Curator Catherine Milner, 2019
Catherine Milner – 22 questions to Jørgen Haugen Sørensen
What does a day in the studio look like?
The sooner I get started in the morning the better it is, because if I start later in the day there are too many things that have occupied my mind. I should be as undisturbed as possible before I start, so I’m fresh. At the same time, I must also have a pretty clear idea of what direction I want to go in, otherwise I can’t do anything, I cannot search my way to a sculpture, I must have a pretty clear idea of what I want to do.
Sometimes my assistant comes and helps me with building something in clay, either after a sketch I’ve modeled or from a drawing - clay is heavy and Benjo helps me build it up, and then I proceed alone. Some days we have to make a mold of something that I‘ve finished or a cast from a mold, or we must hollow out a sculpture I’ve modeled - and preferably nothing else of practical value/measure. Some days I only paint a fired sculpture. I use ordinary acrylic colors and apply a layer of wax, or I have longer periods where I only make drawings in my office.
What is your first memory of ceramics?
The first impression of clay is one my mother gave me. My brother and I would be left alone at home when she’d go to work. Her being a single parent meant that she had to work a lot to keep us alive, so she bought modeling clay for us to sit at home and model. It was plasticine of course – damn - we didn’t have clay at Amager.
My mother was also a kind of a resistance, freedom fighter during the war, and so she sometimes hid weapons and the like in the kind of undercover shop that she was running from our house. And then one day my brother Arne and I crawled into some cabinets that ran along the wall under the windows, and here we found a room and we crawled in, it’s what children do. In this room we found gray packages with something printed on the oily wrappingpaper and we took the contents out and sat down to modeling, happily. When my mother came home she got a shock the moment she saw us sitting there on the floor using her dynamite as modeling clay. The dynamite, by the way, was in fact really good modeling material because it is actually a plasticine – just without the explosive material in it.
I first got in touch with real clay when I became an apprentice. I had stopped going to school, I actually did not finish school because my school was turned into a hospital during the war.
But I had to do something in this world and my mother wanted us to have an education. So, I was sent to a ceramics factory to become a plasterer and a potter, a place called Ipsen’s Widow, which was a ceramic workshop where they made large vases and petty bourgeois ceramics for every home, so this was where I started.
I was trained to make molds for ceramic pieces with 50 wedges at a time, they were very fine shapes for very intricate things and that was what I learned - I was 15. They had a master named Sørensen, who modeled all their models and I stood next to him and he liked me very much, because I was always modeling things and then I could fire my stuff in the factory kilns. That was where I first got the idea of how to model and make and then fire something and then it was finished.
What was your first use of clay?
The first day at work I got two or three small, plaster molds that were handed out, which I had to fill with clay. I’d press clay into the molds and these little weird things came out of them, they looked just like tiny pillows. Then I was given a long sequence of numbers, which I had to scratch into the wet clay. I couldn’t really understand what it was, so I asked the other workers what I was working on and they said, that these were corpse-candies, used when you burn corpses. You put one of these into the corpse’s mouth before starting the burning process, so once they were fired you could collect the ashes around the numbered clay, which would remain solid as it is refractory clay, and check the number to see who it was. So, this is how I started my ceramic career, by making corpse-candies.
What is the most challenging element to your practice?
It was probably when I had my first exhibition - with just three sculptures. Immediately afterwards, the gallerist got me a studio, and I was very young and had not done much really yet and there I was I suddenly, standing in a large studio - which was my own studio, and I was supposed to be a sculptor. I think it was the worst moment, it was a very big challenge. Or when you are asked to make something that is large-scale for a public space in a city and you will change a whole neighborhood by doing it. Carrying out a large-scale sculpture and getting everything in working order; financially, conceptually and getting it to work within a larger entity, is a very big challenge. But if, by challenge in my practice, you mean in my work, I would say it is the actual performance that is the most important thing to me. I have to choose
a method amongst many to do whatever it is I am doing; how to model the clay to express my idea in the best way. There are many ways, you have a thousand choices you can make but you have to choose only one of the countless ways to do it - that is your challenge.
What is your favourite fable?
It’s The Shadow by H.C. Andersen, the story is about the idea of the look-alike – one’s shadow, the drama of it all. It is one of the strangest stories ever. The shadow that takes over and finally there is nothing left of the man himself, it verges on Kafka, it’s very beautiful. H. C. Andersen is a wonderful writer, who has influenced me and my upbringing. His tales meant a lot to all young people and children back then. H.C. Andersen was someone who was read out loud and explained to you, his fables and fairy tales were very important.
What thing or person is your greatest influence?
My mother’s story of course has influenced me a lot... Something that has made an impression on me quite early, was the sculptor Niels Hansen Jacobsen’s The Death and the Mother; it was terrible and left a strong impression. It is actually a portrait of a H.C. Andersen tale. The mother is sitting with her dead child and death comes behind her with the scythe to take her child away and this is of her own choosing, to protect her child from a terrible future.
