics. It is this inter-space that touches and stirs the senses, providing them with new nourishment and transforming defence mechanisms into enthusiasm. In a way, these works, like tree and totem and memento mori, represent a visit to the non-familiar and alien – ‘das Unheimliche’, that which is not our home-ground but is troublesome and yet incitingly dangerous at the same time. The works entice, like severed tree-trunks and descents to the dark realm of roots beneath the ground; couples dancing with each other and sometimes bumping into some system of pipes or other. They tempt us, like fertiliser for the soul.

I am firmly convinced that Bente Skjøttgaard masters the element of the senses – a hard discipline that often ends in the affected and the laboured. It is clear from her works that the artistic form is to be understood as a network of internal relations between compound sensory experiences. She stakes on and stakes out her forms as a diversity, interacting midway between intuition and control. This means that the works also acquire the duality and power that is necessary for them to be able to affect others. They preserve the senses, which, in some strange way, are independent of the person who creates the works as well as the person who observes them. The works are preserved in themselves, they live their own lives in a stubborn ‘I can do it’ – detached from their creating subject, from whom their senses have wrenched themselves free. Only then can a work touch one, as in her powerful green arrangement of lopsided, towering tree-trunks with transverse branches and hollowed-out, soft plastic garden hoses in a non-random encounter that is still so immediate that the encounter of the tree’s scratches and severed pipes is thrown directly in our faces. It is bristling limbs daubed with a thick layer of green and matt-black glaze that hit us in the eye and incite without any form of cuteness but as a strong tactility that feels very close, almost tangible. In that spirit, Bente Skjøttgaard taps an important vein, as when Michel Serres tells us that all sensing is touch. Precisely because of a thing’s being-in-itself, the sensing body is able to come into direct contact with things themselves – they are enveloped in a veil that does not hide them but on the contrary allows us to see them, if we are open, vigilant and willing. There is continuity between being and appearance – it is just a question of being able to receive and not just filing past with a cursory glance. All involvement makes demands on us, but we are then richly rewarded when we meet the works exhibited at ‘Mellemistid’.

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