ENDURING REWARDS OF PROCEEDING SLOWLY
by Josef Strasser
of Roland Summer
Summer (born in 1955) lives and works in Velden am Woerthersee, a small,
lakeside town in Carinthia in southern Austria. The beautiful, dreamlike scenery
invites one to linger and relax, yet such surroundings can also inspire creative
principle, Austria is not a country noted for ceramics. There are historical
roots, such as “Gmundner Keramik”, which came into being close to the German
border, and later the ceramics of the “Wiener Werkstaette” but, generally
speaking, modern ceramics has not been able to find favourable structures here.
There is no museum in the whole of Austria
specially dedicated to this type of Applied Art. There are no galleries to
represent ceramic artists internationally, no centres and hardly any collectors
of contemporary work. It is therefore all the more surprising that this small
country produces not only ceramic artists able to bear international comparison
but who also achieve worldwide acclaim.
doubt one of them is Roland Summer. His work is less about emerging from an
Austrian tradition, apart from this country being the site of its creation, and
more about a product which is independent of place in a globalized world. His
forms and techniques evince a discusssion of past cultures on various
continents. Africa, and especially the Sudan, plays a role, as do Asia and, of
course, Europe. Summer works with Raku, an ancient Japanese pottery method,
originally inseparable from Zen Buddhism and the Tea Ceremony. As important for
his work is the use of Terra Sigillata, which originated in Italy of the Roman
period, and which he applies in a very specific way. However, Summer’s broad
knowledge of ancient cultures and techniques is merely the starting point for
his own creations which are situated in the present – the here and now –
with traditions transcended and the future mapped out.
Summer turned to ceramics relatively late, having first completed his studies in
architecture at the Technical University of Graz (1974-80). Although he finally
decided against a career in this discipline, the association with architecture
and its questions, which are at the very least also questions for mankind in
general, was to remain a lasting influence. Above all, the encounter with Hugo
Kuekelhaus (1900-1984), one of the most important initiators of teaching in the
fields of sense perception, architecture and ecological approaches, was in
retrospect the decisive impetus in Summer’s turning to ceramics. Impressed by
this versatility and ability to assemble the most diverse matter before the
mental eye, he decided to create something using his hands, not in order to plan
extensively, but to create and build in detail.
a long period of experimentation, numerous dead ends and detours, Roland Summer
finally found his own direction at the end of the eighties. Time did and still
does play an important part. One discovers this, in an absolutely positive
manner, by viewing his work. Summer does not use a fast pottery wheel, but coils
his ceramics inch by inch. The
pieces grow, as it were, out of themselves. This involves bringing together the
characteristics of organic, softly rounded forms and his preferred technique,
Terra Sigillata, in the best possible way.
“magic moment” for Summer does not occur only after the firing, but also,
and in particular, at that moment when the moist gleam of the hand-built piece
stands ready on his workbench. This is one of the most exciting moments in the
creative process. It does not mean that further treatment is not important.
Quite the reverse. Another step follows: the application of the Terra Sigillata,
which can differ depending on the colours, and which will have a decisive
influence on the piece’s final appearance. Terra Sigillata does not only bring
back the shiny surface which was lost in the drying process but also the layer
for the smoke traces which are so characteristic of his work.
has, therefore, in this way, developed an entirely individual technique. He
refers to it as “Lost Glaze”. After the biscuit firing the vessels are
covered with a separating slip, sometimes in combination with a glaze. Lines are
drawn into this, even though, without this treatment, crackles will still appear
after the raku firing. The coating splits and peels during the cooling phase
when plunged into water, leaving a negative image on the surface in the form of
certain distance the pieces look like conventionally glazed ceramics, but on
closer inspection irregularities become evident; lines and crackle patterns
begin to blur. They do not really exist, only their negative images. At the same
time they form an inseparable part of the vessel in not appearing as an applied
coat but as the material itself. This the difference between Summer’s work and
glazed ceramics. For him the glaze is a supplement, a surface covering which
does not arise out of the piece. Typically, his glaze cracks away. It is only a
medium for the purpose, not part of the completed object.
smooth and burnished surfaces possess totally different aesthetic qualities
depending on drawing and colour. The vessels with lines acquire an almost
ethereal quality while the latest light-coloured work, with its tender, cloudy
traces of smoke encourage associations to marble.
important for Roland Summer that one can see into his ceramics. Each has an
opening to render inside and outside both visible and touchable. This clearly
establishes that they are vessels, while his latest pieces with their
asymmetrical protrusions remind us of the work of Hans Arp or certain idol-like
forms. We are always concerned here with vessels, not objects, and rounded forms
almost always play an important part.
forms appear more erotic than square ones. And in Summer’s work eroticism play
a vital though submerged role. A Korean admirer of his work has expressed this
by comparing the bodylike forms with their smooth flattened surfaces to
further aspect in this context are the “Pairs” which have led like a
continuous thread through his work since the mid nineties. It is not merely
about placing two vessels side by side, as they do not only correspond with the
space around them, but above all with each other and in the establishment of a
relationship. The space between appears as negative space (“empty space”)
and gains in this sense a special importance. Out of this juxtaposition of the
vessels emerges architecture in space. It is made evident, particularly in the
case of the “Pairs”, how Summer’s view of space is influenced by his
earlier studies in architecture.
surveying Summer’s work over the years the constants and changes become
apparent. Prevalent in his work is a deeply meditative character which does not
involve only the outer forms but also the processes which develop out of his
all, Roland Summer’s vessels manifest a special austerity which has to some
extent in more recent times begun to dissolve. In spite of all the rigour and
precision, the work does not appear cold, lifeless or dull. Through hardly
visible irregularities, small shifts and movements, slightly diagonal instead of
straight lines, underpinned by the irregularities and contingent smoke traces,
the vessels always exude a liveliness and tension.
forms permit the recognition of clear lines of development – as in the case of
pairs growing together or merging into a single form. Some pieces, reminiscent
of fruit forms, have their origins in this development, while others follow a
further line, such as porcelain objects which were produced as a result of an
exhibition project at the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in 1999.
though this was for Summer a unique outing in the world of porcelain, it
demonstrates the essential character of his work: eyes fully open combined with
an allied delight in experimentation. Each step is thoroughly considered and
thought through. Not for nothing does his work receive numerous awards, as well
as being exhibited internationally in, for example, Germany, France, England,
Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, USA, Australia, India, Taiwan and
South Korea. It is therefore clear
that Roland Summer belongs to the very few ceramists in Austria who have
achieved worldwide recognition.
Strasser is senior curator of DIE NEUE SAMMLUNG, Museum of Applied Arts, Munich