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Functional Languages

Anders Ruhwald Artist, London and Copenhagen



I am interested in working with the ‘thingness’ of the ceramic object. My sculptures mediate the domestic sphere–not as the actual everyday item, but as a commentary on that item. The objects mediate this position through debating issues of color and materiality, context and functionality. Initially, the pieces project a sense of familiarity, yet once this is identified some other element within the objects quickly destabilizes this response. Ultimately, the pieces exist in a transitory state—as half-remembered things that seem to be, but yet aren’t. They are purposefully open-ended objects that sit in the realm of ‘things’, but resist the easy fit of the everyday. My work functions as a kind of interior or social sculpture.

Key words: object, domestic, functionality, familiar

Like many ceramic artists, I came to the field through making pottery. It was an important entry point to my work. For the first ten years I worked with clay I made pottery; these functional pots were meant for use. Through this activity, I came to understand the things we surround ourselves with beyond the level of consumption. I got to understand the potential of using functional forms to mediate concerns that lie outside the confines of pure utility. With this realization my work changed course about six years ago, and I developed an artistic practice, which I still label ‘craft’ or to be more precise and use my mother tongue kunsthåndværk. Kunsthåndværk (literally art-craft) is defined by a studio practice that generates carefully laboured objects formally linked to objects of utility but rarely fulfilling that role practically. Kunsthåndværk therefore differs from the English language definition of craft which ‘could also take in lots of handwork in industry and surviving vernacular craft’ to quote the British craft-historian Tanya Harrod. By labelling my work as such I position it among utilitarian objects at a conceptual level without committing to it practically.1

In their editorial to the first volume of The Journal of Material Culture, Daniel Miller and Christopher Tilley describe how ‘the relationship between persons and things is becoming once again a less dichotomous and more fluid one. The cause of which is generally felt to be the rise of commodities, where... the sheer quantitative increase is such as to constitute a qualitative change in many of our lives’.2 How this qualitative change has disseminated through society is still an open question and a highly contested area of discussion. But it raises the interesting question of what the relationship between objects and people actually is. This basic query has been at the centre of my artistic investigation over the last six years.


[Figure 1] At the outset, this concern came into form through a series of objects that merge organic constructions referencing the body, with fragments of everyday objects. The work implies a fusion between product and organism, surroundings and person, object and body. It sets out to question the perceived rigid separation between humanity and our physical environment. If the objects with which we surround ourselves inform human identity to some extent, do they not also influence what we become? Thus the work is a formulation of what happens to common objects when they are assigned symbolic value, and become more than just their physical selves. The essential enquiry was whether human beings and our physical surroundings are transformed in the encounter with each other. Is there a possibility of considering the two becoming a larger entity?


[Figure 2] In time, I became frustrated with the conventional presentation of this body of work. The objects existed in the gallery space as traditional sculptural objects, usually placed on white surfaces, detached from the reality they were trying to comment on. [Figure 3] People could observe them, but there would be no interaction at the material or practical level. I conspired to establish a body of work that could have a similar relationship to its audience as the utilitarian objects I had made previously.

[Figure 4] As this body of work came to its conclusion, I became increasingly interested in investigating the actual objects we surround ourselves with. This desire grew from a drive to try to give the work a literal material presence in the encounter with its audience, a presence closer to how we perceive things in our everyday. Essentially, I was looking for a way of making work that would pertain to the world of things, but not be immediately co-opted by the world of advertised realities and commercially mediated experiences. [Figure 5] I was aiming for a body of work that would be understood and read within the world of manmade objects without being submerged in the haze of consumerability. In a sense, I was trying to map out an area of resistance within the world of things. I was looking for a place where we could meet and deal with objects that could present questions of the broader material culture.


[Figure 6] Initially, I began this exploration by nominating abstract objects as functional objects or furniture, and placing them in such a way that they establish a physical relationship with the audience. [Figure 7] Certain pieces have balloons inflated into plastic-looking ceramic forms, thus confusing the experience at the material level, while encouraging physical interaction. [Figure 8] Other work from this period mimics a functional language; it might appear in some measure to be useful, but resists any clear relation to known categories of objects and thus ask the basic question of what its purpose might be.


[Figure 9] My practice evolved into a series of works that have a literal function, mostly chairs or stools, which could be sat on. I wanted to break down the distance between the viewer and the objects fully, to have people engage the work in a very direct manner. I was trying to encourage a material reading. What does the work do? How does it at stand? What does it feel like? [Figure 10] But with no fixed relationship to other objects in the world, this reading could remain open. And so I was searching for an engagement with the work, one that would parallel how we experience the things we live with everyday.


