A lump of clay

By Björn Springfeldt

An unyielding hierarchy has reigned in the arts for far too long. It started in the Renaissance, reached its apex during Romanticism, and still exists today. “Fine” art ranked higher, with the lower consisting of objects that could be used for purposes other than reflection. Fortunately, these hierarchies have become increasingly obsolete and the discussion has shifted, focusing more on the qualities of the object.

Marcel Duchamp’s urinal from 1917 and his rhetorical question, “Why not use a Rembrandt painting as an ironing board”, have opened the world to an active gaze beyond the categories. But they have also increased the demands on our ability to distinguish quality.

Becoming acquainted with Morten Løbner Espersen’s works has provided me with a welcome exercise in this deeper understanding.

Few of the artists I know possess as profound a knowledge of the tradition within which they work, nor base their choices on as solid reasoning.

His discovery of clay took place in his early pre-school years, and led to a lifelong passion for the sensuality of the material and its limitless capacity to be shaped. Morten Løbner Espersen knows that when he takes a lump of clay in his hands, he immediately engages in an ever-ongoing dialogue with tradition. A dialogue with a culture preceding permanent settlements that wandered across the savannah, and whose ceramics have been dated back 16.000 years.

Shaping a lump of clay in one’s hands is the same sort of salutation to the past as the placing of one’s hand over the handprint in a Neolithic cave painting, and realizing it fits.

Our Western culture has been shaped by the Industrial Revolution, or as the Swedish 18th century philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg called it, the second fall from grace. Here the goal has been – and is – perfection and mass production, which has led to a de-personification and the view of man as a means, and not a goal in itself.

In ceramics, clinical perfection can be easily achieved with the help of the potter’s wheel, whereas the original method is slow and demands persistent concentration. Here the clay is rolled into coils used to build up the walls of the vase. A method where geometric deviations from the perfect Platonic bodies are frequent, and include a degree of chance and irrationality.

For Morten Løbner Espersen, these “imperfections” and lack of total control are a conscious and ethically conditioned quality. This clearly indicates, as with the Japanese and Korean ceramics he came to love early on, that a human has been responsible for the object, and not a machine or a deity.

An ethical deliberation also lies behind his decision not to abandon the vase, but to instead present it as the core object in his work. This bowl or cylinder shape, stemming from a cupped hand, is saturated with poetic connotations. Offerings, boundaries, protection, darkness, secrets… No one has intently gazed and reflected in depth over Jan Vermeer’s The Milkmaid without being drawn towards the darkness in the pitcher and realizing that here lies the painting’s most profound message.

In Morten Løbner Espersen’s work, the vase has taken on the shape of a spindle or a fruit of sorts, but above all of an urn – as in the remarkable public commission at the Hillerød Library – and a cylinder.

Morten Løbner Espersen’s love of clay has to do with the fact that he has learned how to fully control it, while his passion for glaze comes from it being virtually impossible to fully control. Every firing leads to unexpected results, to catastrophe and victory.

His fascination for glazes was sparked by his early encounter with the Danish ceramics of the 1950s with its material richness, and has long stood at the centre of his interest. Thick layers of glazes, with an overwhelming richness of colour, nuances, light, darkness and pattern effects are applied on to millimetre thick clay walls of the cylinders or urns.

During an experimental period a few years ago, Morten Løbner Espersen abandoned the strictness of his cylinders and allowed them to become overgrown with organic forms, and rather than working with glazes, he chose to paint the objects.

He is now, to his own surprise, back to his starting point with the simple, minimalist cylinders and glazes, but he continues experimenting on a parallel trajectory in his Horror Vacui, now on a larger scale. Distinguishable in the middle of the sculpture we encounter the urn, surrounded by organic forms that have emerged through intensive sketch work in the drawing series Obscura. Here we see a dialectic movement between light and dark, nature and culture, man and artefact. And we are struck by the vertiginous realization that these visually heavy, sturdy forms of the sculpture are in fact hollow and fragile…

In the series Errata, Morten Løbner Espersen has applied layer upon layer of glazes on a ceramic slab, only to later attempt at covering it completely with a black glaze in order to extinguish all information and thereby transform it into a monochrome.

Instead, this results in history seeping through, confronting the viewer with shimmering microcosms – or macrocosms – and effectively constitutes a summary of Morten Løbner Espersen’s entire artistic production.

(Horror Vacui, 2012)