The State of Things

By Louise Mazanti
PhD fellow
Danmarks Designskole

With the award of the Biennial Prize at the Biennial for Craft and Design 2002 came an invitation to exhibit at The Danish Museum of Decorative Art two years later.During his short career so far Anders Ruhwald has demonstrated remarkable talent in Danish ceramics. THE STATE OF THINGS therefore quite literally takes stock of things after two years of intensive work, but at the same time it is an investigation of….well, the state of things….when as a craft artist he creates things that are meant to form part of the world.

Seeing Ruhwald’s ceramic objects in an exhibition context constitutes a paradox. It’s as if they weren’t born for life in the white cube of the museum. True, you can place the works on the floor, you could spray-paint the walls, saw up the platforms or in some other way illustrate that you are well aware that the neutrality of the exhibition space is an illusion. But no matter what efforts you make, you literally end up banging your head against a wall. What you can’t get around is the displacements – the artificial environment.

Ruhwald’s objects were not created as classic aesthetic works so that the viewer could return, elevated and enriched, to everyday reality. On the contrary, some of the works are actually ugly – like the indefinable brown, oblong block that can only stay upright with three pieces of chipboard as supports. Not that their ugliness excludes them from the company of the great and the good in the prestigious framework of the museum; any self-respecting art museum is full of works that don’t subscribe to aesthetics. It’s more the world of things that the objects relate to, and the business they have with the observer, that constitute the paradox.

The point is that the objects are more references to the everyday things of material culture than they are aesthetic objects. Vague hints of potential utilitarian functions pull the objects in the direction of a world of things where the agenda is far more down-to-earth than the pure aesthetic experience: it is all about our relationship with things; the things that surround us, that we surround ourselves with, through which we understand the world, and through which we want the world to understand us. Without being recognizable objects that can be categorized for example as ‘chair’, ‘ashtray’ or ‘toilet bowl’ and certainly not subject to Danish ceramics’ otherwise almost dogmatic insistence on the familiar series of utility-oriented forms like ‘dish’, ‘vase’, ‘bowl’, ‘jar’, ‘vessel’, these works leave it wholly up to the viewer to make the connection with the traces of utility functions that make up the pivotal features of the objects. The result is objects whose meaning can constantly be negotiated; things that shift in meaning, depending on where they are located in the cultural system and depending on the context in which they are perceived. Just as the objects of daily life are woven into a wealth of meaning-creating subsystems and therefore cannot be said to contain a kind of core or ‘essence’. A washing-up bowl in rubber, for example, can go from being the result of months of experimenting with different materials in the craft artist’s studio to become a top-tuned design icon with the appropriate lifestyle signal, but it may just as well be internalized in the consumer’s sensual relationship with the washing-up, and thus enter into a quite different alliance with reality from that of its symbolic face value.

And it is in this free or vacant space that one finds Ruhwald’s objects. They are just ‘things’, a kind of objects devoid of meaning. Hints and suggestions and associations permit the meaning to float freely among the levels of interpretation and the question they ask is precisely about the inmost nature of things.

Thus one might think that Ruhwald falls into the very modernist trap that he is trying to avoid, where the work is self-referential and subject to formal aesthetic constraints within a work-internal meaning-horizon. But no – the constant reference to the utility function shatters this autonomy. The objects, despite their often-organic sculptural forms, have their own agenda with everyday reality that points straight out of the exhibition hall and concerns the relationship between human beings and things.

This is where the works really become interesting. By situating themselves in the free space of potentials, and by linking the autonomy of the artistic sphere with the everyday objects of material culture, the works point to a renewed link between what one can call ‘art’ and ‘reality’. The prime goal of modernist art was to create an alternative to consumption culture’s instrumentalization of all components of social life. It wanted to create a cognitive ‘sanctuary’ that was not dominated by the logic of capital, but involved a higher level of cognition. The result was an autonomous position that had soon withdrawn so far from everyday life that watertight shutters were in fact installed between the works enclosed in the white cube of the gallery space and the society on which they were supposed to exert an influence.

But Ruhwald’s works show that it is possible to rethink these antinomies as something rather less polar. The archetypal character or pure concreteness of the things is in fact asking to be ‘let out of the cage’ and into reality. They show us that it is possible to rediscover a kind of authenticity amidst the monolithic consumer culture by coupling the suggestion of utility with reflection at a level that is not intellectual but associative and sensual. So again we almost end up with a characterization that has historically constituted the self-understanding of craft: as opposition to the anonymous design of urban mass consumption. Ruhwald’s most sophisticated intervention is however that he does not relate his works to a retrospective longing for beauty and the harmonious life of the countryside – his glazes look like plastic, and the forms alternate between the organic and the fully synthetic. Instead he offers a radically different relationship with things, characterized by an active attitude to contemporary culture. The utilitarian hints of the works make it possible to establish a sensual connection between human being and thing, but at the same time the fluid levels of meaning produce a relationship with the cultural system that is neither unequivocally tied to the anonymous design products of contemporary culture nor to the autonomous aesthetic meaning of the one-off art object. The meaning swings like a pendulum, and opens up an approach to our physical surroundings that penetrates into the cracks between ‘art’ and ‘everyday life’ in order to reinstate everyday sensing at the centre of events. By being subjected neither to the logic of the consumer society nor to a self-referential artistic sphere, Ruhwald’s works therefore offer an intermediate position where humanity is situated in a relationship with its surroundings that is not mediated in advance through the cultural system.
In so doing Ruhwald points to why craft is important. Both on the basis of a showdown with the practice, but also as a continuation of its long tradition. He knows his material. For years he has thrown and modelled it. He has developed glazes and his own spectrum of colours. Nevertheless ‘external’ elements have slowly stolen in, even when the works were at their most aesthetic and formally orientated. He was awarded the Biennial Prize in 2002 for a series of sculptural objects: organic forms with stucco patterns stamped in so that the material culture left its impression right in the midst of the sculptural values. Now, two years later, it is the juxtaposition of materials that questions the idea of the nature of ceramics. In Untitled # 5 (from the functional series) it is a rubber balloon that rounds off the form, while the transition between ceramic and rubber becomes almost invisible because of the cool character of the surfaces, and seriously shakes up one’s view of the possibilities of both materials. That the air eventually leaks from the balloon and cancels out the perfect look is at the same time an almost paradigmatic image of the ‘deflation’ of the autonomous work. So in other words Ruhwald finds himself constantly on the borderline between artistic autonomy and mass-cultural heteronomy, and in this in-between space lies his greatest claim to fame: as a classic ceramist he shows that the practice can be developed further and opened up towards contemporary culture without losing its integrity and significance, and as a craft artist his objects are an important proof that craft can do something special. Situated between visual art and design, they work their way, through critical friction, into the objects and sense-impressions of everyday life, as a kind of cultural resistance potential. They work in the free space of meanings, but still in a formal universe that includes human action and therefore shows us that it is from within, from our reflective and sensual relations with things, that real change becomes possible.

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