[Figure 11] My most recent body of work was completed for the 2007 exhibition ‘If all man’s products were well designed, joy and harmony would emerge eternally triumphant’ in Copenhagen. The show consisted of 14 works, all black, installed in the gallery that references a domestic interior. To accentuate this look, a white carpet covered a section of the gallery floor. Along the edges of this carpet strips of black and white satin ribbons were hung from the ceiling, creating a ten-foot wall around the carpet enclosing it fully. The show took its form loosely from a reproduction of Kandinsky’s Picture II, an installation and painting from his Pictures at an Exhibition made to accompany a performance of the Mussorgsky orchestral piece of the same name. Kandinsky’s intention behind this installation was to create three-dimensional paintings that would be released from the confines of the canvas and become real. I wanted to make a play on this intention by loosely referencing Kandinsky’s composition to create a context for the work in the form of a stage.


[Figure 12] To enter the exhibition space the audience must walk through this wall of satin in order to see the actual pieces. The striped wall establishes a room within a room, a space where the rest of the gallery is constantly present visually and audibly, while creating a sense of intimacy at the same time. The stage was a space that consciously felt mocked up, yet established a familiar setting that could contextualize the work within the material world. [Figure 13] Inside this curtain the viewer will encounter a variety of objects, which can be interpreted as functional. To establish a focus on the purpose and meaning of the objects, the same black glaze has been applied to all the work, thus bringing it together while emphasizing the variations in placement and form. The installation design allows the work to be experienced as several tableaux. Each invites comparison to a common domestic setting.


[Figure 14] In the seminal book, Reading Things: Domestic Objects and the Self Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton illustrate how domestic objects reflect the owner’s self.

[T]he objects of the household represent, at least potentially, the endogenous being of the owner. Although one has little control over the things encountered outside the home, household objects are chosen and could be freely discarded if they produce too much conflict with the self. Thus household objects constitute an ecology of signs that reflects as well as shapes the pattern of the owner’s self.3


[Figure 15] The implication of a domestic setting thus activates a situation that potentially opens up a reading of the work where we engage with the objects at a one-to-one to level. The potential of identification in the context of usability, whether implied or real, gives way for a reading of the work different than the one we would have in a traditional exhibition environment. In my recent exhibition, I was looking for something akin to the situation we have when we experience the home of another for the first time. [Figure 16] But in this situation certain objects would have the potential for a reading as functional items, recognizable without suggesting any specific purpose. Others seem more ambiguous, clearly belonging to the world of things but not fitting in to any specific categories. It is not an easy read and purposely one that does not add up. Some of the objects are in conflict with each other formally, while others destabilize themselves by ambiguity.


[Figure 17] My work negotiates the space between the ideal (idyllic; conceptual?) and the pragmatic object. It clearly references functionality, while at the same time resists its utilitarian potential for a cerebral engagement. It exists as an extension of the category of functional objects, but does so without achieving the basic requirement of any functional object, namely to fulfil a practical purpose. [Figure 18] The space of this work is not the space that sculpture traditionally occupies; these objects should not be understood as autonomous works that point towards a definite meaning. Instead they suggest a functional potential and relate to objects that already exist yet defy to be reading a singular manner. I consciously seek out this state of ambiguity when I make the work in the studio. It is an important mediator for the underlying discussion of our relationships to objects and how they inflict on our life. The ambiguity is a means to create a space in which the viewer can approach and meet the work without necessarily having to understand the artist’s intention. My work therefore sits within the trajectory of craft or kunsthåndværk, being objects that speak about everyday objects, while simultaneously debating and commenting on our relationship with them. The work is paired with the viewer’s understanding of the rest of the material world, and has no prescribed conclusion.

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  1. Tanya Harrod, 'House-trained Objects: Notes Towards Writing an Alternative History of Modern Art', in Colin Pinter, ed., Contemporary Art and the Home, Oxford and New York, Berg, 2002, p.63. back to text
  2. Daniel Miller and Christopher Tilley, 'Editorial', The Journal of Material Culture, vol.1, 1996. back to text
  3. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning of Things, Cambridge University Press, 1981, p.20. back to text

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Introduction from
Walter McConnell

Welcome from
Mary Drach McInnes

On Function and Content

by Sanam Emami

Courting Risk

by Linda Sormin

Conspicuous Consumption

by John Byrd

Functional Languages

by Anders Ruhwald

Towards Incongruence

by Michael Jones McKean

Edited conversation, discussion panel

Listen to the speakers presentations (mp3 files)

Walter McConnell

Linda Sormin

John Byrd

Michael Jones McKean

Anders Ruhwald

Sanam Emami

The complete recording of session number CA07-054 (“Ceramics: Five Emerging Artists Survey the Discipline”)and other sessions from the 95th Annual Conference of the College Art Association may be purchased online by going to the Conference Media web site.

Eddie Hopkins
(obituary by Ron Wheeler)

Functional Languages • Issue 9