Interview English​

Q&A: Michael Geertsen // exhibition SPECTA gallery // by Charlotte Jul //

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.


​Why do you use gold and silver?

​Gold and silver are the essence of Western decadence. I began to work with gold and silver in my work for an exhibition that took Russian constructivism as its point of departure. In contrast to the collective voice of the Soviet people, gold and silver screamed abundance and hedonism with an implicit touch of American kitsch. Two main ideologies from the 20th century combined in a single object. That was a great concept. That’s why I have continued to use gold and silver as narrative elements. As critics of the hippie project of the 1960s, where ceramicists revered nature and virtually pulled the clay straight out of the ground and slapped it on the wheel. In that perspective, gold and silver are cheeky elements of bad taste. That’s a productive clash. In addition, the metallic reflections create completely unique spaces when seen up close – like a space in space – which further adds to their justification.

​Are you pursuing a postmodern project when you sample features from Japanese Dogu, Greek black-figure vases and Korean national treasures and bring them together in a deconstructivist chaos?

Yes! The Japanese Dogu figures are some of the earliest ceramics in existence; they’re more than 10,000 years old. After completing a series of ’standing forms’ I noticed the kinship: the strolling legs, the human appeal, the rounded shapes. It’s fun to point out how everything is connected. I don’t believe that development unfolds in clear-cut -isms. We tend to label something ‘art’ when we don’t know what to use it for. The Dogu served no functional purpose, but they did have a strong immaterial and emotional function. They needed that in Japan 10,000 years ago, as we do today.

It is meaningful to me to create works that engage in a dialogue with history from a contemporary perspective. My works contain both the physical and the written testimony, because you can in fact decode the historical elements. Nevertheless, they stand firmly on their own feet, in an idiom all their own. And I guess that is, in all modesty, my humble ambition: to have a voice in history by virtue of my work.