But meeting many writers, has probably been of the greatest influence. I was very fortunate to become friends with many even when I was very young. When I moved to Paris I lived with the writer and poet Birgitta Trotzig and her husband, the painter Ulf Trozig and they introduced me to another level of literature. Throughout my life I have been very lucky to meet fantastic writers and poets and to this day they have a great influence on me and my thinking.
What is the relevance of myth today?
I find it difficult to answer, because I think that our whole story is like a myth. Our own situation is what I use in my work. I don’t think there is any reason to use old myths - myths and stories, because what our time unfolds to us, is so important to tell I do not see the other as something... and I cannot use religion or I cannot use old myths. I do not use them because I think the time we live in, is so exciting and there are so many images right now, and all of that is enough for me. It is reality in the present that draws those images inside my head – it is from them that I make my own images and only them. It is from reality that I form my motives.
When I make a sculpture like the National Feeling it is the feeling that motivates the work, because you have Nationalism that is germinating, so I want to express that feeling – of how it looks and then I arrive at a point, that it must look pretty much like this. Or with That’s Why They Call Them Dogs, I’m actually thinking of humankind, in certain situations, then you could also have called the work: “That’s Why They Call Them Humans” – and in this way, my way of thinking becomes my kind of “myth” – I make my own myths through what I see.
Are you an artist or a ceramicist?
I believe I’m probably mostly an artist, as I am not a ceramicist in the sense that I don’t care much about glazes and the actual chemistry of glazes that many ceramicists do and have a great knowledge of. I don’t particularly use the different expression you can get from glazes; I just use a glaze, like a painter buys colors from a color dealer. Ceramicists have the patience to do endless tests and samples, but my work wouldn’t benefit from that. There was something very funny when I was an apprentice at the ceramic factory. They had an attic where they kept a huge number of models from former ceramicists, names that I cannot remember now, but it was a wealth of stories that were left there in the attic, which I thought was fascinating. And some of the stories, some of those things, I was asked to copy. Since I was no good at doing something on an assembly line, they put me to do something that was very difficult instead. I should do the “panther hunter” and whatever else they were called, intricate battle scenes and such, but it was a powerful first impression. The world of images that is possible in ceramics, because that kind of pottery from around the turn of the century culminated in amazing images all together. They were Art Nouveau, and were all full of myths.
So later, when I entered the School of Arts and Crafts, I had incredibly bad taste compared to the other ceramists, because I modeled myth-like images, and they only went for design. Theirs were so very clean and everything whereas mine were just swamped with those things - heads of monks, all such strange things, images of drunkards lying in ditches, or slaves in chains, almost social realism in small sized ceramics, as I had done in the factory – and sold to the workers – and made extra income from.
What is the relevance of ceramics today?
To me, it is relevant, because I use it to make three-dimensional images, for this purpose clay is amazing and cheaper than bronze and many other materials. Clay is as quick as a drawing; it is very relevant because it is very immediate compared to other materials. Clay is fantastic, you can do anything you like, you can make very accurate things, you can make bombastic things. Clay also has the ability to be modeled more or less roughly. It’s like a huge alphabet; and it is the oldest material. When humans first found a lump of soil that was like clay, they bent down, picked it up and immediately made an image of a little fat lady that they could carry in their pockets.
What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?
I think it’s great that you can still exist in a situation that has remained the same since the very beginning. You pick up a lump of soil and form an image in it – and you can do it with your bare hands. You need nothing else but your hands and perhaps a stick and you will be able to do it - it may be that the sticks have been honed a little more today, but it doesn’t really matter. In a way it is the most primitive and also the oldest method we have. Compare it to any other material, such as painting, where the paint has to be grinded, if you want to do something with iron, you have to forge and heat and hammer it up and all that; video needs specialist equipment, it all depends on a entire other process. With clay: nothing. It’s right there in front of you and you can just pick it up and shape it, – it’s you and your hands, it’s the meeting between person and material – quite simply – and that is what makes it so beautiful. In our technological and digital world, it is quite astounding that there is something that has all that history in itself and still works. It contains an ethics and an aesthetic within itself, the material has it all.
Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?
A good friend of mine - a poet once said: “Don’t forget that one day you will go into a museum and see a plastic bucket in a display case - and there will be a guy saying: ‘Imagine what they could do back then!’”
Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today particularly amongst the younger generation?
Because it is free from all artificial matter, it is an original material - that’s why. There is nothing in between the secrets in the clay and the pictures in your head when you get a lump of clay in your hand. Then you press, then you make a head, then you continue on making whatever it is, that’s what happens with clay.
What other material would you compare it to? Video?
