Text written by Garth Johnson 2022. Johnson is the Paul Phillips and Sharon Sullivan Curator of Ceramics at the Everson Museum of Art, USA. Printed in a catalogue in connection with the exhibition “Ruin” in Officinet, Copenhagen.

Employing Agency

Gitte Jungersen’s monolithic glaze works All is Flux serve as something of a North Star for the works that have followed. All is Flux, begun in 2015, are a series of thick oozing slabs of glaze, untethered from any ceramic substrate. The resulting works, monumental in scale, mark a radical break from form (not to mention millennia of ceramic history), essentially creating dimensional tiles composed entirely of glaze.

All is Flux has precious few ancestors in the ceramic realm, but one that springs to mind is Robert Rauschenberg’s Mud Muse (1970), which currently resides in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. Like All is FluxMud Muse is materiality stripped to its most primordial essence. Mud Muse consists of a large glass trough of bentonite clay, liquified to a pudding consistency. 64 sound-activated pneumatic tubes under the trough puff air into the viscous clay mixture, causing it to audibly bubble, occasionally offering up a splatter on the gallery floor.

For Rauschenberg, Mud Muse came at the tail end of a series of highly collaborative works starting with Oracle in 1966, another sound-activated piece consisting of four sculptural elements and an array of speakers that flip between five different radio stations as viewers interact with them. For all of the technological wizardry that makes Mud Muse possible, the piece can be reduced to its two most basic elements, clay and air. Importantly, Mud Muse also transfers the agency of the artist to the material, whose balletic roiling is controlled by ambient sound rather than steady streams or programmed pulses of air.

Questions of agency have long been central to Jungersen’s basic artistic proposition. On the global stage, Danish ceramists are quite unique. Because of Denmark’s strong design tradition, both in industry and education, there are ample opportunities to ground oneself in the fundamentals of design, as well as the opportunity to rebel against them. Ceramic artists of Jungersen’s generation are noted for pushing back against traditional notions of Danish design. Their work can be characterized by a deep sense of conceptual rigor, but a consequence of this is often a sense of self-doubt that is woven into the work. Jungersen, like many of her peers, constantly answers to an inner voice that asks:  Is this too pretty? Is this too commercial? Shouldn’t it be harder to do this? Has this been stripped down to its most essential elements?

Over the past four decades, Danish ceramists have found a plethora of delightful ways to overthink and outsmart their materials. Like Rauschenberg’s engineering of an autonomous device that cedes control of its material to sound waves and puffs of air, Danish artists have found ways to cede agency to outside forces. One of the most outré examples is Bente Skjøttgaard’s 2010 collaborative Hærvejen project that involved a herd of cows who gamely trampled a barn full of clay, which was then fired and installed in a field.

Put simply, the term agency refers to the state of acting or exerting power. A politician uses their agency to enact laws. An artist uses their agency to squish clay, chisel marble, or spread paint. It was only in the late 20th century that academics began fully investigating the idea of objects or artworks having their own agency. Theorizing about the agency of objects began in earnest in the field of anthropology. Ritual objects have agency over humans in that they can protect them from illness or evil spirits. Art historians followed, charting the many ways that aesthetic objects could exert agency over their owners.

It is only recently that theorists have begun to study the agency of materials themselves. As a material, clay’s physical properties make it unique. On a basic level, clay is a dance between gravity and moisture content. Wet clay will sag and droop on its own. Relatively dry clay will resist gravity but is vulnerable to instability and cracking. Less intuitively, clay has its own memory in that it will attempt to revert to its state before manipulation. Potters know that a teapot spout thrown on a wheel will often subtly unwind itself in the firing, which leads to the spout leaning to one side or the other. 

Yet another layer of agency belongs to the firing process. Increasingly, artists have precise control over temperature and the atmosphere within the kiln, but traditionally, these factors were hard to control because of kiln irregularities and the vagaries of learning to judge temperature through the color and velocity of the fire. More often than not, failure to control the factors in a firing led to technical or aesthetic deficiencies in the work, but occasionally, serendipity delivered a “gift from the fire.” Many serious ceramists spend a considerable part of their careers trying to replicate the conditions that delivered these “gifts.”

Potters throughout history have struggled against the agency of clay and fire, but in the modern era, artists who work with clay have delighted in ceding at least some of their agency to the firing process, or even to the material itself. French art potters in the late 19th century like Ernest Chaplet and Auguste Delaherche delighted in loading grand feu porcelain works with a veritable bouillabaisse of polychrome glazes that, when the kiln gods were on their side, expressively commingled to create passionate, primordial surfaces. Artist Niels Hansen Jacobsen worked alongside these French masters in Paris and is the prime suspect for importing lava glaze to Denmark, which he used to wild effect.

