Anne Mette’s mission to unearth the hidden clays and minerals on the island of Bornholm shows that tradition need not be staid and sterile, writes Robin Holt.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj’s originality is born from observing, remembering, and repeating tradition to a point where it becomes a unique and hard-won ‘giving over’ to what has gone before. Her tradition is that of Bornholm, an island where working with clay became a staple way of earning a living, alongside catching and smoking fish. It is the tradition of Danish ceramics, grounded in directly apprehended forms and subtle, natural colourations. It is the tradition of British studio ceramics in which Anne Mette was schooled by English teachers in the Design School on Bornholm, by apprenticing with Phil Rogers in Wales, and by exposure to the grounding influence of Gutte Eriksen, who studied with Bernard Leach in 1948 and did so much from her teaching post in Jutland to instil his East-West aesthetic in Denmark’s post-war studio pottery. It is the tradition of Scandinavia, with its even, unshowy surety that the surest way to long-term failure comes from showing off, from being too much the individual: what they call Janteloven.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj collecting feldspar and quartz on the island of Bornholm
Yet her tradition is more than the assembly of influences contained within her personality and her pots. To think hard about the effort and insight realized by others’ work in previous times is also to become part of it, and to shed any personal distinction and elevation. The poet T.S. Eliot, writing in 1919 in a journal aptly called The Egoist, suggested that what defines tradition is the accumulation of achievements and values that have broken free from an immediate locale, or a particular person’s work, to persist somehow out of time and beyond personal history. The original poet, he argues, is not a romantic figure breaking under the passionate strain of an intense feeling. It is precisely because they have felt what it is to have an emotional connection to creativity that they must seek to transcend it. To be original is to cease seeing oneself as the still point of a turning world and to submit to something bigger: the totality of work that has already been accumulated. This is a conservative and demanding reading of tradition, where the only proper concern of the artist is to channel their curiosity in ways that allow the past to resonate with the present and the future to become a scene of anticipation for the creation of new things. This curiosity is as much forensic and well-ordered as it is wildly expressive. It absorbs what others have done, respectfully, carefully, and aims to refine and explore the potential contained by tradition. Instead of a personality, Eliot writes, the original poet (or potter) becomes a catalyst – like a piece of ‘finely filiated platinum’ in a chamber of oxygen and sulphur dioxide.
Jars of minerals used in the process of making clay, slip and glazes
Anne Mette is a catalyst in clay: continually and systematically experimenting with feldspars, silicas, iron and alumina minerals, and micas; with processing (or sieving) her many clays and learning their different grain sizes; with drying them in different conditions and mixing different blends; with understanding how different forms sinter and vitrify in the kiln, how glazes flux, creep, expand and burst, go opaque. The experiment is based upon decades of attentive learning from what has gone before, and the learning is continual.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj, large jar
If the role is one of catalyst and the learning is continual then fitting in with a market is not easy. Having established a pottery after her apprenticeships she initially found it hard to sell brown, salt-glazed, wood-fired pots for use in Denmark. People wanted to buy glass, and slip casted porcelain, more in keeping with the smooth, even, cool temperament of the prevailing Scandinavian aesthetic. But if the clay was not going to go the way of the market, neither was she. During these early years she was invited to exhibit abroad, not in Denmark, so she took her work to pottery fairs in Britain every summer, selling enough so she could keep working. The original potter does not work so they can sell but sells so they can work: a basic and profound difference between manufacture and craft.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj, teapots
Inquiry into the nature of clay and the curiosity by which this inquiry is pricked are everything. What Anne Mette makes – each pot – adds to the totality of what was made before so that the whole alters, however minutely. It alters because a slightly new way of blending, firing, reducing, or marking the earth has been attempted. Tradition is nothing more than this slowly accreting whole which is under constant transformation as it is fed by successive attempts at making. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that the best any human life could amount to was its being nothing more than an attempt, and the trick was to relish the attempt and to involve oneself in the struggle as much as one can. Rather than use pre-made clays, pre-mixed glazes, and infinitely controllable kilns, Anne Mette digs and mixes her own clays and glazes and wood fires using different kilns which she has made (with others) and re-made. She mixes her labour with the whole earthy, watery, fiery process. As a catalyst there is no difference to be found between the thing made and the maker: they become intimate expressions of one another.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj, casserole dishes
Being able to work within the whole of a tradition is as liberating as it is constraining. It allows, for example, a Danish potter to learn about ash glazes used in British studio ceramics, to build kilns in the Japanese style, to experiment with clay from slagheaps left over as industrialized spoil, and to blend this with clays dug from a cliff face where it has lain for 200 million years and been exposed by westerlies. She does not worry whether she is ‘fitting in’, because everything about the potential of clay is a fit subject for her tradition of inquiry. The resulting products may not be made to ideally suit specific markets, they may not elevate the potter to the position of celebrity, but they take the tradition seriously, and add to it in their small ways, and that is all that matters.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj collecting feldspar
Anne Mette’s pots are calm, and whilst they are functional, their utility is worn lightly. If we were to think of them in a moment of pause, outside the daily rhythms of ascribed purpose and unthinking habit, they would not seem diminished. Ultimately, they speak of the clay from which they were made, and of how a material that is so common and unassuming can carry the weight of becoming an object unique in its surface scarification, minute cracks, and densities. Beginning amid the earth, with attention and care they have become distinct things. It is her capacity to realize distinction with the meekest and most intimate of moves that defines Anne Mette’s work, so that it never separates but always contributes to the totality of a tradition that is being made again and again. The interference of the potter’s own design and intellect – what for the Ancient Greeks was called the human or efficient cause, which sat alongside the other three causes of material, form, and purpose – is always restrained.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj, rectangular bottle
Anne Mette’s originality is not that of an artist looking to provoke, or of a moralist looking to reform the relations of production and consumption, but of a potter diligently working with clay. Her intelligence, despite its charged intensity, is quiet, patient, self-effacing.
