The history of porcelain is a captivating one, steeped in wealth, power, and mystery. Porcelain objects reigned as status symbols representing class and power for the growing 19th-century European bourgeoisie.
During that time, and in the centuries since, the tiny Scandinavian country of Denmark has played a major role in the development and growth of the international ceramics field. Today, three women, Tine Broksø, Karen Kjældgård-Larsen, and Louise Hindsgavl, who share a studio space in an industrial complex, located in the Vesterbrø district of Copenhagen, Denmark, stand out among their peers through the investigation of open-ended questions about the history of clay and its aesthetic/market value. Using humor and intellect; sex and violence; and the psychology of attraction and repulsion—the work becomes a seduction of material and concept for both creator and viewer.
Broksø and Kjældgård-Larsen work together as a studio collective known as Claydies, in an intimate and interactive collaboration based on humor, dialog, and experimentation. They met in 2000 as students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Their work is an exploration of the rich traditions of Danish ceramics, craft, and design. Whether intended as artistic practice or design production, each piece is imbued with layers of meaning.
Following their own rules, the work produced by Claydies is equal parts humor and intellect. The ceramic manifesto DOGMA07 was a one-year experiment where intuition and muscle memory guided their practice. No tools were permitted in the making process, only hands and body. Each artist was blindfolded and used a single clay body to create functional wares. Part spectator sport, part scientific experiment, the viewer was invited in to dismantle the boundaries of art and provide multiples ways of thinking and seeing. True Feelings, a dinnerware set, was born out of the Dogma07 rules and captures the fragility and randomness of the process. The tactile qualities of clay become a counterpoint to industry.
The Influence of Royal Copenhagen
Always present is the historical influence of the ceramic manufacturer Royal Copenhagen. Following in the footsteps of historical potteries including Meissen and Sévres, Danish chemist Frantz Heinrich Mueller founded the Royal Copenhagen porcelain factory in 1775 under the tutelage of the Danish Monarchy and Queen Dowager Juliane Marie. Blue Fluted Plain was the first dinnerware pattern produced by the factory in 1775 and is still in production today. It features hand-painted cobalt-blue floral patterns on glossy white porcelain wares. In 2000, Kjældgård-Larsen was commissioned by Royal Copenhagen to add a contemporary perspective to the company’s longest running pattern and Blue-fluted MEGA was born. The original design is fragmented. Flowers and decorative lines are enlarged to escape the confines of the white plate. Ceramic history is pushed beyond its traditional limitations.
Humor as Intervention
This is not a joke is a series of products Broksø and Kjældgård-Larsen describe during a studio visit as “lovely banalities in humorous objects made through traditional jests.” Objects include soap made of earthenware clay; a mug that exposes a pig nose when a sip is taken; hand-knitted wool scarves resembling breasts; false teeth; whoopee cushions made of velvet; and a candlestick holder that references male genitalia. The objects aim to challenge conventions through tongue-in-cheek references and a play on functionality. Humor continues to debase the preciousness inherent in porcelain material. The Claydies “enjoy challenging preconceptions of what things should look like and how they should be used. We just can’t accept that things just are, that a cup is just a cup.”1 Earth, in the hands of the Claydies, is anything but the expected.
Fontanella is a ceramic installation constructed of multiple conical glazed forms that when stacked, mirror the shape of a classic champagne fountain. The installation was selected for “MindCraft 2015,” the annual design competition in Milan. A theme of the work aims for harmony between form and surface and the industrial and handmade. The hollow bodies again negate functionality.
Described as super-objects by craft and design scholar Louise Mazanti, the Claydies’ pieces use humor as a jumping off point for the disruption of meaning.2 Super-objects fracture the role craft plays in contemporary society—from material and process to doing and being or, in the language of material culture, the agency of an object.3 The viewer’s attention is drawn to the in-between spaces of artistic practice; between form, context, and the object’s relationship to the user. The process is not static—each choice is purposeful. These interventions, whether performative or object-based, encourage viewers to think about art in a brand new way—craft embodies life.
The Claydies are currently organizing a Danish ceramic factory with 16 creative companies to revive ceramic production on the Danish island of Bornholm. Herman Sonne Wolffsen and Edvard Christian Sonne founded the oldest ceramic factory on the island in 1835. Production was halted when the Søholm factory closed in 1996.
