Factory Artists

Tovelise Røkke-Olsen at Transformator.
André Gali talks to Tulla Elieson about the exhibition Transformator

The exhibition Transformator, which opened on 15 November 2014 at Bomuldsfabriken Kunsthall in Arendal, Norway, features works by 17 ceramic artists. In creating the exhibition, curator Tulla Elieson, who is herself a ceramist, invited the artists to work with materials and machines at Norsk Teknisk Porselensfabrikk (NTP) in Fredrikstad. After the exhibition ends in mid-December, it will travel to Hydrogenfabrikken Kunsthall in Fredrikstad for some months, then end up in Oslo. Norwegian Crafts Magazine asked Elieson about the background for the exhibition.

André Gali: How did you get the idea to invite ceramic artists to work in (and with) Norsk Teknisk Porselensfabrikk (NTP)?

Tulla Elieson: NTP is an old handicraft-based factory in Fredrikstad, and it has large, unused production halls. Many of its machines are no longer in use, but they represent a large chapter in craft history. The management and employees have always shown hospitality to individual artists who want to create things using the factory’s porcelain clay, machines and production processes, and reciprocal professional respect between the industrial workers and artists has increased year by year. But never before has the factory’s production been the impetus for a larger art exhibition.

The idea of making a collective exhibition using the factory’s products as the starting point is actually rather old, but the time didn’t seem right until recently, because now in the artworld, there’s a strong focus on semi-fabricated objects. There’s also renewed interest in the craftsmanship underlying the production of works of art, even if it comes to expression in new ways. Furthermore, most of NTP’s products still entail a fair amount of handicraft, and it’s easier for artists to work with semi-fabricated objects rather than with fully-mechanized, industrial production processes.

NTP’s porcelain mixtures are challenging materials. Their special qualities aren’t really suited to hand-building, which is a technique many ceramists use. Furthermore, the industrial forms have an inherently strong visual expression. It’s especially challenging to master the porcelain paste to the point where an artwork becomes as visually strong as the pieces which the factory workers themselves make. For the artists, working with the porcelain may require inventing new solutions during a production process. Visual innovation follows automatically.

«For the artists, working with the porcelain may require inventing new solutions during a production process. Visual innovation follows automatically»

Tulla Elieson
Ole Morten Rokvam
Tovelise Røkke-Olsen, Torbjørn Kvasbø and Katrine Køster Holst

André Gali: Can you tell about the artists you invited to participate, and why?

Tulla Elieson: I chose seventeen artists based on three criteria: First, they should previously have made striking objects at the factory, or have used a visual language that enabled me to believe they would be able to use the factory’s products in a way that would result in a positive outcome for the exhibition. Secondly, the group needed to be as varied as possible. So I emphasized different expressions in size and technique, and chose artists from different age groups. Thirdly, the artists already needed to possess good technical skills in order to be on the factory premises. That way, they wouldn’t put the factory’s other production at greater risk. This third point pertained especially to using the machines and firing the art objects in kilns alongside the factory’s own products. NTP didn’t want the production areas to be used by artists who lacked relevant professional knowledge, so all the artists I chose needed a certain level of competence in ceramics.

André Gali: What’s the background for the title ‘Transformator’?

Tulla Elieson: I didn’t sit and ponder over the title. It just fell into place by itself. I’ve had my studio at the factory for 15 years, and it’s been relevant for me to talk about isolators used in transformer stations, backstays for high-voltage pylons, and so forth. A ‘transformator’ is of course a technical concept, but it can also have symbolic meaning, or be used to describe a person who creates a change of some sort. The exhibition title aims to say something about transforming electro-porcelain into art, or about the artist being the transformator who makes it happen.

André Gali: ‘To transform something’ can easily be a metaphor for something else. When artworks are made by taking recourse in industrial production, it’s easy to imagine that art takes on the role of being a method for refining industrial products, and at the same time displacing the use function with an aesthetic function.

Tulla Elieson: I loath to describe it as refinement. To take a high-technological object – which must meet stringent requirements as regards function and perfection – and transform it into an artistic expression isn’t necessarily a refinement. It can actually appear as the antithesis. Art isn’t necessarily better, it’s just different. ‘Decomposition’ can be a key concept here. There are other demands as regards appearance and content, also for the context in which the transformed product is placed. So I think it’s better to call the artistic process a transformation, not a refinement.

« A ‘transformator’ is of course a technical concept, but it can also have symbolic meaning, or be used to describe a person who creates a change of some sort»

Tulla Elieson
Hanne Heuch.