Because of its unpredictability, lava glaze, with its fizzy craters and runny texture, possesses more agency than most ceramic materials. Because it expands, it obscures not only the marks of the potter’s hands—it coats the ceramic form, obscuring nearly all of the qualities of the clay body itself. Although lava glaze found its most fertile ground in Germany, it was also a part of the midcentury Danish design vocabulary and was even used occasionally by studio potters like Gutte Eriksen.

In the experimental artistic propositions of Jungersen, Lava glaze is taken to new heights. Since the 1990s, when Jungersen covered geometric forms with ash and lava glazes for her Cubes and Boxes series, she has gradually developed strategies to cede more and more agency to her materials. The designerly strategy that made lava glaze so prevalent in the midcentury era was pairing the unpredictable glaze with a simple form in a bold silhouette. For her early works, Jungersen doubled down on that strategy, substituting modernist curves for Brutalist cubes.

The dichotomy between unyielding geometric forms and unpredictable glazes are a through line for Jungersen. Her newest body of work includes variations on this theme, but deeply informed by her material experiments from All is Flux. An extended residency at the Danish Art Workshops, with its large kilns, allowed Jungersen to raise the stakes considerably, creating a series of large open-ended cubes covered in her deepest blue lava glaze. With their open tops, the cubes become vessels, allowing for an immense accumulation of glaze material to pool in their interior. These interior landscapes allow for the viewer to reflect on their relationships with grottoes and other mediated landscapes. 

In addition to their scale, these works take the transfer of agency to the materials to new heights. Never one to leave a feature of her work unexploited, this time Jungersen took advantage of the relationship between the increased mass of her work and its relationship with gravity. Placing a large ceramic cube on spindly legs would be a technically audacious move for any ceramist, but for Jungersen, it represents a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Before the piece went in the kiln, Jungersen was essentially placing a bet that the weight of the piece would cause significant pyroplastic deformation, and would bend the legs in intriguing ways, but not result in the total destruction of the piece.

Despite working up to her final firing deadline, Jungersen’s bet paid off. In Ruin #1, the legs managed to torque, twisting the cube counterclockwise while maintaining at least a degree of stability. This dance of destruction between artist and material might not be apparent to every viewer, but the power and dynamism of the piece will certainly stand on its own. With shorter “legs,” Ruin #2 is less ambitious when it comes to self-destructive potential. What it may lack in structural drama, it more than makes up for in the richness of its surface. Ruin #2 is among the most successful experimental surfaces to ever emerge from Jungersen’s kiln. Inside and out, this vessel is riven with brilliant blue ribbons of glaze that burrow like lichen into the volcanic surface. 

Ruin #3 is a summation of the project—and a confirmation that Jungersen’s searching and self-doubt in the studio yields serious results. She confesses that after two firings, the results seemed a bit too “nice,” so obviously, a third firing was in order. If Jungersen’s aim was to push beyond “nice,” the third firing certainly accomplished its mission. In this firing, the piece’s fatigued legs collapsed completely. Fate and gravity led the cube-like vessel to come to rest on one point at a nearly perfect 45-degree angle. Taken as a group, the three Ruin sculptures show how Jungersen can use her stubborn nature to tease a wide variety of outcomes from a seemingly narrow set of variables.

These thoughts are built around the idea of transferring agency to materials, but I don’t want to minimize Jungersen’s careful observations that she has gleaned from nearly three decades of experiments. From the All is Flux series, she met the challenge of making her glazes function autonomously by dialing in her surfaces and layering glazes that stretch a delicate “skin” across the dramatic lava glaze. In a playful wink that provides an ethereal counterpoint to the primordial ooze of her glazes, Jungersen often coats that top film of glaze with pearlescent luster. The luster, which is normally found on debased tchotchkes and dime store figurines, becomes weightless and transcendent, akin to a soap bubble… or perhaps more aptly, the psychedelic rainbow atop a toxic oil slick.

These vessels contain multitudes. Glaze is a language that for centuries has remained relatively static. Is the glaze still, or is it fluid? Is it shiny, or is it matte? Is it monochrome, or polychrome? In Jungersen’s hands, the glaze has an almost infinite lexicon of expression. It is all of the above, but it is also dimensional, chunking, flaking, peeling, crinkling, and crawling—often within the same piece. It is the combination of a career spent carefully experimenting and taking notes, but also a fearlessness and appetite for risk that has only grown with time. This body of work is momentous because it represents a full range of Jungersen’s creative output, stripped to the essentials of form and glaze, but carefully calibrated to balance the agency of the artist and that of her materials.