It is present in her obsessive attention to the potential in materials found in the immediate vicinity of Bornholm, the site of Denmark’s only source of kaolin. The parent rock of the kaolin is granite, a crystalline rock that has been exposed, buried, uplifted, fractured, eroded, and reburied over millions of years, beginning from the Mesozoic – the middle life, when the land split and drifted into continents and regions. One of these was to become Denmark with its outlier, Bornholm, which sits adrift from the mainland like a moon: arresting, but always at a distance. Generally, Denmark’s soils tend toward a mix of sandy clay or clay-rich sand, caught between these two close, unassuming categories. Bornholm is a bit different. In addition to the kaolin comes feldspar, granite, limestone, quartz, red and white earthenware clay, stoneware clay and basalt, all of which can be dug from the fissures, cliffs, quarries, industrial waste piles, and water courses that pock mark and striate the island. The island replicates the pots, and the pots the island. Clays are everywhere.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj, cups
That quiet intelligence is present too in the orchestration of the kiln. Each piece is set against the other in terms of its material composition, size, and shape, as notes on staves, which build into a well prepared and detailed score, but to be performed once only, in a single firing. Over decades, Anne Mette has learnt how different clay mixes, with different concentrations of iron, will bond, with which slips and glazes, and at what temperature in which parts of the kiln different effects emerge. There is nothing magical here: it is more a case of finding and altering methods for understanding the earth. How to dig differently with different tools in different locations in different seasons; how to wedge, blend, wait and then store clays differently, how to build and fire different kilns. Each piece of hers arises from a grid work of assiduous record keeping and practical calculation. Nothing in the material-form is left unconsidered. Yet chance, accident and risk are as present as they are in any musical performance: the future is held open and unknown.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj, square vase
For some this search for difference might entail reaching out for more exotic, far flung ingredients. For Anne Mette it means working closer and closer to home. Having researched the wild clays of Bornholm for so long she has realized that there is no going back. The results from having worked with a wide range of different local clays have coalesced into an evolving aesthetic, a set of tones, rhythms and colour which harbour and sustain the melody of each piece.
Her pots are not full of ideas; they are impressed with things as they are. The German artist George Baselitz was asked why he so often drew and painted people upside down. He replied they were not upside down but the right way up, because human beings were earth-bound creatures, though they too often forgot this, thinking themselves as living in the clouds and pretending to be gods. The sides of Anne Mette’s square flasks do not forget. Like Baselitz’s scratched etchings, with a bare, robust, sinuous swipe etched into a pale gloam, they too remind us we are of the earth.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj digging porcelain
By combining her intelligence with materials, form, and purpose, rather than asserting it over them, her pots refuse to refer to abstract things like colour, or planes, or prevailing design styles, and instead give priority to the aliveness and liveliness of what gives them life: the clay itself. While the clay demonstrates its willingness to conform to Anne Mette’s established forms and purposes – vases, dishes, bowls that will hold – she also allows it its excess, its capacity to elude and avoid attempts to confine it through classification and use, its subtle vibrancy that arises from its having been fired, formed, and wedged in the same vicinity from where it was dug. The vase becomes a thing that is familiar but also uncanny, useable but also inscrutable.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj, round shouldered vase with smoked fish decoration
Anne Mette talks of re-wilding the clay. Increasingly she is digging it from waste heaps which would otherwise end up as sub-base for road building. It has already been dug once, processed, and discarded, and now it is being returned to the wild. There is of course a long tradition in studio pottery of keeping the wild in play. Manufacturing using slip casting transforms and fixes what is raw and wild into things that can be exchanged, used, and compartmentalised into acceptable divisions of ‘style’ and ‘taste’. Studio ceramics often plays with the risk of puncturing these agreements, of stalling the exchange. Anne Mette’s work shares this risk, and indeed pushes it. The clay is exposed, often unglazed, and even where it admits the undulating patina and colouration of slip and glaze these too never repress their origins in the earth. Yet in using the waste products that not even the salvage workers bothered to collect when they were clearing up a defunct factory, these pots go further still. They reawaken the clay, put it back into life so it might seed itself in new attempts at living and living differently.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj, dish with handles
Which takes us back to tradition. To re-admit the wild is to admit that the tradition to which Eliot alludes, the tradition of potting that settles the practice in the past, in the entirety of what has been made before, cannot be limited to a steady, authoritative accumulation of well-understood objects. Anne Mette’s work reveals it to be as much a place of happening as of incorporation. The wild dislocates and fractures the surety of a tradition, refusing to let it settle. The clay, just as much as Anne Mette, keeps it alive.
Robin Holt is a Professor of Strategy and Aesthetics at the University of Bristol and Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of Management, Kyoto University, specialising in the nature of organizational form and how it emerges from craft-based production and consumption techniques. A former visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School, his work often brings him to the intersections of economics and entrepreneurship, aesthetics and philosophy, strategy and ethics, and media and technology. His latest book on craft is forthcoming.