Three hulks stripped of sails, rigging, captains, and crews seem suspended in the hermetic silence of motionless, timeless, dimensionless space. No sea breaks against bows or heaves along gunwales; no wind sweeps the decks. Perhaps these vessels, representationally ships but materially and analogically pots, are—as the gapping, circular wounds in their hulls suggest—sinking into an aqueous uncertainty: one of identity as much as of fate. Though simple as forms, they prompt multiple and diverse chains of association. Monochrome red, green, and yellow, they recall colorful polystyrene toys. Thick with undulating glazes, they are as inviting to touch as Momoyama teabowls. Minimalistic and serial, they manifest defining characteristics of much modern and contemporary art. Representing sailing ships, they allude to archaic technologies. Their exteriors are frank and monumental, but their interiors are sealed and secretive, as if their cargoes were too fragile or too formidable to expose to the open air.
Reflection on Cultural Difference
The conditions under which Neil Forrest’s 2013 installation Transits was created provide context for the more obvious associations sparked by the forms composing it. Although produced as a contribution to the 7th Gyeonggi International Ceramic Bienniale, Transits relates to Norway rather than Korea. In 2010, Forrest began a 5-year stint of teaching alternating semesters at his home institution, NSCAD University in Canada and The Oslo National Academy of Art (KHIO). As a foreigner in Norway he was perhaps naturally inclined to reflect on cultural difference, but at the same time much of the Nordic environment felt natural, even familiar. “My interest in the Arctic and all things Northern—all those things that I learned as a grade schooler studying Canadian history—was reignited,” he recalls. “Growing up I’d had a chance to visit Canada’s North, because my father was involved in social housing for the people there. It was a time in Canadian history when we were thinking about ourselves as a Nordic country and how we related to our Northern people.”
Before assuming teaching duties at KHIO, Forrest had been reflecting upon this and other early experiences, in particular the hours spent in a basement workshop with his father. “We built a lot of things together,” he remembers. “Some were plastic models of ships and aircraft. My father would bring home a lot of architect’s models and blueprints, so I became immersed in an environment of miniature buildings. When I was still quite young, he brought home a block of clay, and I started carving it.” Though distanced from this “homemade tradition of working in clay” by the sophisticated conversations in which he would later engage as a student at the Sheridan College School of Design, the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and Alfred University, Forrest would never forget the experience of modeling purely as material exploration.
One would not be forcing a point to suggest that Transits—which in addition to the three model ships consists of two lengths of nautical rope and a miniature glazed-stoneware medieval stave church—openly revisits Forrest’s childhood experiences of model building, exploring with fascination blueprints and architects’ maquettes, studying Canadian history, and discovering the malleable nature of clay. At the same time, these allusions to early interests were consciously framed within an investigation of historical and cultural analogies between Forrest’s own country and his new temporary home. “It became a way for me to determine who I was in relation to Norway,” he notes. “The Norwegians were the explorers of the Arctic, but it was Canada’s Arctic. One of Oslo’s museums has the Fram, the famous ship of the great explorer [Fridtjold] Nansen. It was the beginning of a true modern identity for the Norwegians when they struck out and started looking at the North. The ships are recognizable to a certain generation of Norwegians who are familiar with their history. This is a kind of lore that still carries on today.”
In addition to the Fram, Transits includes glazed stoneware representations of the Northern Star and the Gjøa, in which Roald Amundsen made the first journey through Canada’s Northwest Passage. Weighing between 150 and 200 pounds, the ceramic ships presented the sort of technical challenges to which Forrest as a ceramic artist felt naturally drawn. Modeled roughly through pinching, the forms are laden with dozens of layers of juicy glaze that frankly assert a physical presence.
The problem of firing the pieces—which, unlike most ceramics, are glazed on all surfaces and meant to be seen from every angle—was addressed by running silicon carbide rods through the hulls, one through each of the circular holes, lifting the rods by means of a forklift and situating the projecting rods on supports in the kiln so that no part of the glaze came into contact with the floor or walls (see 5). In subtle reference to this engineering solution, Forrest chose to display the ships on Plexiglas mounts recalling forklifts, with thick rods passing through the holes in the hulls.
