Matthias Kaiser, artist
I had a long conversation over email this week with Matthias Kaiser, whose masterful ceramic work was a personal highlight of the show I curated for Sight Unseen OFFSITE earlier this year. The exchange reaffirmed my sometimes-waning faith in ceramics, or in anything that suddenly becomes so widely hyped that it can feel like we’re too busy being professionals to remember what struck us through about the practice in the first place. Kaiser, who now lives in the Austrian countryside having previously apprenticed with Japanese master potters and spent a combined two years traveling on the Indian subcontinent, speaks with the deep humility that comes with not taking shortcuts — with digging for your own clay, for example, or moving to Isfahan to study Sufi mysticism. He compares himself to “bad clay,” talks about how losses are a part of the game, and makes a joke about beards.
When he does scheme, it’s about how he would like to sell his work by some roadside, somewhere, for prices with no zeroes, and then find a way to see how people are actually using the pieces in their homes. “The process of making ceramics has a dynamic of its own and this becomes visible when calculation gives way to intuition,” Kaiser says. “I like to think that it speaks to maturity when one can desist from imposing one’s will and instead enjoy the unfolding of the unexpected.”
Read the full interview with Kaiser below, then visit his website for even more of his wonderful work.
What is it about working with clay, for you, about the materials of mud and water?
Mud is motion, and water is time. Even in a small piece, you are working with millions of tiny particles that are aligned in a pattern but take on any shape they are guided into. They have a memory of your intervention. The ratio of solid minerals to water determines not only the workability — and thus influences the shape — but also the time when work can begin, must continue, and needs to end.
I love to juggle all the variables of raw material selection: preparation, design, implementation, decoration (or lack of) and firing. Having a degree of influence over all of those enables me to make permanent and very personal objects. I can apply technical expertise and creative energy, but also hold back and let the elements come to the fore. It is challenging and satisfying.
Do you have a favorite clay with which to work? I find that artists working with clay are often mad scientists, between kiln experimentation and glazes and clay bodies. What have you discovered about the material that surprised you?
I like clay straight from the deposit, not processed or engineered for easy workability. The clays one gets from ceramics suppliers usually lack character and beauty because they are sieved, filtered, mixed, homogenized, and pugged until all the flavor is gone. Of course, a lot of effort is needed to source, test and obtain raw, natural clays and to prepare them for use in the studio. Sometimes it feels like half the work is done before I even start to shape something. But it is worthwhile, because the finished pieces will be able to tell a story about this planet.
So while the clays that I really like are “bad” clays from a technical point of view, their virtue lies in what they can communicate. It’s the same as with people; someone with a chip on the shoulder makes for a more interesting conversation than yet another clone.
What are you searching for? Can you find it through your work?
Yes, I am trying to reveal something that I feel is present, hidden in the materials I use. And also to recreate something that has been present in forgotten experiences and in elusive feelings that cannot easily be preserved. It is a work of remembering and of capturing moments. Digging up earth and conserving it with fire lends itself to that. Ideally, I would like my work to evoke a feeling of intimacy and yearning.
How do you fire? And how do you feel about loss, as someone who has to work with it to make your work?
My two gas kilns have nearly 1,000 firings between them. I fire to between 1,200°C and 1,250°C, oxidizing or reducing, depending on the type of thing I want to make. I have had one or two firings without any wasters so far. Losses are part of the game; it’s best not to dwell on them, but to learn the lesson they teach and move on. I’m quite good at letting go of my work because every piece is also a stepping stone on the way to an even better piece.
How does this relate to or differ from what you are looking for in life? Does biography matter, or does work speak for itself?
In my opinion the artist’s biography and the language evolving through his or her work are intertwined and inseparable. They are totally informed by each other. But the artist speaks to the recipient through his work. If the recipient is sensitive and knowledgeable enough, then he will get the message. The more parameters can be aligned between work and recipient (e.g. time, context) the greater its impact will be.
My goal is to create something that works at more than one level. Superficial understanding is sometimes enough to gather a degree of satisfaction, but I like for there to be additional layers of sophistication that will show themselves only to the enlightened user. Ultimately, of course, one hopes to be understood and appreciated by a least a few.
What do you think that your work reflects or says? What does the work you admire reflect or say?
I admire many different types of work. Quiet and humble can be refreshing. Bold and dramatic can be reassuring. If I feel that it reflects on one of the many dilemmas of human existence, then I am interested. My work, in its very down-to-earth way, attempts to challenge preconceived notions associated with cultural identity and conditioning. I always present my work empty, in a physical sense, and people can fill it with their sustenance, whatever that may be.
