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Monday, October 29, 2018

Timo Sarpaneva

When I go very deep into the forest, all of my senses are alerted. That is when I can hear with my eyes.
                                 —Timo Sarpaneva

In America, Timo Sarpaneva is not exactly a household name. You may recognize his handsome casserole (1959) with dual purpose wooden lid, which evokes some Viking cauldron. According to Sarpeneva, the pot made a “damn good” reindeer stew—a Finish specialty—and was immortalized on a 1998 Finnish postal stamp. Sarpaneva’s Finlandia glassware, which features a frosted, ridged surface (used by Finlandia vodka for its bottle) may also be familiar. But Sarpaneva’s expansive retrospective at Helsinki’s Design Museum reveals a talent of enormous virtuosity and range who excelled in both industrial design and fine art.

Sarpaneva worked in metal, wood, textiles and ceramics, but his preferred medium was glass. He was drawn to it partly because it recalled the molten metal he had observed as a tiny tot in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop, but he also found it just plain alluring: “Glass is very mysterious. It's changing all the time. That's what makes it magical. It released me from the conventional and the three-dimensional. It opened its deepest reaches to me and took me on a journey to a fourth dimension. I understood the opportunities that clear, transparent glass gives to an artist and designer.”

Sarpaneva descended from a long line of craftsmen and possessed a confidence that enabled him to experiment with radical techniques. For instance, the "bark" effect of the Finlandia line was achieved by scorching and burning wooden molds while blowing glass into them.Typically, molds are soaked in water which produces steam between the hot glass and the mold, keeping the surface of the glass away from the wood. With Finlandia, the molds weren’t soaked in water. So, the molten glass was in direct contact with the mold, burning it and causing the texture of the charred wood to be imprinted onto the glass. One gets the sense that for Sarpaneva, the Finlandia technique was about more than producing an interesting product, but served as a paean to glassmaking and the elemental nature of fire itself.

Sarpaneva introduced innovations into his textile production, as well. The complex coloration and pattern of his Ambiente linen cloth relied on a robotization system employing nearly 2,000 automated settings.

While Sarpaneva considered himself first and foremost an artist, he spent the majority of his career in industrial design. His longest professional affiliation was with Iitallia, the Finnish design company specializing in tabletop and cookware, which first employed him and with which he maintained a professional relationship for most of his life. However, his famous dinner service, Suomi (“Finland”) was launched in 1976 by Rosenthal China. The originally all-white set was selected by the Pompidou Center in Paris to reside in its permanent collection as an example of contemporary design. Rosenthal, which had initially thought the set too simple, subsequently introduced versions of the china featuring decorations by such artists as Salvador Dali and Victor Vasarely.

In looking at Sarpaneva’s work one is struck by how closely tied to nature it is. Natural phenomena of his native Finland like ice, the aurora borealis and the sea inform and inspire his work. This reverence for nature is not peculiar to him, but is very much a part of the Finnish psyche.

A version of Sarpaneva’s glass sculpture, Ahtojää (“Pack Ice”), produced in 2018 specifically for this exhibition measures nearly 7 feet by 30 feet and features 210 blown glass forms. Arrayed on a long, low rectangular table, these weird jellyfish-like protuberances were made using the Finlandia technique. But in this instance, Sarpaneva’s taken it much further, producing irregular, deep channels crinkling the glass. Bulbous nodes, perhaps the result of bubbling due to intense heat, appear here and there across the surface. The forms themselves differ in height—from maybe 8 inches to 2.5 feet—and shape. Some have a brownish cast at the top, suggesting burnt sugar and a longer exposure to fire. Lit from within, it’s a stunning piece that like ice itself, features gradations of opacity, luminosity and hue. The much larger original was produced for the Finnish pavilion at Expo 67.

With Seraphim (1987), Sarpaneva does something pretty extraordinary. Using lighting trained on a large slab of rippling glass, he produces a startling shadow of brilliant, watery light—celestial wings, if you will—against an opaque silhouette, thereby extending the piece beyond its physical borders. With his familiarity with glass, Sarpaneva would understand how its shadow appears and created this work to make the most of that phenomenon. In so doing, he shows us the magic of glass, which has the ability to transform shadow into something lively, beguiling and ineffably beautiful.

