There are ceramists whose primary reason for working with vases, jars and dishes is an excitement with the material itself and the many textural possibilities. And then there are ceramists whose reason is form, always subordinating colours and glazes to their ideas of form. There are those who just want something to decorate – and there are those who want to provide their surroundings with sensible objects for everyday use.
And then there is a fifth kind of ceramist – a rare kind – who wants nothing at all … apart from working with the phenomena of ceramics. Phenomenologists, of a sort, who for the sake of comprehension simply choose to express their observations and considerations through ceramics. Marianne Nielsen belongs to this latter category – and hence the conventional ceramics descriptions fall short in her company. But are her works not beautiful? Yes, that just is not her primary concern; rather, beauty is a by-product. Is their shape not harmonious…? Yes, absolutely, but that is not the point – the point is rather that they are interesting to behold.
Fortunately, she is an avid writer:
As a ceramist I essentially address the underlying cultural meaning of ceramics. I wish to present the traditional creative process that forms the basis for our understanding of the objects’ identity. Highlighting the iconic power of the most trivial objects.
She views her works, for example, as presentations of beauty. Either in a concrete sense – or, in particular, by representing beauty in the form of an implicit use of symbols.
Marianne Nielsen studied at the design college Designskolen i Kolding from 1994 to 1999, and soon came to work for Royal Copenhagen with the project “Fremtidens spisestel” (Dinnerware of the Future). Thus, the topic was something as straightforward as dinnerware – but to Marianne Nielsen, things were not all that straightforward. The project required in-depth studies of the essential “dining situation”. She studied the iconography of dinnerware and the way it relates to social and societal conditions. The form studies that formed the basis for the development process were fundamental and formal in nature: How might a surface, i.e. the eating surface, the “scene” represented by the plate, be raised from the table? How might folds be used to create spaces, and how might curves be used to vary the horizontal expanse of the surface?
When function is determined by form as much as by convention, the individual elements may take on more than one single purpose. And stylistically, sushi is no more alien to the plate than a meatball. In a simple way, the sloping surfaces of the plate remove it from the traditional horizontal plate and lend the form a subtle dynamic. The raised centre of the eating surface aims to lift the food up, to offer the food to the diner. The shape of the elements all have a characteristic softness that I think matches the softness of the food and the body. The design should accommodate the vulnerability and intimacy of taking in food and drink.
These are the words of a researcher. Her dinnerware included a pitcher, two cups, two plates and a dinner bowl … and, obviously, it was not put into production. Royal Copenhagen did not have sufficient faith in the need for renewal in their customer segments.
And thus, Marianne Nielsen did not become a designer this time around – but she did continue her basic research. In 2003, in an exhibition at Galleri Nørby she presented a series of remarkable vases, which she described as being more like vases that may also be seen as shapes depicting vases. They represented a series of principle studies that actually looked exactly like vases. But wherein, then, lies the difference – the difference between an actual vase and a vase that merely depicts a vase? Well, of course, it is a matter of challenging the notion we carry in our minds as we observe the objects of this world in general. A vase is such a familiar and well-established phenomenon that it almost becomes a sort of cultural nature. It is circular, it has a body and a neck … and harmonious lines. We all know “a vase”, and we could draw one blindfolded in an almost quintessential form. That is the way of culture. But that is why it is important to be reminded that it is in fact something that we have produced – it is something we invented … from the potter’s wheel and clay production to form – it is, essentially, a cultural product: A world that was created, which did not emerge on its own. It is this potential for duality that is inherent in the medium of ceramics. Simultaneously being and pointing, as an image, to one’s own category. The goal is a form of ceramics that points to its own creation, thus revealing its origins – or which seeks to point out that it is in fact pretence.
The decorations had a similar character – an artificial character that nevertheless did not seem alien. The individual ornamental figures appeared almost as distillates of traditional ornaments reduced to essential structures – in a very modern still!
In 2003, she also did a series of leaf-like dishes. Or at least shapes that clearly sprang from the countless profiles in which Nature casts her leaves. From a narrow end-piece, the form sloshes in and out in symmetric curves, eventually coming together in the opposite end of the dish. Whether she had specific leaves in mind seems doubtful – it is probably rather Nature’s method, the growth principle as such that was of interest to Marianne Nielsen. They bear some resemblance to an earlier series of small dishes that this writer thought were imitations of holly leaves, but which were in fact inspired by a shape she had “drawn up” in paper using a hole-puncher as a pencil – so much for Nature!
