Q&A: Michael Geertsen // exhibition SPECTA gallery // by Charlotte Jul // items.nu
A DIALOGUE WITH HISTORY is Michael Geertsen’s explosion of mixed works, which take on some of the highlights of our civilization. This exhibition revolves around Greece: Greek vases and Greek forms subjected to Geertsen’s historical razor and sculptural drive.
How did you approach the ceramic installation for Victoria and Albert Museum?
Victoria and Albert Museum has one of the largest collections of ceramics in the world – in fact, almost the entire development of our civilization, represented in clay. Actually, half the works at the museum are ceramics. It is going back 6-8000 years. That’s fairly unique, so it seemed an obvious choice to create an installation that referred specifically to the museum’s historical back catalogue. The installation has clear references to ceramic archetypes, including a lamp from an Arabian mosque, a mediaeval pipkin and a Vietnamese rice wine bottle.
My basic concept is an effort to demonstrate that modernism as a form-based expression is not exclusive to the 20th century, as an -ism but has traits that go back much farther in history. For example, you can find modernist elements in Korean ceramics from the 1400s.
What role does ceramic history play for your work?
History is tremendously humbling. Without history, we are nothing. Despite all our modern technology, the Greeks would sit bare-naked at the potter’s wheel throwing ceramics and wood-firing it, and they still produced a superior result to what I can achieve today with my electric wheel and computerized electric oven. History compels me to try harder and gives me a qualified perspective on my work. When I hit the wall, artistically speaking, I turn to history. I use the substance and the gravity that history has shown me, time and again, that it possesses.
What is your actual working process like?
All the individual components in my one-off pieces are hand-thrown. Next, I combine the elements into a finished expression, relying on manual processes and my eye for proportions. Typically, I have a fairly clear concept in mind, but jazzy improvisation is an equal part of my method. My trademark has become a sculptural accumulation of ceramic elements: cup, plate, flower pot, saucer, teapot – familiar everyday ceramics sampled in a deconstructivist approach that transcends our everyday life, pointing back into history as well forward, at new stories.
Your latest project revolves around Greek vases. Why is that?
Greece is the cradle of Western civilization, and I found it interesting to zoom in on an era when nobody questioned the form aspect of design. ”A vase for storing oil? Well, that looks like this.” I would like to see a more reflective approach to form. Today, there are no rules or formal requirements, only assertions – and basically, anything goes. I would like to see a reinvention of the old-fashioned sense of education and culture. A passing on of a level of knowledge and a historical foundation for designers and artists to stand on, since, of course, you can’t reinvent the wheel over and over again. That would be stupid and also show a lack of ambition; you can reach much farther when you stand on the shoulders of experienced designers – provided that you know how to use that position to your advantage.
The nice Greek vases are being attacked by your modern elements. Are you challenging the concept of beauty?
I absolutely don’t have a problem with beauty. This is not some anti-aesthetic campaign. What was interesting for me was to take the formal Greek vases as my point of departure and then move them into our time, exposing them to modernist elements. Discovering what the Greek vases mean to me today by twisting them through my system. My decorative device in this context is the attachment of antlers, knobs and doodads – making the nice archetypal vases physically raise their hackles, like an echo of Axel Salto with modernist features, instead of simply adding decorative paint. The slick industrial glaze also adds friction in comparison with the natural Greek red clay finish.