Text by Henning L. Mortensen
Anne Thomassen’s art oscillates unceremoniously between sculpture, applied art and design. She allows her works to become meeting places, where viewers are invited to bring their own experiences to bear in understanding and interpretation.
After completing a master’s degree at Bergen National Academy of the Arts (2000), clay has been Thomassen’s preferred material, but she also uses plaster, polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) and polyurethane foam in many of her works. These materials can be used to create any number of things, and are particularly well suited for three-dimensional objects or sculptures. The artworks are more conceptually oriented than they are towards use, and are playful and strongly influenced by popular culture.
Thomassen engages with stories of all kinds: myths, fairytales, fables and historical narratives, particularly the culturally-oriented variety. Such stories may be told through books, short stories, documentaries, films, soap operas and dramatic TV series. She is also keenly interested in cartoon series and stereotypes, and many of her works reveal a clear relation to popular cultural phenomena and expressions.
Popular culture permeates advertising; its slogans appear like a stormy sea of audio-visual expressions that wash over consumers. Within time, the sea may calm in some respects, yet a slogan or expression remains, like a grave inscription over a phenomenon or product. If it receives iconic status, the phrase or picture may be the only element remembered when all else is washed away. This is particularly seen in artworks where the artist and his or her works are linked with a cultural icon or product: Andy Warhol and Brillo, Jeff Koons and soft toys, Richard Prince and Marlboro. Meanwhile, this linkage also holds between objects and stories; Thomassen reaches deep into ‘honey pot’ of popular culture.
Through collaborating with the artist’s group TEMP, Thomassen has emphasized diverse aspects of artistic practice, and has found several points of departure for her own artwork. She worked with Gallery TEMP in Bergen between 2000 – 2002, and continues to work in partnership with this artist/curatorial group, which includes Anne Helen Mydland, Ruth Moen and Heidi Bjørgan. As well as presenting their own works, the group has curated several exhibitions for other artists. The four artists frequently collaborate on an artistic expression, where they actively participate in one another’s works with a view towards the final result, often an installation. In this practice lies appropriation as well as a mild form of ‘cannibalism’, for the works can acquire an intensified expression after individual idiosyncrasies are erased. It is also the case that these collaborative works acquire a unique identity, a meta-personality in their expression, which makes them recognizable as TEMP artworks.
The artistic idiom Thomassen works with draws upon many sources. Porcelain was traditionally the language of the upper classes, an alphabet, as it were, for the aristocracy, while earthenware pottery was used by the lower classes, by ‘everybody’. This is ceramic social history. You remember the contents of the kitchen cupboard you peeked into at a childhood friend’s house, and at your aunt and uncle’s house. You remember when you reached for a cup or found the plate for your slice of bread with butter and jam. There were cups, bowls and plates with borders, ornamental flowers – gold, white, blue, red and brown, but most of all white. Some had few colours and some had many colours. There were heavy, hulky cups and light porcelain cups, of which only a few remained un-chipped. These were moved from the living room hutch – for dinner service – into the kitchen cupboard, and redeployed for everyday use. Above all, from these artefacts we can read a history which concerns us all, for we recognize ourselves in the porcelain and pottery. What is more, these are the oldest hand-worked materials known to mankind; because artefacts of wood and iron disintegrate, ceramics remain as memorials over an archaeological past – potsherds, vases, bowls and plates.
The Salvation Army receives ceramic goods by the ton, but those pieces not deemed easily sellable are crushed and discarded. Many fine objects are lost. Thomassen collects some of this historical material and uses it to create sculptures and objects.
An example of such a work is Eruption, a fountain made with porcelain fragments on the outside and a Styrophome centre. The porcelain fragments are selected according to a light colour scale with a feminine expression. In itself, pink porcelain is rare, and lends a certain sweetness. The fountain’s wall curves in and out, and in some places the wall is pressed in and takes on the form of a plate. In the fountain’s centre are balloon-like forms made out of white porcelain. Thomassen also uses these in other works to engender an association to smoke or vapour. These white forms, inviting to look at, can also lead us to think of cumulus clouds. With its trickling water, the fountain puts the viewer in a pleasant and light mood. Upon closer inspection, however, one may discover that the water springs from an orifice quite similar to an anus, and the fountain thus becomes a metaphor for a closed circulatory system; fluid is pumped in, spurts out and is pumped back in again. This can be interpreted ecologically, but it can equally well be a playful kick at the artistic and curatorial establishment’s self-satisfied circulatory system. Thomassen has created an anus to gather around, but nevertheless to not exactly notice, and this provokes an unsettling feeling, in contrast to the decorative externality the fountain otherwise offers. This is an embodiment of a sculpture which opens up for new ways of reading.
Porcelain animals are also found in the water basin, the kind one might have found on living room side tables in the 1960s: a roe deer, swans, almost an elk in the sunset. These kitsch elements hold no irony because Thomassen takes porcelain animals seriously, both conceptually and as handcraft. They are objects of enthusiastic wonderment for children great and small, and can provide initial aesthetic impulses. Arranging the fragments according to colour, Thomassen has worked with a palette reminiscent of classic vegetal still lifes. This is, however, secondary; most important is to draw the viewer into the story and to examine the encounter between applied art, design and pictorial art. Eruption is also a commentary over contemporary societies’ wastefulness, a theme the viewer can reflect over later.
