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Articles and books about Nina Hole's firesculptures and other sculptures

By Glenn Brown

If the space of architecture which generally stresses containment and the integral relationship between interior and exterior seems in many respects analogous to that of the ceramic vessel, historically the metaphorical implications of this parallel have undoubtedly been as significant to the human psyche as the functional aspects of buildings and pottery have been to the material concerns of the human body. 
Architecture in its primary role may provide a crucial shelter from the elements, and the ceramic vessel in its most basic capacity may serve as a container for the provisions necessary to life.  Each, however, has an obvious history of development well beyond these utilitarian imperatives. 
As the aesthetic evolved as a concern inherent to the construction of buildings and pottery, these forms became vehicles through which the human mind increasingly impressed itself symbolically upon the world, won a space for itself in an otherwise alien landscape.  Today, of course, the relentless process of modernization has made that landscape all too human.  In fact, the work of many artists since the late nineteenth century suggests that psychological wellness has come to depend upon the inverse of the original relationship between art and nature.  Architecture, pottery, and the arts in general have for some become the means not for domesticating a wild and alien nature but for reintroducing the primitive, for revitalizing a denatured human being.       

The colossal kiln-sculptures of Danish sculptor Nina Hole are curiously paradoxical in that they draw on architectural and ceramic traditions to convey simultaneously these conflicting attitudes toward the relationship between art and nature. 
On the one hand, they stress the ability of the mind to impose order onto the external world, combining conceptual sophistication with practicality in order to become symbols of human triumph over randomness.  The architectural principles they incorporate and their modular design clearly celebrate the rational capacity to bring about efficient and expedient change in the environment, to make nature serve human will. 
On the other hand, their rustic surfaces and surprisingly raw and expressive forms suggest just the opposite:  the point at which human will succumbs to the irresistible energies of nature. 

The process Hole has devised for realizing her large-scale works is equally paradoxical.  The latest in thermal-insulation technology is employed specifically to facilitate the most primitive method of firing.  High tech meets the open pit.  Clearly Hole is interested in embodying in her works both the rational and instinctual, creating sculptures that, if they are ambiguous as symbols of an irreducible essence, are perhaps all the more effective as representations of the human being.

Hole’s predominant interest in the psychological parallels between architectural and ceramic form is in part a consequence of numerous discussions with her husband, Lawrence Minske, an architect specializing in furniture design.  Orslev, Denmark, where Hole resides, has also played a significant part.  A coastal village situated about 100 kilometers outside Copenhagen, Orslev has retained some excellent examples of historical architecture, including a prominent medieval church.  “Churches in particular have inspired my work,” Hole explains, “because they tell us so much about our history.  The church in my town is important to me.  I am influenced by the architecture that I know, so my sculptures are very personal.  I don’t copy specific buildings, though.  I use architectural form like a tool, trying to find out what a building can express about human beings.  I think of buildings as urns, containers for human beings, not in any morbid way, but in terms of a kind of anthropomorphism.  Buildings can express a whole range of different personalities.” A key aspect of the aesthetics associated with ceramics as well, this emphasis on expression in Hole’s case, a personal as well as more general expression is what unifies her sculptures into coherent ceramic/architectural self-portraits.

The influence of architecture on Hole’s thought is most evident in the modular design of her large kiln-sculptures.  Drawing upon her knowledge of engineering principles, Hole devised a slab-construction technique that provides her structures both with an openness and strength.  “I’m always thinking of looking through, penetrating the forms,” she explains.  “Formally, my work is about space, both inner space and surface.  Sometimes the sculptures incorporate arches, which reinforce the sense of connection between the structure and the enclosed space.”  The viewer’s feeling of connection to this space is important, since metaphorically it is the private inner realm of thoughts and emotions.   To suggest access to this intimate space and at the same time retain the necessary support for the sculptures, which can reach four meters in height, Hole creates an open structure from simple earthenware slabs the size of ordinary firebricks.  By stacking these in levels perpendicular to one another and drying them before adding more weight above, Hole and her assistants working on scaffolding as the piece increases in height can generally complete a kiln-sculpture in less than two weeks.
Such a feat demands a collaborative effort, and Hole normally works with eight assistants.  Each sculpture is carefully planned in advance, through both drawings and maquettes, and Hole spends a good deal of time calculating the dimensions and placement of the fireboxes that will be built into the piece.  In this respect, she is a bit like an architect who provides the blueprints for a building to be constructed by crews of specialized laborers.  In reality, however, the relationship of both artist and assistants to the finished sculpture is much more intimate.  Hole is both architect and worker, and her assistants take an active part in realizing every aspect of the piece apart from its initial design.  Although extruders could be employed to produce the basic modules at a more efficient rate, Hole prefers that the slabs be rolled by hand in order that each participant leave his or her mark upon the final sculpture.  “Obviously, I cannot make these works alone,” Hole says, “and the process of constructing them is designed to reflect that.”  

