Thoughts on Jørgen Frederik Scheel Haarstad’s work, by Espen Johansen
Like most great contemporary art, Jørgen Frederik Scheel Haarstad’s work does not really fit in any genre. He lends as much from the industrial worker and the rock musician as it does from fellow artists, and the result is complex yet an immediate and powerful, physical experience.
Trying to come up with a label for Haarstad’s work is quite enjoyable, as all attempts sound a bit awkward and does not come close trying to capture what he is about. Ceramic sound art? Conceptual ceramics? Performative or choreographed sculpture? They all say something about his body of works, but do not reveal their essence. In fact, Haarstad seems to cultivate a distinct aesthetic that moves clear of a stale intellectual understanding by engaging its spectator in a physical sense, acting as a source of contemplative delight. It makes for absolutely mesmerizing artworks, but all the more difficult trying to write something substantial about them without chipping away too much at what makes them unique.
After starting to work with the industrial ceramic supplier, NTP (Norwegian Technical Porcelain), Haarstad has been using porcelain insulators and industrial components from the factory in his artworks. The NTP products are renowned for their high quality, and any flaw occurring during the production process will render the ceramic component unfit for use. Haarstad is using these industrial components in his artistic practice, and most recently to make incredible soundscapes as he tempers with them, manipulate them, swing them like pendulums from the ceiling, drag them across the floor, and crush them in a loosely choreographed chaos.
Titled, Released Wasteland, Haarstad performed the ceramic sound work on a stage in front of an audience at Fossekleiva Kultursenter, in 2018. In the middle of the spectacle stands the artist, wearing Doc Martens boots, black jeans and a black tank top, safety goggles and taped fingers. The ceramic components on stage are also completely black. The atmosphere is dark and hardened, compared his earlier work, and certainly more melancholic. The performance is a feat of strength, and has a striking sensibility. Normally one thinks of porcelain as something domestic, precious and breakable, but surrounded by the large and heavy pieces of white porcelain, the strong-built artist looks strangely fragile, as the occasional shard is flying past him because of his destructive/creating actions, in what one might describe as a concerto.
The word concert or concerto, stems from Italian word ‘concertare’, which means ‘harmonize’. While witnessing Haarstad’s enduring feat is not harmonious, there is certainly more to the performance than pure and primal chaos. Haarstad is like a conductor with the ceramic components as his orchestra. He moves around the different props with confidence and activates them in a number of ways. He breaks the porcelain apart, but does so with restraint.While the performance certainly has a transgressive aspect, it is vulnerable more than violent, as the physical work is balanced by the fragility of the man in the center.
Mechanical sounds resembling factory machinery from vibrating porcelain is turned into ominous music. Bell sounds, scratching sounds and the distinct noise from porcelain being crushed. The sounds from the porcelain has beautiful tonal qualities. It is not just noise, but through extensive research he discovered the different sounds porcelain makes when it is being manipulated. In fact, the pitch range varies through almost the entire human spectrum, including sounds at such a low frequency, it is inaudible to the human ear. The more you listen to the piece, the more you realize that the performance and the sound work is not purely spontaneous, but carefully conducted based on extensive experimentation with the matter at hand. That Haarstad is also a percussionist should come as no surprise. The composition builds up in intensity and complexity before it slowly fades out. And as it grinds down to a halt, the bell sounds from the swinging porcelain rings linger for a moment longer, like church bells signaling session is now over.
In Christianity, church bells where believed to drive out demons and unclean spirits. While Haarstad’s work does not address religion, the spontaneous composition bears a resemblance to something ritualistic, and as the performance concludes, I’m left feeling somewhat cathartic. His artwork is poetic and refrains from becoming explicit, but through the experience he creates, he allows for a physical and personal interpretation. Because of the industrial associations imbued in his work, it is tempting to apply some of the theoretical discussions from the time of the Industrial Revolution, as artists and thinkers tried to comprehend what this new reality would mean for them. One term, widely discussed at the time, was the notion of the sublime. The 18th century philosopher, Edmund Burke defines it as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” The powerful impact of the sublime lies in the fact that while it connotes danger; it does so without any imminent threat. It is believed that when facing danger from a safe distance, we realize the idea of freedom and of safety, which in turn produce a sense of pleasure. The manhandled porcelain which is broken apart in front of us incite a feeling of thrill and excitement. But the sublime does not reside in the object itself, but in our own minds. Thus, it can be thought of as a means allowing us to access what lies beyond reason. And as my mind wanders, I recall having read about the creation of man from clay, as it recurs throughout a myriad of mythologies, including several world religions.
Haarstad’s work can be interpreted as a negation of the systematic structures of society, as his art seem to instead favor a wild and untamable nature. In this respect, he becomes the diametric opposite of the industry worker who perfects a product and repeats the process for as long as there is a demand. Developed countries are moving closer to becoming post-industrial societies, where information, knowledge and services fuel the economy instead of industrial manufacturing. And, in a not too distant future - according to numerous predictions – we might also evolve into a post-work society, where machines have taken the majority of the jobs. Realizing that we are moving towards an age of automation where factory workers are rapidly being replaced by faster, cheaper, better robots, makes me perceive Haarstad’s work as even more humanistic, since it shows the spontaneity that make up human creativity. In the end, his work is not an elegy of a dying industry, nor merely destruction. I think of it more like an homage to the craftsman and a vital burst of energy which can, in turn, bring new creation.
My main work is done at Norwegian Technical Porcelain (NTP) in Fredrikstad., Norway.
NTP produces high voltage insulators. I've been working there with my ceramic work since 2013. I explore and experiment with NTP's misproduction and waste material. The goal and vision of the next production is to develop my expression within NTP's tight framework of already completed porcelain elements. To develop the visual (use of given form/glaze), sound, performance, choreography and cinematographic performance. The ceramic installations usualy develop and changes form and pattern by having several performances in an exhibition period. I am an artist, musician, drummer and composer. I have a background from the comercial music industry wich I was a part of for 20 years. It affects me in my work with ceramics. Energetic pumping rock´n roll is my daily engine and is closest to the heart. I also like jazz, pop, metal, classical and contemporary music. To me, music is a must to produce my art. No music, no work. My MA project at the Oslo National Academy of The Arts was focused on experimentation, primarily with ceramics as audiovisual material, ie for the production of audio objects, visual shapes, as material for use in installations and for performance. I'm looking for particularity and potential in the material, in each object. For sound production, site-specific mobility, performance and visual expression. There is a huge sound potential in ceramics and especially porcelain. I was completely put out and fired up when this occurred to me about 4 years ago. Humans can not hear below 20 Hz. My sound works have a range from 9 Hz to 17,000 Hz, which makes it not just a hearing experience, but also a physical experience. My passion for music is more than drums, percussion and rock'n'roll. To me there is also a "visual" form of speech in sound and music. I'm interested in how audio and music can affect our state of mind. The experience of what is calming, hard, energetic or noisy is of course individual. The fascination of getting sound out of objects around me arose early. I have been hitting/drumming on all imaginable objects from early age and discovered the peculiarities and distinctiveness of various objects. I still do that. With my experience it has led the mind to how you can get ”pictures” in your head of what sound is. When I am working with contemporary music, I experience sound like materiality, color and shape. Using visual and tactile terms makes it easier to understand a description of what you hear and feel. To me shape and color comes quickly in place when I listen. The sound becomes a bit more defined and less abstract to me. Sound can be experienced as tactile, angular, round, oval, pointed, sharp, soft, velvety, dry, wet, yellow, red, black, blue, rhythmic, rhythmic abstract form, rhythmic figurative form, or internal volume. The silent parts in a sound work adds dynamics and is is colored and shaped by what you just heard. I strive to be totally focused on listening to the entire spectrum of a soundtrack. This affects me throughout my production. I improvise and listen at the same time with audio objects, often interrupted by my inner voice that I am trying to suppress. I am looking at my audio productions as sound collages, floating form and soundscapes. After finishing the Master in 2015, I have continued to work in the field of ceramic sound production, installation and performance.
We tend to associate ceramics with the domestic realm: crockery, vases, figurines.
Not Jørgen Frederik Scheel Haarstad. The artist looked to a ceramic form which is just as prevalent and beneficial as home ware in our daily lives yet not as visible: the electrical insulator. Perched on high-voltage power lines far above our heads or hidden away in a dark fuse box, the insulator is a kind of abstract Minimalist sculpture, yet valued for its resistance, water-tightness and strength. In contrast to domestic ceramics, ceramic insulators know few rivals because the material outperforms others. Plus the slightly flawed »rejects« are unlikely to find a home – unless of course they were produced in Fredrikstad at the national porcelain factory Norsk Teknisk Porselen where Haarstad collects both split and faulty insulators in monochrome white and black. He positions these large-scale sculptures in even larger installations which may be dangerous – not for any electrical current, but for the fatal sharpness of the shards. Again, in contrast to home ware, the insulators must be handled with even more care and caution when they are broken than when they are intact. Works such as Lethal Assumption (2014) – white shards, crowded tightly together, like the incisors in a tyrannosaur’s mouth – manage to combine shattered fragility with lethal menace. Such installations might be viewed as industrial readymades, but Haarstad is also a professional musician and composer who decided to fashion his own musical instruments from porcelain: extra-large tiles, pipes or smaller pellet-like shapes. He plays these unique instruments in unconventional ways: hitting them with drumsticks or with other rough pieces of porcelain and even letting them crash to the floor. The sound generated by a large ceramic tile can last up to 45 seconds and ranges from 9 Hz to 17,000 Hz (human hearing rests around 20 Hz). The artist-musician will use a mixer to transform these sounds into a composition which shifts eerily from music to silence for human ears. With his unusual ceramic and sound works, Haarstad multiples the uses of industrial materials while rejecting their traditional destinations. His oeuvre – art works, musical instruments, compositions, performances – blurs the division between these domains. By making music that can escape human perception, he not only challenges the ideal that music should be made for human beings but also questions the anthropocentrism of all arts.
A Berlin-based critic, Allen has published in Mousse, frieze and Artforum.