Interview with Els Wenselaers, Belgian ceramic artist

Interview with Els Wenselaers / Spotlight
By Ileana Surducan
Published in Ceramics Now Magazine Issue 2

What made you choose ceramics as a way of expressing yourself?

Clay is as good as any other medium, it is a material with lots of possibilities but it doesn’t influence my personal perception of art. Sometimes because of its limitations in format, in height, due to the measures of my kiln I have to find other solutions than I used before, but that are technical issues. I have also used other materials like papier maché before but the outcome of my figurines would be the same.

What is for you the importance of figurative representation?

It’s the essence of my work. It wouldn’t be possible for me to make work if my thoughts and feelings are not involved. All of them have a meaning and reflect my personal view on society. It’s not necessary for the public to understand it, you can enjoy them without knowing the background, but I need to be able to make them. Some of my works have a spiritual dimension. Love, understanding and insight, the meaning of existence - of evil, the happiness of life and the tragedy of death affect us, but are by themselves invisible. You can see it as a spiritual quest in which I will not flee, but indeed want to decompose and play with. The human figure in this case is the most suitable.

Els Wenselaers Contemporary Belgian Ceramics - The brain controller

Els Wenselaers: The Brain Controller, 2009, Ceramics, used materials, 25 x 29 x 16 cm.
> View more works by Els Wenselaers

Art no longer has to be “beautiful”, since the beauty of an object is derived not only from its appearance, but also from it’s concept and use. Tell us more about the aesthetic categories embodied by your work, and your motivation in choosing them.

The followers of modernism only repeat a trick, a cheap shock effect - desecrating the beauty. It has been repeated so many times and now it belongs to the popular circuit. An authentic artist is always looking for new styles, new forms to express himself and will not be guided by expectations. The emptiness of existence can contrast strongly with its beauty and vice versa. Beauty, ugliness, two sides of the same coin. It’s the perception of it that counts; something very beautiful can be experienced as ugly when you discover the essence, the inner side of it. Art exists in many layers, for those who want to see it. My work can be considered as superficially aesthetic, but the deeper meaning is of a different order. There isn’t much beauty in the emptiness of an existence as in the Sisyphus series. “L’existence précède l’essence”. Existence precedes essence. (Jean Paul Sartre)

The Human Hybrids series emphasizes a new twist of an old idea. Humans with animal characteristics have been a constant presence in many cultures since thousands of years ago. Compared to their traditional representation, what do you want to express with your works?

Indeed, one of the oldest known is an ivory sculpture, the Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany, a human-shaped figurine with a lion’s head, determined to be about 32,000 years old. Anthropomorphism is assigning human (behavioral) characteristics to animals. After reading an article about genetic engineering, I started on human hybrids. You can make goats, produce cobwebs or grow a human ear on the back of a mouse, etc. These techniques don’t stay within the walls of a laboratory. Since a number of years, you can find genetically manipulated fish in the aquarium trade. A familiar example is the glowfish: a gene of coral polyps was implanted in a zebrafish so that the fish has become luminous. Wherein ancient civilizations, men thought that they could get the spirit of the animal at their sides in the hunt by performing rituals, men now literally attempt to change certain qualities or appearances of people through genetic modification. Currently one is allowed to blend DNA of humans and animals and keep this hybrid alive up to 14 days, and this with the purpose to investigate the study of human bred organs for organ transplantation. There are both positive and negative elements to this evolution, but you can wonder who will eventually be the freak in the future: modified or unmodified humans. I want to start a dialogue about it with the Human Hybrids.

Els Wenselaers Ceramics - Human Hybrid with Racemouse

Els Wenselaers: Human Hybrid with Racemouse, 2009, Ceramics, white glaze, slibs, leather, rubber, metal, 25x80x30 cm.
View more works by Els Wenselaers

The Sisyphus series illustrate absurd actions of human beings incapable of accepting or changing the lack of meaning of their life. Should the viewer see these characters as merely amusing, or are they trying to send us a more thoughtful message?

The ceramic sculptures of “Sisyphus work” are doomed to an inevitable and meaningless action. The Grass greener’, ‘The Air Mixer’, ‘Madame Odeur’, ‘Brain Controlled Vehicle’, all those titles refer to an existentialism in which an absurd figure has the main role and where the boundaries of vanity are far exceeded. They perform actions during which they realize that life is without meaning, but stubbornly refuse to take the escape routes of death or faith. Spray grass green, refresh the air with a much too small installation, suck volatile odors, channeling thoughts in the hope to get a vehicle moving. Again and again and again. Acceptation of the fundamental emptiness is the only thing left. It is the starting point of existentialism. Every person is considered as a unique being, responsible for his own actions and destiny. The challenge of each individual being is to use his freedom to build his own ethos and by that give his existence a sense, in the absence of a transcendent god and inside his own absurd and meaningless existence.

Els Wenselaers Belgian Ceramics - The sleepwalker

When it comes to illustrating general aspects of the human society, the female figure, contrary to the male figure, is seldomly used - due to its specificity. Your Sisyphus series illustrate an universal human behavior, yet all the characters are females – is there a reason for it?

Art has long been dominated almost exclusively by men. Artists, art critics, writers and publishers were all men. It is also largely a male gaze one is confronted with to this day and which does not always show respect to the creature, the soul of the woman. Only the nudity or sexuality of woman was exposed, rarely her intellect. In the contemporary art scene more women come to the forefront and fortunately gender equality is an important theme in contemporary society. Masculinity nor femininity are fixed, but are constantly (re)produced, the arts and the media play an important role. How is the comparison between the representation of femininity with the representation of masculinity? What is different in the cultural production of women and what factors play a role? These are important questions that certainly will arise in my future work. The Sisyphus series may perhaps be seen as a statement. Apart from the art historical background, I currently prefer to create female bodies.

How would you characterize the contemporary ceramic art scene in Belgium? Are you in a close relationship with other ceramic artists; do you work in a shared studio?

If you had asked me this several years ago, I would have answered negatively, as not existing. On the one hand ceramics as a medium was not appreciated in Belgium and it is not judged as an equivalent to other media such as stone, wood, polyester, etc. Clay has had a negative image for years, unless it was subsequently cast in bronze, and as an artist you had better described yourself as a visual artist rather than as a ceramist. The evening schools and trade schools flourish while ceramic courses at colleges and academies are being abolished. A missed opportunity to bring ceramics to a higher level in general. On the other hand, there are few initiatives amongst ceramists to be more prominent or to be collaborative with one another. If such a thing as contemporary ceramics scenes existed in Belgium, then they would be islands that stay afloat by the commitment of the parties. But positively speaking, a new wind in Belgium occurred during the last few years, with artists like Nadia Naveau, Tinka Pittoors and Caroline Coolen, sculptors who reinvent ceramics as a medium and that is an evolution that I can only applaud. Because I always want to work bigger, I now work in a rented studio, in a building with other artists. To be able to make my work, besides giving workshops and master classes in my own studio and on location, I also have a normal 4-day workweek. Therefore I am rarely in my studio when there are other people present, but it’s always nice when someone jumps in for a tea or to exchange ideas.

Visit Els Wenselaers’s website.

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