The purpose of the new factory, Den Danske Keramikfabrik, and its collective of contemporary makers is to ensure that local ceramic heritage survives in the modern world.
Handmade products will be developed with skilled craftsmen to facilitate a marriage between design, craft, and technical skill. The collective’s vision is to create a thriving space in which Denmark’s reputation for design and mastery of craftsmanship, as well as a demonstrated respect for materials, will become a sustainable practice for future makers.
Louise Hindsgavl’s oeuvre is also part performance, part satire. Her work directly references ceramic history—specifically the unglazed porcelain figurines of 18th-century Meissen and Royal Danish Porcelain factories. However, in breaking from modern Danish traditions of the vessel as a revered form, Hindsgavl’s porcelain figures challenge the history and value of a bourgeoisie luxury item that in the 20th-century plummets into the realm of kitsch.4 The Victorian-era penchant for doll making is appropriated and paired with the eroticism of the Rococo period to construct dynamic, narrative ceramic sculpture. These visual stories capture a sense of the familiar—the fairly tales of our youth. Upon closer inspection, the brutality of our adult world is revealed.
In the fall of 2006, Hindsgavl exhibited at the Danish Museum of Art and Design. Hindsgavl and jeweler Mette Saabye were awarded an exhibition and Best of Show at the Biennale for Arts, Crafts and Design in Denmark; the exhibition was held in 2004. In Reality, one of the pieces from the exhibition in 2006, features the heads of deer, antelope, ducks, and myriad magical beasts mounted upon the bodies of humans to form what art historian Jorunn Veiteberg describes as “a tableaux of characters” displayed on top of ornate porcelain plinths.5 Exquisitely constructed pure white sculptural forms participate in a theater of sorts and draw the viewer inward. We are asked to bear witness to an alternate reality, a warning of man’s transgressions.
Cuts and Bruises, strays from the deliberate avoidance of color and cuts through the preciousness of the material. This body of work incorporates found objects including string, metal, and taxidermy animals. Compared to the earlier work, the ceramic pedestals become less opulent and almost unrecognizable. Surface planes are twisted and stretched to their physical limits. Passive figures sit unaffected by the surrounding violence, debauchery, and impending demise.
The piece titled Power. Porcelain. Poetry., magnifies the complexity of Hindsgavl’s work through collaboration with scenographer Maja Ziska. At the Skovgaard Museum in Viborg, eight tableaux are designed to blur the lines between individual works and large-scale installations. Saturated colors engulf rooms of stacked furniture, surrounded by figures suspended in mid-air. A familiar blue hue stirs up memories of Britain’s Wedgewood factory or Neo-Classical biscuit-ware reliefs. Ceramic pedestals are now completely absent from the work. Each major installation forms a narrative based upon a particular element—a natural or theatrical effect such as darkness and light, smoke, water, and kinetics. Under ultraviolet lights, gender and sexual politics, including the female desire for physical perfection, are dissected.6 Hindsgavl’s visual narratives plunge us deeper into the darkness.
The ceramic landscapes unite a cast of characters straight out of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. However, in the hands of Hindsgavl, they are no longer diminutive. These mutant minotaurs and centaurs represent the hidden and beastly nature of ourselves. The installations challenge the history of the porcelain figurine, breaking from traditions and hierarchies of art.
Broksø, Kjældgård-Larsen, and Hindsgavl not only share a studio space but also the ability to breathe fresh life into a centuries-old tradition. Previous generations of Danish ceramic artists utilized the vessel as both subject and object. The value and history of traditional porcelain manufactures and the irreverent form are dissected and made anew. Through their unique ceramic vernacular, these women expand the boundaries of conceptual thought in the ceramic field.
the author Elizabeth Kozlowski is an independent curator and writer with a specialty in contemporary ceramics. Her most recent exhibition, “Material Domestication,” debuts at the Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco, in 2019. Kozlowski has a Masters with Honors in Museum Studies from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University and a BFA from Florida Atlantic University. To learn more, contact Kozlowski at firstname.lastname@example.org.