To make a video there are so many obstacles before you can do anything with it, it is not something you can just go to. You don’t have to be educated to work in clay. Young people may be tired of all the technology and lights - to make music today, they must have a scene and smokescreen and flashing lights - they can’t just sing a song. There is no one who just stands up and sings, they have to have all that apparatus behind. Young people are looking for an authentic experience, just like singing a song, it’s exactly the same. It’s your own pristine material. You don’t have an entire Apple company between you and an idea, which still has to find its form, it’s a very delicate moment. Technology manipulates. Apple computers, PCs manipulate you just as plastic toy tools constrain children. With clay it’s your own conversation with yourself. It can be difficult at first, with no assistive devices. But once you get there, then there is nothing between you and the material. I also think that people are looking for something original, clay is completely immediate, and already existing in our minds somehow. Think of the milk bowls that you could buy once. Each village had a pottery workshop because they did what everybody needed in the kitchen - it’s all gone now. Præstø, Sorring, if you look at a map from that time, you can see that there were ceramic workshops everywhere, that is, potters. They are all closed and I don’t think they are coming back either. Now it’s something else, ceramics today is more artificial. But I don’t think that ceramics will become so popular as it once was, that potteries will arise again around countries. Very little of that kind is left, instead ceramics has become more decorative or artistic.
Is it a disadvantage that it has been lifted to an artform?
You can say that – it’s a bit like what happened with photography. When you started to make art-photography, well, photography in its original form died a little – just like what happened to jazz, when you started making jazz as an artform and compared it to classical music - then jazz died out to some extent overtaken by pop music and the like. I think why ceramics has become popular amongst today’s youth – the way it has, is because it has emerged as another thing, as a means of expression, so it has moved from pottery to become an expression in clay, its own expression. People are looking for themselves in the clay.
Who is your hero or heroine?
Nicola d’Arca from Bologna, is truly great. His Pietá from the 14th century; a group of sculptures in terracotta in full size, is incredibly done, so he is my hero in a way. From the very first time I saw his work, it has remained in my head ever since - there are of course many others, but within the field of ceramics, he stands out as one of the most amazing I know of.
Name a book that everyone should read and why?
I read a lot of poetry because it is clean – it is like sculpture – or ceramics for that matter, all the superfluous is taken off, it says exactly and only what needs to be said. What others have to use four hundred pages to express, poets can say in four lines. One can also say that people should just read, there are so many books I could recommend - I always read, since I discovered that you can be in the best company with the greatest minds of all time by going to a library. A library is a great invention where you can find all the books you need, I almost think it would be unfair to mention only one, because there are so many – It’s a gift. But please read Dostoevsky, Proust, Musil, Joyce, Kafka, Hermann Broch, Thomas Bernhard, Birgitta Trotzig, and all the poets.
Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?
My studio is a place where I stay, the place I live; my workshop is a place where I’m alone, where I can think and find the images I keep in my head. But I can work anywhere – I’ve travelled around the world and worked in many different places. When I was very young for about ten to fifteen years I lived in small hotels and I liked that because it was so non-committal. In Oaxaca or in the Netherlands, we were many people working in the same studio, it did not disturb me that there were other people when I was working. I enjoy having my own studio because there is space and I can close the door - this is of course an ideal condition for me, but otherwise I have worked everywhere in foundries and when I was young at the ceramics factory. We would be 4-5 people in a room and they talked and shouted to each other and it didn’t bother me, I can concentrate anywhere. That’s because I can shut off everything, I can shut myself inside and be myself, anywhere. I can turn off the outer world, it’s very easy for me. When I am filmed or photographed, then I try to be open to it, but I am not actually there as a human being, I walk around in my own thoughts most of the time.
Music disturbs me because I think sculpture and the kind of visual arts I make require silence. It’s like being down in an aquarium and looking around, to be closed inside of oneself – there is no sound at all. The same is true if you go into a church or some other large room where there is silence, it is nice when you are looking at pictures, but if you have music playing at the same time, it immediately mixes with the picture and becomes a part of the picture and this is a little annoying to me.
What technological or other advances have enabled you to push the boundaries of your material / practice?
What is the biggest problem or challenge you see with ceramics today?
The selling. Also because marble and bronze sculptures have gained a greater value which I think is wrong, as it is in fact the same thing. Ceramics is the original piece itself and not a print of anything, it’s unique. A clay work comes directly from the hands of the artist, whereas bronze has gone through a long process and marble many times has been copied and enlarged from a model. I just think that clay has all the possibilities and that’s what is fun about it.
Who would be in your ceramics collection?
I already have a nice collection of pre-Columbian, Indian, Chinese, Turkish, Mexican, Japanese, Neapolitan, and antique ceramics. I would like to have it enlarged, also by more contemporary works: A Francisco Toledo, a vase of Alev Siesbye. In my imagined collection, I would also like to have a Bindesbøll, a Jorn, a Picasso wouldn’t hurt. A tight collection of some Japanese masters.
What would you make if money were no object?
I would have liked to make a house, a large decorated house in ceramics, with sculptures on the outside as a part of the architecture – that I think could be fun. I should have made a tower together with Asger Jorn and Echaurren Matta, we planned to build a tower on the island of Ven, and I am sorry we didn’t manage to do so. The idea was to build a tower so big it could be seen from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, which was just opposite the island of Ven, mostly because Jorn wanted to piss Jensen off, the then proud creator of Louisiana. We applied to do it at the clay factory Hasle Klinker on Bornholm, but they didn’t want us.
What is your philosophical approach to making?
It must be here and now, what I do and that I am a witness of this time – and I pass it on, so – “I think, I see”– many of my works are contained in that title.
Catherine Milner is Senior Curator at Messums Wiltshire