One of Thomassen’s objectives is that when seen in combination, artworks should strengthen one another. This is what happens when <em "mso-bidi-font-style:="" style="">Eruption is seen in relation to Fly Me to the Moon, a 2.2 meter rocket made out of Styrophome and ceramic tiles. The rocket is burlesque, severe and reminiscent of stylized cartoons. The mirrors and flames on its tailfins reflect light and suggest a moment before take-off. Inasmuch as the rocket points directly to the sky, ready to shoot into outer space, it expresses an intense, pent up energy. The originary impulses for this work are cartoons, film, high technology and music, and the title is appropriated from a popular song. It also expresses a strong optimism about the future, as do many of Thomassen’s works. Human beings are vulnerable, natural disasters threaten, wars and conflicts abound, technological solutions often lag behind. Things fall apart. Thomassen is well aware of this, but her works show no despair. Instead she provides solutions: The glass is half full, we will manage, the cavalry will arrive in time, we are in any case on the right road! The rocket’s exterior is entirely coated with tiles. Such is not the case with actual spaceships, where ceramic tiles – intended to hinder the ship from burning up in the atmosphere – are only used on the underside. An improvement, in other words! As Thomassen herself says, ‘With humour and surprising combinations, I want to give viewers greater room for reflection’. The rocket also stands as an enormous phallus, an erect creation pointing towards foreign planets, towards primordial sexual drives. It is focused on sex but not aware of it, because the viewer has not yet managed to think the thought.
The Sky is the Limit also has phallic qualities. Executed in white porcelain, it is touchable and inviting, inciting and challenging. This is another instance of a rocket lift-off; a small rocket precedes an enormous tale of vapour and smoke, and on the ground the smoke roles outwards in large bubbles. Here the artist has also used decals with strong colours, flames come out of the rocket and lift it into the sky. Quite like a cartoon series, this. The silkscreen decals are affixed to the porcelain through the firing process. They remind us of flaming tongues licking the sides of a chopper MC. Sexy. This work is 90 cm high, and so long and thin is the white smoke column that we almost find it uncomfortable to look at, also because the rocket bends slightly outwards and defies the law of gravity in more than one sense. This is easily seen, for one must surely feel exposed when the rocket motors lift the tiny capsule into the sky, first slowly, slowly, and then faster and faster. It is a miracle it can hold itself upright, but as a rule it does, and this is Thomassen’s homage to science. The fragile porcelain corresponds well with the idea of vulnerability expressed in this work. In the closely related works 4-3-2-1, we are prompted to envision several rockets launched simultaneously. Our thoughts are drawn to the arm’s race; each country has its own hydrogen bombe, aimed at the enemy’s infrastructure, its military and civilian targets. And yes, these porcelain works can be used as flower vases, such that rockets can be exchanged for flowers, an about-face to pacifism, an immediate disarmament, a broken rifle.
Thomassen also uses decals in a number of other works, but perhaps <em "mso-bidi-font-style:="" style="">Campfire 1 is the most striking instance. Here Thomassen has fused together several vases, such that they create a campfire with tongues of flame slicking across white porcelain.
A campfire on the prairie, a point around which to gather before venturing out on an uncertain but heroic destiny. Clint Eastwood, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, the will to achieve something, a revolver, a horse, a woman, and a campfire – and maybe sex…before the camera fades out.
In a modern setting, campfires are displaced by conference tables, and shooting transpires in other arenas. Nevertheless, one would want <em "mso-bidi-font-style:="" style="">Campfire 1 on all conference tables, it would help negotiations because it would say: ‘Now we are all gathered, night has fallen and we must solve this problem now’. Israelis, Palestinians, Sunnis, Shiites – the embers should burn down slowly. In such a context, Campfire 1 would become an installation, art as mediator for a basic need: safety.
Thomassen has also used decals in earlier works, particularly in the series Pocket Fetishes, in which she created simple forms that feel good to hold in the hand. These objects are equipped with arrows, switches and knobs reminiscent of the urbane symbols we find in magazines and advertisements. The fetish could be kept in a pocket, and one could seek comfort and encouragement by holding it in ones hand. It is an amulet with no other objective than to make one a bit happier, decorated with switches and signs with hidden purposes. Thomassen made these in two sizes, one for him and one for her – thoughtful. Mood Neutralizer is a radiator-like object also filled with metaphysical energies. With it, one can increase or decrease the balance of ‘something’ by putting a finger on a hole at one end, and having another person putt their finger on a hole at the other end. Thus it should be possible to ‘neutralize’ whichever one has too much or too little of something. This is a purposeful object; it clearly demonstrates Thomassen’s will to engage us and to let us participate in the narrative with our own personal experiences. Rather than merely stage-manage or direct the interpretations or readings of her works, Thomassen creates an open space around her art and invites us to dialogue. This is generous – and playful. Porcelain, with its resplendent glaze, is one of the primary materials used in Anne Thomassen’s artworks. ‘The clay is like a candy shop, it’s a plastic material I can make anything out of. The clay creates associations to many of the things in our environment, things we use daily. A knowledge of applied art is carried over into the finished work. To immerse oneself in a material – I see this as a positive experience because it provides greater knowledge and reveals more possibilities within art.’
‘Grounded in applied art, I oscillate between applied art, design and pictorial art, and want to explore the interfaces and possibilities that lie in this field.’