André Gali: The transformation is also interesting in relation to the machine-made and hand-made aspects. Have you focused on these of the exhibition?

Tulla Elieson: Yes, necessarily so! During the process, it eventually became clear that many of the artists found it difficult to transform the strongest industrial porcelain forms into art. They were too finished or too beautiful in themselves. So it was very interesting to see how many of the artists chose to work with other aspects of the factory’s expression, for instance, stamps, soundscape, by-products, kiln paraphernalia and details from the workers’ individual work stations. Many also focused on the possibilities of using the old moulds, and the possibilities inherent in the ‘raw’ porcelain objects, such as they appear in their gigantic dimensions before being processed by machines.

André Gali: NTP was founded in 1916 and is one of Fredrikstad’s oldest factories. At its peak, it had 535 employees; now it has only 30. This is a development we see across Europe, where production is outsourced to low-cost countries, and factories of this type are down-sized or closed. To enter into dialogue with a factory such as this therefore gains a political dimension that concerns lost knowledge, but also an economy where this knowledge is undervalued. Yet we also see artists culling it and using it based on artistic premises. What role do you think the exhibition has in relation to these themes?

Tulla Elieson: Many old industrial production sites are taken over by other industries, or someone suggests they should be used for cultural purposes. In NTP’s case, there is no discussion of either closing down or further reducing the work force. The factory is a share-holding company that governs itself and ensures profitability. Old, unprofitable aspects are jettisoned; new ones are added. However, the reason why the factory has managed to survive is because it stands alone in the world market for some of its largest products. The quality of the porcelain is NTP’s greatest strength. At the same time, for financial reasons it works continuously to fill the factory’s empty spaces with other activities.

The Transformator project helps open up the factory to artists, even after the limited exhibition period. It’s possible to rent space permanently, or you can rent for shorter project periods. And you can recruit ceramic know-how from the factory staff. Particularly in connection with outdoor public-art projects, NTP is able to play an important role, because its’ porcelain is guaranteed to be frost-proof. Then there’s the added advantage of being able to increase the artwork’s size dramatically.

Several of Transformator’s artists signal the will to continue with projects at the factory. This is a win-win situation for both parties; it can ideally contribute to the continuation of ceramic production at NTP, even for other ceramics industries than electro-porcelain.

«To your mind, is it possible to say that Transformator treats the factory as a material, a theme and a framework?»

André Gali

André Gali: There’s another aspect, maybe it’s accidental, that casts the exhibition in an interesting light: the first two exhibition venues are Bomuldsfabrikken Kunsthall and Hydrogenfabrikken Kunsthall. These old industrial sites were vacated and eventually became venues for showing art. We see this pattern repeated elsewhere in the world, and it relates to what I said earlier about an industry being shut down due to changes in economic structures. In Transformator, these themes gain an extra layer of significance because the origin of the art is through dialogue with the industry, and the works end up as artworks in vacated industrial premises. In this way, the exhibition can be said to focus attention on ‘the factory’ as a symbol for modernity, simultaneously as few of us in the West today relate to or have any factory experience. In the exhibition, Corina Thornton directs our attention to this theme through photos and drawings, but it can also be said to reverberate in the exhibition in general. To your mind, is it possible to say that Transformator treats the factory as a material, a theme and a framework?

Tulla Elieson: Absolutely! Throughout the project, the intention has been for the artworks to be as closely connected as possible to the physical factory – that the factory would be the origin, as it were. My initial assumption was that this diverse group of ceramists would draw inspiration from NTP on many levels. That’s why it was so important that there be a wide range in ages and forms of expression. Their project proposals mentioned sculptures, functional objects, installations, reliefs and pictorial expressions as probable outcomes. So the transformed porcelain products weren’t the only theme. Just as often, the artists drew inspiration from physical environments or an atmosphere, or other things they found at NTP. The choice has had to do with each artist’s field of interest and standpoint. I think Transformator has achieved its goal; the project’s intentions have been fulfilled. Faced with a challenging project, the artists have answered well, and in a wide variety of ways.

Norsk Teknisk Porselensfabrikk (NTP) in Fredrikstad

The artists participating in Transformator are Neil Brownsword, Tulla Elieson, Martin Woll Godal, Sidsel Hanum, Hanne Heuch, Katrine Køster Holst, Jørgen Frederik Scheel Haarstad, Torbjørn Kvasbø, Nils Martin, Irene Nordli, Tovelise Røkke-Olsen, Ole Morten Rokvam, Svein Thingnes, Caroline Slotte, Corrina Thornton, Anne Line Sund and Terje Westfoss.