And then there are the “jewels”—Sarpaneva’s technically staggering colored art glass, a byproduct of his work with the Venini glass factory in Murano. Sleek and luscious, these pieces feature muted, natural colors and surfaces one wants to stroke…or lick. Though of modest scale (1 ft. to 3 ft. approximately), they are none the less, weighty, imposing works. In some, where different colored glass knock up against each other, one wonders how he kept them separate. This is particularly noteworthy in Protuberans II (1999) (pictured), a piece of mind-boggling technical precision in terms of both hue and shape. Other favorites include the deep amethyst lozenge Lancet (1998) and the simply ravishing “demisphere”, Nocturnalis (1999), which recalls the blue tinged emerald of seawater around icebergs.

Large Iconostasis (1966), a dramatic wall sculpture that both resembles a Louise Nevelson and surpasses her oeuvre, was made from the scorched wooden molds used in the Finlandia series. One can imagine Sarpaneva seeing the molds piled up on the floor of the hot shop, divining their aesthetic merit and formulating a way to employ them in a piece.

Other influences include prehistoric Finland and Norse folk art. The former is evident in his series of sketches of petroglyphs, at once both modern—think Paul Klee—and ancient, as well as his Pohjanlahti rugs, which were produced semi-industrially using traditional Finnish "ryijy" rugmaking techniques, and feature designs based on markings made by seal hunters on the rocky Gulf of Bothnia islands. The drab colors are meant to evoke moss and rock. 

In other drawings it seems Sarparneva was merging folk art motifs with the petroglyph forms to create striking hybrids that are as dynamic as they are charming. Kukko (“rooster”) is in this vein. A delightful rooster-shaped tea cozy with extravagant cock’s comb handle topping it, the piece won a silver medal at the 1951 Milan Triennale despite the fact some people mistook it for a funny hat.

Sarparneva was a modernist who used nature and history to imbue his work with humanity. In terms of inspiration and materials, he never strayed far from his native land, giving his work a rooted authenticity. Far from provincial, his inventive, consummate approach has produced work that charms, astonishes and satisfies.

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg: A Journey Through Mud and Confusion with Small Glimpses of Air

Cheer up, yes you are weak and yes, life is hard, yes, you are lowlives, sinners and nobodies, despised and neglected and misunderstood. You boast and lie and cheat and make up stories in your head distorting every experience. It’s like a journey through mud and confusion with small glimpses of air. But ah, those glimpses, those wonderful clean uncompromised breaths with no judgement, that hold all the love for those despicable, wrong doing, faultfinding others and of your own wretched, filthy self, that self that didn’t dare to enter the house, that didn’t dare to sit on the chair, that didn’t dare to taste the porridge, that bitter porridge, that too hot porridge, that sweet tasting porridge. Yes, you are lost, yes you are drowning in coverups and excuses, your feet sink deep in the mud and you are fighting and you are struggling. You drag those muddy shoes in the room, and yes you are welcome, you always were, this is your home, your temple, this is all for you. This is a celebration.

Addressed to the deepest reaches of the human psyche, this statement greets visitors to A Journey Through Mud and Confusion with Small Glimpses of Air, Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s exhibition at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. It’s an extraordinary spiel of inclusion and welcome written in a colorful, almost folkloric language. Not only does it set the tone for what is to come, but with it, Djurberg neatly strips off the veneer of perfection that is typically overlaid on all facets of life, to reveal what she is after: a messy, earthy truth.  