The decorations are similarly natural – that is, not in the least – and certainly hold possible associations to the “natural”, a term that seems to invite quotation marks in this context, reading, as it should: as if they were representations of nature – which by no means they are:
In my work with decoration, I address the cultural use of Nature as the traditionally agreed-upon “topic of beauty” and model ornament. I am interested in the contrast between the world of motifs and the approach to production – Nature’s chaos subordinated to man’s interpretation and the order it imposes. A formal study of the way in which Nature’s seemingly random structures can be organised in a simplified system and thus reduced to pure symbolism.
Marianne Nielsen views her decorations as a new link in the “food chain” that begins with the imitation of Nature, and which leads to conventions of form and symbols, where my step is yet another interpretation of this style of interpreting nature. The decorative motifs exist on various levels of recognisability: in the cross-field between the common – and thus familiar – legacy of form and the individual, new and unfamiliar – my personal form universe.
In 2004, Marianne Nielsen took a very direct approach in her exploration of the profiles that ceramics history abounds with: rotary bodies and their journey from base to top. Not as vases or bowls – but exclusively with a focus on the dynamic, the expressive potential that may lie in more or less complicated profiles exposed to three dimensions. There are reminders of the profile vases that Svend Hammershøi made for Kähler around 1916 – or Renato Bertelli’s contemporary profile portraits. Thus, she is by no means the first person to study these phenomena, but she may well be the first ceramist to use them completely without any interest in their functional aspects. These are pure rotary bodies – sculptures, simply. Still, she is enough of a ceramist and sufficiently aware of traditions and functions that she feels compelled to point out that they all reject their potential function, in the case of the “vases” by being completely sealed off, and in the case of the “pedestals” by having an open top and bottom.
The strategies mentioned so far have been characteristic of Marianne Nielsen’s approach, also in relation to her later works. This is true, for example, of the outcome of her stay in Damascus in 2006: a long series of relief dishes decorated with med transfers. The design is actually fairly close to what we would expect from a classic, oval dish – the dish is used in an almost iconic fashion. The rims are decorated with simple figures in a low relief, and the decoration in the centre of the dish mimes these figures in highly principled versions – the same image in two versions on the same object. This is an interesting study, demonstrating how a sort of friction between the two image forms can be achieved by “playing” with the size of the central decoration. One must choose to look at one or the other – it is virtually impossible to grasp them both at the same time. And in a strange way, the rim also becomes the venue for what we, for traditional, perceptual reasons, view as the actual and essential element: the central motif.
An entirely new series of dishes – or large plates – is based in popular aesthetics, an almost naivistic tradition of ornamentation and design. In Marianne Nielsen’s own words: A sort of pop culture that has been established through long-standing tradition. This may involve braids, balls of yarn, or the placement of a handle on a cup. Objects that are either defined by simple practical purposes or by their mode of production – whether it be the specific production technique or the portrayal of symbols of beauty, such as sea shells or flowers. They have stepped out of their naturalist form and become ornamental concepts.
Another interesting recent suite of works is the series “Hair”, a series of reliefs – variations on hairdos or fur. Her modelling refers directly to familiar elements from classic statues and busts, and in a playful way she engages our implicit understanding of these elements from the form idiom of sculptures. Hair and fur, of course, cannot be modelled in a “true” manner – it takes interpretation, symbolic form so to speak. These works reach back to her captivating and beautiful contribution to the exhibition “Konversationsstykker” (Conversation Pieces) in 2004, where she explored mountains and peaks as motifs. Her contribution was a series of principle studies of the geological structures that we find in giant as well as miniscule mineralogical formats. Her approach was, however, primarily decorative and applied pastel glazes in a range that was uncharacteristically wide for Marianne Nielsen.
Perhaps, Marianne Nielsen’s ceramic works do not display any one characteristic style. And yet, there is never any doubt as to who the artist is. The characteristic feature is her basic approach and method, the way in which she approaches her chosen issue. Everything becomes subordinate to the topic. Glazes and colours, for example, are never allowed to stand out as values in their own right. The craftsmanship is outstanding, but otherwise the classic ceramic virtues are downplayed – and in that sense she often demands more from her audience than most ceramists do.
Thus, through what she once referred to as her interest in identity codes, Marianne Nielsen repeatedly – and with great talent – refers to the many ways in which the conversion of the natural character of Nature – and of culture – dominates our encounter with the world: as hair is civilised into a hairdo, clay is shaped through a technique – form is stylised by the artist … and the beholders are assured through their senses … and become aware.
Translation Dorte Herholdt Silver