Eccentric vases, a female body slowly revolving in a display cabinet, a depiction of Mr Yokoi (the Japanese soldier who didn’t discover that World War II had ended until 1972) and a captivating film showing a clay sculpture dissolving in water – just a few of the works on show in Clay! A century of ceramics at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. The exhibition focuses on the history of the ceramics department at the prestigious Amsterdam art school. It is a major retrospective featuring over 60 artists whose startling work fires the imagination and demonstrates just how thrilling ceramics can be. In a show of astonishing variety and frequent contrasts, teachers and students reveal their individual explorations of the potential of clay.
Clay is an extraordinary material, used by man for the last 6000 years. Throughout the ages, its unique properties (its plasticity and ability to be fired and glazed in many different ways) have been exploited in the production both of utensils and of works of art. Clay has been used in painting, architecture, sculpture, design, industrial design and mural reliefs. In the last century, ceramics have moved away from their functional origins to include autonomous works of art of many different kinds: from the more traditional vessels and tableware to sensational sculptures and installations.
Five years ago, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag staged a successful exhibition – Glas/s. Gerrit Rietveld Academie Amsterdam 1969-2009 – to mark the fortieth anniversary of the academy’s glass department. This time, the focus is on the almost hundred-year history of ceramics teaching. The exhibition and accompanying bilingual catalogue are the result of in-depth research by ceramics expert Marianne Heslenfeld. The ceramics department at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie is both the oldest and now the sole surviving example of such an autonomous teaching institution in the Netherlands. Its rich history stretches right back to 1917 (via predecessors of the present academy) and boasts a multitude of budding artists who went on to determine the face of Dutch ceramics in the twentieth century.
The earliest work in the exhibition dates from 1917, when ceramics teaching had just begun. However, the main emphasis is on the post-1968 period, when the department was frequented by major figures like Babs Haenen, Geert Lap, Barbara Nanning, Helly Oestreicher and Brian Coutinho. In Light House with sculpture of Venus of NYC XL by Bastienne Kramer (b. 1961), a female figure revolves very slowly in a display cabinet. The installation is part of the IDOLS XL/XS series, in which the artist comments on existing representations of women, ranging from present-day cigarette lighters and souvenirs to the small stone or ivory carvings produced 30,000 years ago and now found in museums. Heritage (2010) is a very different installation, created by Ruta Butkute (b.1984) and composed of a stereo music centre, clay and a wooden table. The question it poses is ‘when does a piece of furniture become a sculpture?’ Christine Jetten’s glazed wall panels (created in partnership with Royal Tichelaar Makkum for the Museum of Arts and Design in New York), Ewa Perlejewska’s film Dissolving (2010) and John Treffer’s video Made in China (2010) are other striking features of the show.
The exhibition catalogue – in both Dutch and English – is published by Impact Vastgoed BV and Waanders with the generous support of the Van Achterbergh-Domhof Foundation. It makes striking use of the Alverata font, designed by Gerard Unger, professor emeritus of typography (Leiden University). (Price: € 29.95).