As you are digesting the passage, pulsing music beckons from the next room where the video, One Need not be a House the Brain Has Corridors (2018) is projected. Using stop motion animation, Djurberg creates a dizzying journey into a galvanic netherworld that resembles nothing so much as a dream. The video takes up an entire wall and so you are immersed in the action. The camera angle is your point of view as you move through a long hallway. Every now and then, a disembodied arm appears in the lower right, opening a door, to imply the viewer’s (aka your) persona, imparting a “you are there” immediacy. The setting is curious and evocative. Ornate wallpaper and black and white checkerboard floor suggest a house of ill repute. They also add visual busyness to the host of other data you must process, intensifying the claustrophobia of the labyrinthine hallway. As you proceed, you are confronted, sized up and leered at by a strange and rather sketchy cast of characters rendered in modeling clay: gay S&M bikers, a man selling stolen goods from within his trench coat, a toothy crocodile and a prodigiously fanged, rhinestone-encrusted poodle. They enter and exit through a series of doors, or just hang out in the hallway forming an intimidating gauntlet to pass by. Enigmatic handwritten phrases (in English) appear and disappear on the walls. It’s fleeting, confusing and utterly transfixing and you are compelled to watch the whole thing over again. Berg’s atmospheric score, which fuses techno with more traditional musical components, is simply dazzling and deepens the intensity and menace of the video. One without the other would be so much less and you can fully appreciate the significance of Djurberg and Berg’s collaboration.

That collaboration has been ongoing since 2004 with the two artists working closely together to produce their installations and videos. Djurberg and Berg occupy separate studios, but communicate throughout the lengthy developmental stage by phone and skype, producing the artwork and music simultaneously.

Stop motion animation is a laborious process in the best of circumstances. Djurberg’s expansive casts of bizarre creatures and complex choreography make hers particularly so. Clay provides a medium suitably pliable to enable Djurberg to make whatever she imagines, but constructing and then altering the figures repeatedly to create movement and action is extremely time consuming. The medium plays an important aesthetic role, imbuing a sense of childlike fun to the work and softening some of the darker elements.

Such is the case with Worship (2016), which focuses on our obsession with materialism. In the piece, an assortment of figures engages with the object of their obsession in an overtly sexual way. Djurberg has come up with an oddball assortment of these objects—a popsicle, a fish, a corn cob—as if to say it really doesn’t matter what they are. It’s so over the top, it’s funny. Yet, one is made slightly uncomfortable by Djurberg’s veering so close to stereotypical images. Her no holds barred approach is an unfettered constant throughout her work and everything—race, sex, violence, religion, etc., is fair game. Once again, Berg’s music upholds the visuals with a searing, thumping track. (I liked the score to One Need not be a House the Brain Has Corridors so much, I tried Shazamming it, but no dice.)

Over 80 life-size birds comprise the extravaganza that is The Parade (2011). The birds—flamingos, pelicans, turkeys, eagles, etc.—are simply wonderful, filling a large room with their spirited display. Using painted fabric and clay, Djurberg has created for this installation eccentric, yet quite accurate, versions of various species. Imbued with character, there is something so winning about these avian specimens despite the beady eyes and pointy beaks. Five films whose subject matter revolves around eggs are included in the installation, but I was too caught up in the birds to pay attention to them.

You’ve got to love the kind of mind that comes up with a giant potato for a video screening space. Djurberg’s The Potato (2008) (complete with sprouts) boasts three hollowed out chambers where We Are Not Two, We Are One; Once Removed on My Mother’s Side and It’s the Mother are presented.

The Experiment (2008), which garnered Djurberg and Berg a Silver Lion Award at the 2009 Venice Biennale, presents an extravagant array of fanciful plants. The gallery space is darkened, conveying the sense of being in some kind of primordial, otherworldly forest. Spots bathe the flora in light, making them pop against the background and glisten malignantly. Wandering among these flamboyant and weird creations is a little unsettling; they’re big and intimidating. But one can’t quite shake the impression they’re sentient with a distinctly malevolent bent. The installation includes three videos, The Cave, The Forest and Greed, but as with The Parade, I couldn’t shift my attention away from Djurberg’s captivating “fleurs du mal” to really take them in.

Social satire, obsession and desire play out in Djurberg’s Baroque dramas. Nothing is off limits as she explores the depths of human psychology and confronts existential fear. Djurberg deals in the fantastical and the absurd. She presents a reality that is so unfamiliar and illogical that it takes us back to a time when, as wide-eyed little children, we were first getting our bearings in the world. This experience—off-balance and alien—is what Djurberg recreates for her audience, inspiring with her contemporary fairy tales that elemental desire for, and fear of, that which can never be fully understood.

A tiny taste: