“Forces—Dyrdal Kvasbø Tingleff” is a three-stop exhibition showing a trio of artists that graduated from the same school as education in the arts changed to be more in tune with new political ideas of the 1970s. This was a defining moment, when orthodox thinking about the applied arts’ role in society was replaced by new ideas and claims for more space for individualism and other progressive and liberal ideals. Soon after graduation, ceramic artists Torbjørn Kvasbø and Marit Tingleff, along with textile artist Kari Dyrdal, set out on their respective paths, paying little heed to utility, beauty, and other such conventions.
Hails Recent Works
The exhibition is not searching to trace these years of emancipation. That chapter, outlining the artists’ formative years, is relegated to texts in a rich exhibition catalog. The dynamics at play in the ceramic education of that time are recapitulated in a catalog text by Anne Britt Ylvisåker, which is, in itself, a very good read. But her findings are nevertheless not detectable in the exhibition. Instead, Forces focuses on works made by these three artists during the last decade.
The brain behind this exhibition is Frédéric Bodet, an International Academy of Ceramics (IAC) curator who was working at the Cité de la Céramique museum in Sèvres, France. (The museum hosted Forces before Kode in Bergen, Norway, and Sørlandets Kunstmuseum (SKMU) in Kristiansand, Norway.1 This review is based on the latter venue’s staging of the show.)
Bodet’s writings and analyses of the individual artists are both explicative and poetic. His words are good companions to viewing these spectacularly large objects. Size is perhaps the sole common denominator that unites these works, since the artists’ simultaneous coming of age in a turbulent time is not the raison d’être for Forces. I ponder over his motives for this exact lineup, and also why an underfunded French-specialized institution as Paris’ Cité de la Céramique became key in this endeavor, when it’s also broadening their pursuit of “artists devoted to or inspired by ceramics” (as is stated by the director in the French catalog).
On its trip north, Forces became a smaller exhibition. Close to ten works by Tingleff dating from the 1980s were omitted; and a bit of the French title that related the show to nature’s forces was also lost. An omission of a major work by Kvasbø in the two last venues is probably due to his showing it in Korea.
Center stage in the version of the exhibition shown in Kristiansand was how Kvasbø, in recent years, has been innovating a sculptural language based on handling an extruder, a simple mechanical device that allows him to create cylinders or tubes that he then stacks. Once sitting or lying atop one another, his objects tower in various formats—more or less expressive—demonstrating their resistance to the inherent risks of collapsing, be it of wet clay under its own weight or from the heat in the kiln when fired.
More than a dozen works stem from Kvasbø’s stacking of hollow cylinders, each the length of a man’s arm, as dictated by the extruder. These sculptures delineate an accumulative logic akin to an unstoppable algorithm run wild. Manual power is confronting mechanical force. Viewers are hit by the concentration of one singular form. Seeing something so serially and densely repeated may lead to feeling slightly nauseated, as if facing Frankenstein—and probably also finding this intriguing, in ways similar to Charlie’s tour of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In the words of Bodet, this production by Kvasbø “exudes the value of work.” Work of a body, I could add, since these shapes are abundantly wretched, alarming, yet free from representation.
I missed seeing the huge piece shown in Paris, a work for which Kvasbø’s point of departure was old molds for porcelain vases that he borrowed from a shut-down factory in Norway (Porsgrund Porcelain Factory). He produced hundreds of vases, which were strung on a wire, and installed looming from floor to ceiling like a bee’s nest at Sèvres. The motif of a defunct industry readily grafts itself to the topic of work. His handling of the vases reads like an ongoing research, so luckily it is now to be found (in a much larger version) at the Korean International Ceramic Biennale (KICB).
Narrow Material Palette
Marit Tingleff provides a differently nuanced version of expressive and humongous ceramics. Her slabs mimic platters, and read like endearing and sometimes outright decorative pictures. Her body of work speaks of china ware and porcelain serving sets and of a domestic sphere. The entire production stems from a stripped-down palette, including simple earthenware (red clay, sourced mostly in Norway), slips and engobes, and transparent glaze.
To Bodet, Tingleff’s oeuvre is imbued with, “an ideal of intimism [that] remains estranged from those who would make ‘History.’” I take those big “history-makers” to mean male artists or boundary-pushing artists (and others of that kind), but I do not think the work of Tingleff is all that different. A constant trait is how she scales up her works despite the difficulties encountered as the sizes go beyond what her chosen materials allow her to control.
What truly gets Tingleff’s attention, and the attention of viewers, are the layered slips and engobes that cover these platter shapes. So, it really is about painting—with the colors of earth itself—on canvases of clay that can measure up to 8 feet 2 inches (2.5 m) in length.
Her simple palette and the local red clay tout vernacular pottery production. But the local and historical backdrop against which Tingleff positions her works remain out of sight for an average spectator (as so little is researched by scholars and therefore not known about early Norwegian pottery). This knowledge gap also prohibits misreading her huge pieces like chauvinistic celebrations of some original national traits; and her works being so grandiose excludes conflating them with Mingei ideas that were professed as the new folk-art movement by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada decades ago when Tingleff and the others were starting the training in their arts.
The proportions of the tapestries made by Kari Dyrdal match those of the ceramics, but to relate them isn’t a fecund exercise in my mind. The abandoned factory room is a prevalent motif in the imagery rendered in the machine-woven fabrics. Old industrial machinery and equipment alternates with purely abstract compositions made by photoshopping and layering multiple images of details from such spaces.
Why were these three artists put into one grand traveling show like this? In addition to the three museums involved in showing Forces, the production of the show was at the hands of Norwegian Crafts, an entity set up to promote Norwegian artists within the crafts abroad by the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts (NAAC)—a member organization founded in the mid-1970s. The grandiloquent gathering of super-sized works of three artists whose one common trait is their coming of age alongside the very foundation of NAAC, to me, reads like a reverent nod that extends to that period and its ideas. But that time’s irreverence, which once paved way for the new, also fostered its norms. Is Forces not proof that those ideas have reached their peak? Forceful as these works may be, one cannot help but wonder who’s going to turn the artistic and political tides next.
1 Forces included 43–59 works by textile artist Kari Dyrdal (1952) and ceramic artists Torbjørn Kvasbø (1953) and Marit Tingleff (1954). The exhibition was shown in Kristiansand, Norway, at Sørlandets Kunstmuseum (October 2019 through January 2020) www.skmu.no/utstillinger/krefter-tingleff-kvasbo-og-dyrdal; at Kode–Art Museum and Composer Homes, Bergen (May through September 2019) www.kodebergen.no/en/exhibitions/forces; as well as at Cité de la Céramique, Paris (September 2018 through April 2019), then titled “Forces de la nature,” www.sevresciteceramique.fr/media/anglais-cp-forces-de-la-nature.pdf.
the author Christer Dynna is an art historian whose texts and critiques span various media, aesthetics, and eras. He lives in Oslo, Norway. To learn more, visit www.frilanskatalogen.no/christer.