Hole’s kiln-sculptures are very much about process, and she has often described her work in terms appropriate to performance art.  Typically, the kiln-sculptures, which have been constructed at diverse sites in Europe, North America and Australia, are connected to a particular event with which their completion is expected to correspond.  As a result, the process of building them is conceived as a kind of prelude to celebration and even embodies an aspect of ritual.  The sculptures are consciously presented as spectacles, dramatic focal points for reflection upon a general idea of transformation that is broad enough to encompass even the sublime themes of birth and death.  Built to incorporate fireboxes at their bases, the sculptures are in a sense self-generating, acting as down-draft kilns and building up within themselves a heat that is retained by a heavy wrap of thermal-insulation blanket.  When the optimum temperature has been reached, Hole and her assistants suddenly remove the wrap, dramatically revealing the imposing fiery mass.  “It’s amazing to see such an enormous piece glowing at a thousand degrees,” Hole says.  “We dance around it  in celebration, scattering it with sawdust to reduce it.  It’s fantastic because the sawdust keeps it burning and glowing, prolonging the wonderful look at it.”

If there is a suggestion of the metaphorical birth of the sculpture in the dramatic revelation of its living, glowing form, Hole is equally concerned with the aging and even symbolic death of her pieces.  The low-fired works, which have something of the look of raku, are relatively vulnerable to erosion, cracking, or flaking and therefore cannot be expected to last indefinitely outdoors.  Although some of Hole’s kiln-sculptures have been reinforced with concrete or moved to inside locations in order to preserve them, for the most part they are left to decay slowly under the influence of the elements.  “When the weather takes them it’s part of the process,” she explains.  “They have a sort of life cycle.  I think that’s kind of nice, because the world is already filled up with things.  There’s a beauty in that kind of breaking down too.”  If the kiln-sculptures are conceived as psychological self-portraits, clearly they are also effective as representations of the interminable cycles in nature, the perpetual ebb and flow of energy across time.

That Hole has considered the spiritual implications of her kiln-sculptures is evident in the inspiration that she has drawn from religious architecture, but there is another facet to her work that is equally concerned with the mysterious energies that transverse nature and human beings.  During an artist-residency in Canada in 1998, Hole began studying the history of western sculpture, focusing especially on the preclassical works of the Aegean.  “Sculptures of the Minoan snake goddess were inspiring to me,” she remembers.  “They seemed to speak so strongly to me across the ages.  They have a certain kind of female power that I wanted to analyze.  The kiln-sculptures are in a sense female because they are about me, but they also have ties to church architecture, and the power in the church is male.”  Wanting to explore a complementary energy, Hole began a series of glazed, low-fired figurative work based on the form of the snake goddess.  Physically quite different from the kiln-sculptures, Hole’s figurative works nonetheless  play an essential role within her overall project as an artist.

What the snake-goddess-inspired works reveal in contrast to the more awe-inspiring kiln-sculptures is the extent to which Hole’s practice centers on the search for forms adequate to the human spirit as ultimately an irreducible essence.  There is perhaps something in Hole’s sense of spirit that is akin to Hegel’s description of its historical development through the aesthetic, although Hole is obviously less concerned about any universal laws underlying this development.  For Hole it goes without saying that forms devised by human beings whether in the context of architecture, ceramics, or any other art?are essentially bound to a human desire to make sense of one’s place in the world, to achieve a vital harmony between that which is perceived as self and that which is undeniably other.  If, however, her works suggest that architecture, ceramics and figurative sculpture are all vehicles of the human spirit, they are equally suggestive of the impossibility of embodying that spirit absolutely.  For Hole, unlike so many sculptors of the late twentieth century, there is no going beyond metaphor in art to achieve any kind of pure essence.  Her work, however, confirms that metaphor is a powerful agent indeed.