I am a vessel

By Morten Løbner Espersen

I am a vessel. Neither half full, nor half empty.
Born empty, I continue to fill.

The vessel is my object of choice. An archetypical form I’ve spent 20 years making variations on, from the functional and modest, to the aesthetic and sumptuous. Clay is my material of choice, because it contains so many possibilities: a plastic, amorphous material of incomparable formability that can be fired into imperishable, precise forms.

I am formed by the two schools where I studied ceramics. The School of Applied Arts in Copenhagen (1987-92) specialised in sublime craft – pure and functional form. Nothing could ever be simple enough. This was the ballast I took with me to the Duperré School of Applied Arts in Paris (1989-90), a significant period, which led to radical changes in my per- ception of my work. I studied the major collections at museums and the history of ceramic art, something that came to play a major role in how I define and understand my practice.

I learned about glazes from the chemist Pierre Le Mâitre, including how to calculate and evaluate reliable and reproducible industrial glazes. I used this knowledge to do the exact opposite of what was intended: writing a long ’not to do’ list. Instead of avoiding problems, I cultivated them to master errors in the glaze to perfection. Something I still do.

Glazes can look so infinitely different: there are surfaces and colours whose strength and beauty cannot be achieved either tactically or visually in other materials. I use every formula imaginable, from chemical analyses of ancient Chinese glazes, to mundane, off-the-shelf glazes.

The spectrum of the glaze is, quite simply, vast. I can create surfaces ranging from the functional and controllable, to boiling meltdowns remi- niscent of chaotic volcanic eruptions in a controlled environment. Whilst I master a wide range of colours and textures, I keep trying new chemical combinations, continuing to adjust familiar formulae. Even small changes can pervert the glaze in precisely the way I didn’t know I was striving for. My goal is to create rich, complex surfaces – a quivering aesthetic that challenges my own conventions and taboos. I never have a precise image of the final glaze in mind, but every time I empty the kiln I hope to be sur- prised and see something I’ve never seen before.

A single glaze is rarely interesting, two or three layers on top of each other can be, but it’s not until the third or fourth firing of more layers that something really starts to happen. The result is difficult to predict, but not having total control is part of my process. There are surprises and dis- appointments: the glaze can be all over the kiln but not on the vase, the colours can be mediocre. But firing can also generate three-dimensional structures and colours and surfaces that take my breath away. The work I do with the form and glaze is pretty similar: a mixture of intuition and reflection and analysis, removing or adding until there is nothing left to change. It’s all about controlling chaos and attaining balance.

After spending years handbuilding and glazing cylinders into perfectly controlled forms, in 2008 I decided to create obstacles for myself. I chal- lenged one of my self-imposed rules, and began to exploit the incomparable capacity of clay to create organic, three-dimensional forms. Over the next three years this new point of departure resulted in many different shapes.

From a cautious beginning, I moved slowly but surely towards a radical three-dimensionality that still had precision. I left most of these experi- ments unfired, and glazed only a few of them. I photographed the process and forms, after which I threw them away. They were an important step, but as an artistic statement far from clear or strong enough to survive. My investigation of form has been wide-ranging, including surfaces that mimic the structure of the glaze or exaggerated versions of it. I also spent a lot of time experimenting with casts, so I could reproduce the same form. But what is technically possible to cast in clay is too limited for me. The results are rarely interesting.

In early 2010 the threads started to come together. I reinterpreted two classical elements from the history of ceramics: the vase and the ornament. I call the result Horror Vacui – the fear of empty space – a term also used to describe the almost 3,000-year-old Greek vases where the entire surface is covered with intricate decorations. My vases are classical forms entwined in an anarchic form: a three-dimensional ornament that is liberated from the vessel and camouflages the vase whilst amplifying and paying homage to it.

After this long excursion into form, in 2011 I resumed working on what I now call Vacui: a series of modelled cylinders of the same size with a more complex polychrome glaze than before. The strict geometric form is not an icon in the history of ceramics. It is a vessel that neither invites nor rejects, but is neutral and clear. The form is the vessel as abstraction, giving the glazes I’ve chosen the optimal surface to develop upon. There is nothing to prevent the glaze ‘melting’ or to provide any obstacle to its vertical course down the wall of the vessel.

Alongside my work with ceramics, I also draw. My Obscura drawings are both sketches and complete images. They can be an observation, a quick start, or an idea. Drawing is a relatively simple and fast way to sketch and define form – a contrast to the process of creating ceramics, which is always so unbearably slow. As in my ceramic works, I have rules: I can change the drawing by continuing to draw, but never by erasing. I use the sharp graphic contrast of the black and white as a pattern for a form when I trans- late the drawings into three-dimensional ornaments that entwine around the vases. Each media has its own process. They are separate but mutually dependent.

My curiosity has driven me to experiment with how dramatic a glaze can be. The polychrome, glazed clay tablets Errata are a result of this process. They may be the optimal form to glaze. The tablets are fired flat, making it possible to apply thick layers of glaze and create a surface that can’t be achieved when gravity forces the glaze to run. Like my other works, the tablets are fired repeatedly. The final glaze is black, creating a deep, poly- chrome interplay of nuances. My glazed tablets are a tribute to the battle that takes place in the kiln – snapshots of the turmoil of firing.

(Horror Vacui, 2012)