There’s been some talk of a ceramics resurgence or Renaissance right now. Why do you think people are moved by ceramics, by vessels?
In a life filled to the brim with engagement, the emptiness contained in a vessel may have some appeal. But I actually don’t think that’s the reason for the current resurgence of ceramics. In a world communicating with two invisible digits and curated by an omniscient robot, hands-on experiences become attractive again. What could be more sensual and tactile than beards, organic gardening, and pottery?
I’m being a little cynical here, but I do think that it has something to do with the amorphous nature of clay, its inherent irregularity and softness, that makes it attractive as a revolutionary material to counteract the prevalent rigidity in art and design.
How did you start doing ceramics? And why did you decide to continue?
I passed by a stall of potters (from Pennsylvania, I think) as I walked down West Broadway one day. They were selling porcelain with a blue sponge pattern. It was awesome. I didn’t buy anything because I was broke. But it prompted me to take a pottery class, and that seemed like a perfect fit right from the start. Later, I enrolled at Parsons School of Design in New York and had so much fun learning and making that the question didn’t arise whether I should continue or not. It just happened.
What time of day do you work, and why then?
Afternoon, evening, even late night, but hardly ever in the morning. I guess I have simply gotten used to this rhythm over time, there is no particular reason for it, except that there is always a lot to do and I don’t do anything but work anyway. I don’t have any hobbies (only pottery); I don’t watch much TV and also do not go out at night. I live in the countryside and I wouldn’t know where to go, really. When I’m in Vienna (one or two days a week) or traveling abroad, it’s the other way around, and I go out quite a bit.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
I studied product design with a focus on ceramics at Parsons and at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. But what influenced me most were the apprenticeships I did with two Japanese potters in Seto and Karatsu. The years I spent in Japan broadened my horizons. I tuned in to a whole new way of looking at ceramics. It was like being introduced to improvised music after years of just listening to pop music on the radio. I was immensely impressed by my masters’ dedication and devotion to every aspect of their craft.
The learning experiences differed greatly. In New York the teachers were friendly, had sound knowledge and shared it. The Japanese masters commanded incredible skill but didn’t talk. I was expected to learn by doing (and failing) and observing. In Vienna, well, they just talked.
How did you end up studying Sufi mysticism?
I always felt that there ought to be more to human existence than just the physical dimension. Organized religion seemed like an extension of societal, political, and economic conditions, but I sensed a closeness to Eastern philosophy and mysticism. Reading a lot of Sufi texts and poetry as a student gave rise to the desire for first-hand experience.
When I started a one-year overland trip from Shanghai to Vienna after my apprenticeship years in Japan, I set my mind on visiting a few places that I had long wanted to see. Isfahan was one of them, and I spent almost two months there. I took Tar (a Persian stringed instrument) lessons with a gentleman who regularly performed at Sufi gatherings, and through him was introduced to the person who later became my teacher. Events unfolded, and over the years this connection deepened and became the dominant influence on my thinking and day-to-day doings for more than ten years. It is about the direct experience of spiritual faculties. The training aims at sensitizing awareness.
What do you look for in shapes and surfaces? How do you think that what captures our attention in the material world relates to our interior reflections?
Evocative shapes that include references to the rich history of ceramics and complex but subdued surfaces appeal to me. I am also looking for slight variations in familiar shapes, unusual proportions or combinations, common things in uncommon contexts. The extraordinary inherent in the ordinary. This applies also in a political and spiritual sense.
Does taste matter? Does beauty matter? I think about this too much.
There are so many parallel universes of taste, usually born from socio-economic and cultural circumstances. I think their main role is to affirm our respective identities, which in turn creates comfort and an illusion of security. We need this, so it matters. I, like many others, have enjoyed sliding through hidden doors between different universes. It has complicated things a little bit. Now my ambition is to make objects that work in all kinds of settings, although with varying purpose.
Is making artwork self-indulgent?
In a way I think it is self-indulgent, but it is also a service. Not in an obvious sense like fixing a sink or curing an ailment, but an artist’s deeds may save someone’s life hundred years from now, or next week. It is brave, because it confronts and explores the unknown and that can help others.
The process of making ceramics has a dynamic of its own and this becomes visible when calculation gives way to intuition. I believe that in creation, skill, even great skill, takes on a subordinate role, while in manufacture it is on a par with clever thinking. I like to think that it speaks to maturity when one can desist from imposing one’s will and instead enjoy the unfolding of the unexpected.
All photography (C) Jens Preusse