Dark References and Vague Suggestions
Representation of an 800-year-old Norwegian stave church in Transits not only recalls Forrest’s interest in architectural models and architecture in general, but also alludes to his association of ships with buildings, a theme explored in greater depth in the related 2013 installation Hard Transits. Here sculptures of four ships, the Fram, Northern Star, Gjøa, and Maud (built for Amundsen’s second trip to the Arctic) hang suspended on steel leaders like trophy fish hauled up from the depths. Decks and hulls of these vessels are pierced with implicit passageways in various shapes. Four drawings, as precise and schematic as architectural blueprints, concisely describe the interiors, into which the viewer’s gaze only imperfectly penetrates. If the ships nod to the historically grounded elements of Norway’s national ethos, these inner structured spaces acknowledge events that have laced anxieties into the country’s more recent consciousness.
Within Fram, a rectangular tunnel runs lengthwise through the belly of the ship, halfway along opening onto a shaft, set at right angles, that exits as a circular hole through the hull. The dark reference of these passageways is to the destruction wrought by right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik, who, in 2011, detonated a van packed with explosives near the Ministry of Justice in Oslo, creating a shock wave fortuitously mitigated by an underground tunnel that channeled away some of the force. Equally sinister is the inner chamber of Maud, which Forrest has described as the Führerbunker—a subtle allusion to the nation’s painful struggle to come to terms with the fact that Norway’s Nobel laureate author Knut Hamsun was an ardent apologist for Hitler. In light of this reference, the openings to the chambers in Gjøa are vaguely suggestive. Shaped like curvaceous saz leaves on Turkish Iznik tiles, they refer to “a small population of Muslim immigrants and the fact that Norwegians were among the last in Europe to take on responsibility for people so far away from them.” The least specific of the interior structures is born by Northern Star, which contains a sealed cache described by Forrest as a “black box: a recorder from an aircraft, a thing that helps us do an autopsy on something that’s been destroyed.”
Despite associations of these voids—the tunnel, the Führer- bunker, the saz-leaf portals, and the black box—with anxieties and phobias specific to recent Norwegian experience, Hard Transits is tendentiously self-reflective—that is to say that the installation does not purport to serve as artistic ethnography, but rather as a self-examination through the artist’s response to a foreign environment. Hard Transits reflects a Canadian professor’s navigation of the sometimes familiar, sometimes alien waters of Norwegian academia, history, and social conventions, but its voids, born in the holds of implicitly sinking ships, conjure deeper and murkier constituents of identity as well. “One of the first things that frightened me as a kid,” Forrest recalls, “was a perfectly square hole in a remote Northern Ontario lake bed. My father grabbed a heavy rock and descended into the hole. He was gone about a minute. There’s this little boy wondering if his father is ever going to come back. That worries me to this day.”
Exploration of self through other is even more pointed in Forrest’s 2016 sculpture Dennis Smith House, in which childhood familiarity with, fascination for, and fear of voids is condensed into a fantasized architectural model rippling under a sea of red glaze and pitched dramatically like the stern of a sinking ship. Ostensibly based on memories that ceramic artist Dennis Smith recalled about his childhood home, in particular a basement and a room in which he suffered through a protracted illness, the piece on another level materializes a procedure followed by Forrest in Transits and Hard Transits as well. The concise, overtly structured nature of the sculpture reflects the fact that, in conscious adherence to convention in Conceptual Art, he set some non-negotiable parameters at the outset. The mysterious, ambiguously articulated aspects of the work—those suggesting glimpses into subjective recesses of the artist’s mind—were, on the other hand, introduced by an unrestricted process of association that ensured self-reflection. “I thought of the work as a series of questions,” Forrest explains. “It was bound to be a puzzle that I assembled for myself—whatever happened, happened.”
the author Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.