Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics: Art and Perception: Featured Article

Aage Birck
Imaginary Myths
Article by Lisbeth Tolstrup

The work of Aage Birck forms big vivid circles embracing ideas, registration and feelings. The ideas are often products of his artistic intellect, later materialized through the hard work in the studio. In this phase it is a personal movement with no limits or borders. Birck explores his material, as he has been doing for more than 40 years, he challenges his forms and he develops his glazing – if any. In this context I have focused on three major ideas, or series in progress: The Forgotten Tools, The Ritual Axes and Jars, and The Faceted Vases.

The Forgotten Tools
It appears to be a paradox. The easier it is to get access to information, the more we seem to forget. Written words, knowledge of craftsmanship or simple know-how tend to disappear in the search for effects, glamour or prestige. At the same time another tendency can be seen: The tendency of relating – relating the myths and stories from the past to modern media such as film, Internet or music videos. Very often, the result is that we lose our collective awareness and instead have to construct new understandings, some of them closely related to our own history.

Birck is a collector, he keeps finding things, objects and ready-mades. Being a ceramist he also collects knowledge of clay, glazing and how to experiment with his primary media, the clay and the firing. Being a committed cosmopolitan, he also collects tools from almost forgotten cultures within the field of crafts. In his collection are reminiscences of the culture of woodwork, the culture of textile craft and the culture of hunting, to mention a few. I never asked him, but maybe his fascination with these things comes from his strong sense of registration and his ongoing need for expression.

He sees and feels the form, whether he finds it or he creates is. He identifies the beauty of the tool and thereby the evolution behind the form. He could choose to leave it there. Make a nice little exhibition in a corner of his studio and then enjoy the beauty of each collected piece. But that is not enough. He absorbs the form, he is challenged to build a new identity within each piece by combining it with his own artistic expression. The forgotten tools are lifted from their origin to a new life as part of unique sculptures. A plane becomes part of sculpture in salt glazed stoneware. A fork for cord making rises like a tower on a imaginary church. Or a symbol of natural power in nature, the curved tooth from a wild boar grows into a new sculptural position formed by Birck. Maybe the origins of the tools fade away, but instead we witness perfect metamorphoses, raised in respect of tradition.

The Ritual Axes and Jars
In working with art it is obvious that almost every piece of expression, whether a painting, a sculpture or an installation, consists of a minimum of three layers. The primary layer is what could be looked upon as form. And with a respectful glimpse at the methods of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), the old art historian, the next layer requires knowledge of history, myths and ancient culture. In one of his former catalogues, Birck pictures a Ritual Axe from Polynesia. This could lead to the presumption that he wants to identify a piece like that as a basis for further work. But it is not as simple as that. From the clear inspiration he works on, sometimes for years, always in a personal kind of chain where one link is being developed as a consequence of the former. In that, he is still exploring his own means of expression.

In earlier works strings of inspiration can be followed to Chinese tradition of porcelain, Japanese shrines and folk art, or African jars and ornaments. But now, as then, it happened backwards. He did not travel around the world, though he is deeply interested in other cultures. It is more like an intuitional discipline of work leading to a cosmopolitan, one might add globally timeless, sense of form and beauty.

In Birck’s interpretation of ritual axes and jars one might associate ancient symbols and elements of architecture. But at the same time each piece speaks its own language, which opens up for the third layer of interpretation, still under reference to Panofsky – the layer of meaning. Seeing several pieces from this series one might sense respect, secrets and visions. Respect for the past, secrets of the artist and visions for an expression with no limits but those given by pure aesthetics.

The Faceted Vases
Some forms and some techniques can be seen as classical in more than one sense – a phenomenon which can be identified in different fields of expression. It goes for the art forms as well as for the materials, such as textiles, metal and ceramics to mention a few, even though the material and the craftsmanship are different. Material Matters was the provocative title of an art exhibition organized a few years ago. The title legalised the ongoing discussion whether a piece of art could be defined in a narrow materialistic sense or if it was just a condition for performing a new art form. I doubt the value of the answers when it comes to Birck’s work with the so-called faceted vases. The latter being too modest, and the first too technical. Beads, gems and diamonds are by tradition faceted, but ceramic vases? Will the technical term offer the right clue taken into consideration, that the mentioned pieces are of such a beauty and balance that they one by one call for observant quietness.

In this specific curriculum, the faceted vases, Birck is performing along two tracks. One track is his old fascination of exploring deeply intense glazing, with all possible variations of a strictly limited spectrum of colour and the other is his equilibrist search for perfection of a certain form. He is disciplined and at the same time without limits. He wants the ongoing dialogue with the sculptures, he knows that one fire might change it all. He knows one small variation in colour may lead to a complete new series of experiments. Each vase being a sculptural challenge, together they resemble the beauty of human bodies, a dance performance frozen in a magic moment and then – again quiet balance, sometimes standing on almost no basis, and sometimes thriving upwards in a disciplined, yet wildly turned form, expressing an ever searching temperament on the move, tirelessly looking for perfection, in dialogue and alone – imaginative and still curious.

Lisbeth Tolstrup is an art critic, art historian and editor. She lives in Copenhagen, where she works free lance for galleries, magazines and publishers. She is the author of the book Resumé 1966-1999, about the work by Heidi Guthmann Birck and Aage Birck. (Published by Borgen 1999, Danish and German edition).

Recent references for Aage Birck:
Grimmerhus, Museum of International Ceramic Art, (exhibition), Middelfart, Denmark, 2007; Husarstalden, (solo exhibition), Roskilde, Denmark, June-July 2006.

All photos by Aage Birck.

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