Through the looking glass on İstiklal Avenue in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district, totems and figures of otherworldly creatures stare wide-eyed back at the human world.
Intricate whorls of gleaming texture reflect off the works of Malene Hartmann Rasmussen in the storefront window of Meşher to introduce curious eyes to a new curation by Catherine Milner and Károly Aliotti titled “Beyond the Vessel: Myths, Legends, and Fables in Contemporary Ceramics around Europe.”
It is the opening presentation of the historic building that formerly housed Arter since transformed into an adaptation of the Ottoman Turkish concept for an exhibition space. Entering through a side door, and setting out from a balconied stairway, the visionary ecology of Kim Simonsson appears immediately. Its immersive ambiance is entrancing. The sight of its forest sprites evokes the wonder and fascination of the mind in concert with nature.
Child-like effigies, cloaked and hooded in velvet green moss, stand and greet newcomers with stares, some unflinchingly confrontational, others wayward, downcast and meek, peering into a dimension budding and teeming with an order of natural growth unknown to city dwellers. The autumnal color scheme of a plant wall hangs delicately over the woodland beings, proudly adorned in a sophisticated complex of athletic garments.
Feathered and long-haired, one of the little ones holds a tall glass crystal in the palm of their hand. They peer over the edge of fallen bark, ferns, bushes and stone, their lichenous skin overgrown up the legs, their mouth obscured by verdurous tendrils. The far-flung soul offers a symbol of power from the heart of creation. It is a remnant of purity, from a plane of existence in which humanity coexists in seamless, visual harmony with its surroundings.
The gravity of soil
In the Pacific Northwest, indigenous people built totems as physical manifestations of the spirit of the land in continuity with a local family heritage. The idea was to establish a continuous line of ancestral linkage with mystical forces embodied by the chimerical animals of a community’s folklore. “Fantasma (Ghost)” (2019) by Malene Hartmann Rasmussen conceives the totemic tradition with a contemporary twist. At the bottom, the lidless gaze of a dog smiles under a golden head, its eyes closed and mouth open to reveal rows of sharp teeth.
“Fantasma (Ghost)” is topped by a gilded egg, its polished surface reflecting the neon light of an overcast moonscape behind the assemblage of misfit beasts and winsome pets. But following the sequence of eyes, the piece has a bold logic, expressing the internalization of creative self-representation. From the dumbstruck dog, the meditative humanoid, to a person’s likeness covered in white hair, and finally crowned with an ovum, the work projects esoteric wisdom, illustrating stages of spiritual identity.
The mastery that Rasmussen demonstrates with ceramic detail is nonpareil while bearing aesthetic resemblance to Simonsson. One work, “Kelp Man” (2018) drapes a bust in filaments of dark green. Its lush abundance appears as born from the same world as that which Simonsson fashioned, only in a colder, more isolated light. The symbolic resonance of the egg returns atop a mystical reindeer head. “The Egg Hunter” (2019) captures the sensation of winter equinox as a tongued refresh of the sacred season.
An exterior curation
The assemblage of the artists' works at “Beyond the Vessel” bear a thematic and technical harmony that, at times, seems utterly premeditated. The hanging sculpture, “Ornamental Chronology” (2019) by Phoebe Cummings is just a single example. Its fibrous tethers complement the fantastical environment of Simonsson, only it exudes a more decomposed air, leading to the macabre installation, “On the Beach” (2019) by Vivan van Blerk.
Where the cartoonish and cinematic dreamlands of Simonsson and Rasmussen may recall whimsical pop culture references to the Island of Misfit Toys in the animation film, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," or the Lost Boys of Steven Spielberg’s "Hook" adaptation of "Peter Pan," there is a sinister, post-apocalyptic tinge of poignancy to Blerk’s multivalent artwork. “Beyond the Vessel” begins welcomingly, yet quickly turns solemn, even horrifying.
The bricks of Beyoğlu, once the toast of Istanbul’s turn-of-the-century architectural modernism emerge from the sand of “On the Beach,” a wasteland strewn with plastic bottles, fragile miniatures of endangered species and headphone-wearing skulls. The irony is not lost despite the pitch dark metaphor piled against a backdrop picturing the concrete shells and blasted domes of a devastated urban infrastructure.
Blerk’s installation is reminiscent of a contribution to Istanbul’s recent 16th Biennial by the Amsterdam-based Peruvian artist Claudia Martínez Gray. Her piece, “The Creator” (2019), set 20 clay pieces in a mound of sand, representing the culture of the Moche civilization, which vanished over a thousand years ago, yet is at the center of controversies over looted archaeological art in foreign museums. Blerk added a distinctive edge to the morbid, lifeless scene, accenting her skulls with ceramic details for a barnacle-like, textural temporality.
During a group exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, titled “Eco-Visionaries,” critic Oliver Wainwright concluded his review for The Guardian with resigned sarcasm, noting an artist collective, Rimini Protokoll who highlighted the fact that, while human life is at risk, jellyfish are benefitting from climate change. The floating sea turtles and aqueous colors of Blerk’s installation conveys a nebulous beauty to the global tragedies ensuing.
The tempting of the world
A fragment of the wall depicting the skeletal remains of a city in “On the Beach,” leads behind to a small room. Inside is a powerful work by Bouke de Vries, “The Last Supper” (2019), centering the infamous image of an atomic explosion on a dinner table. The delicacy of ceramics, shattered to countless shards, contrasts with the gentility of the sit-down affair. In an edgy style comparably relayed by the Turkish artist Halil Altindere, the gold-plated silverware assumes the shape of automatic weaponry.
The juxtaposition of violence and civilization is a staple theme for artists interested in the tension between creation and destruction. Art is a means to provoke drama in a still moment, whether through graphic, plastic or digital media. “Beyond the Vessel” proves that ceramics are as malleable and fluid as any material, or technology in the practice of visualizing approaches and concepts that crystallize private knowledge into public experience. Rasmussen, Simonsson, Cummings, Blerk and Vries encompass merely the first of three floors.