Experimenting with pure ceramics: the example of Setsuko Nagasawa

Roland Blaettler

In the ’60s, the California coast was the setting for one of the fundamental episodes in expressionistic ceramics of the post-war period: what the American artists would call the “Ceramic Revolution of Otis”. The sculptor Peter Voulkos was teaching at the ceramics department that he founded in 1954 under the auspices of the Otis Institute of Art in Los Angeles and based on an instinctive approach to material and its modelling potential. In 1971, Paul Soldner, one of Voulkos’ first disciples, was in Japan. Setsuko Nagasawa attended one of his performances: the spontaneity and the energy characterising Soldner’s approach aroused her curiosity. In 1973 she was invited to take his courses at Scripps College in Claremont, California. Her months there were to be a decisive milestone in her career. More than anything else she assimilated Soldner’s experimental pedagogy, according to which students are encouraged to find their own path, without utilising consolidated models. In a certain sense, this was the antithesis of the traditional teaching she had received at the University of Fine Arts in Kyoto, where the fundamental values were reflectivity, modesty, respect for material and technical skill that aimed at perfection. In any case, Setsuko Nagasawa by no means a faithful follower of the prevailing trend in the new American ceramic environment, where clay is considered simply as a raw material. This is probably what the main teachings of the “cultural shock” experienced in California were: creation in contemporary ceramics can be an unlimited area for experimentation, provided that a means of modelling can be found that takes into account or even better yet feeds off the very nature of the material.
Beginning in 1974, the desire to progress took Setsuko Nagasawa to Europe. The Old Continent seemed to be a neutral territory compared to both her Japanese roots and the American experience. First settling in Aix-en-Provence, she worked with ceramics with a focus on the concept of recipient. In 1977, Nagasawa exhibited her first ceramic sculptures in the halls of the Geneva Athénée. Today, she believes that her experience in Geneva marked the real debut in her artistic career. Explicitly, and even in a demonstrative manner, she provides alternatives to the traditional ceramics culture. For example, she combines stoneware and porcelain in the same object even though, according to classic concepts, these two materials are very distinct and rigidly separated in the Japanese tradition. In the oriental porcelain tradition, the ceramic body is always covered by a vitrified coating. The artist subverts this unchangeable stratification by creating what she calls “vitrified porcelain” in which the components of the coating are mixed with the porcelain. This produces a new material with a new density.
From the end of the ’70s she tackled the spatial issue from a more radical perspective, creating her first installations: this then naturally led her to the field of architectural intervention.
The ceramic sculptures made for the exhibition devoted to her work at the Ariana Museum in Geneva in 1996 are proof of the developments of experimentation that began in 1994, during the first Biennial of Contemporary Ceramics at Château d’Aubonne. Though made of polyhedrons, and apparently geometric shapes, ceramics does not succumb to the needs of pure geometry. Playing on geometric illusion, Setsuko Nagasawa reveals one of the fundamental properties of clay: its tendency to deform during firing. Without trying to control it completely, the artist sometimes moderates, sometimes encourages this tendency so that the state fixed by the fire reveals the antagonistic forces. Instead of filling space with dominant shapes, Nagasawa arranges the objects that exist first and foremost as fields of tension.
A presence is born out of the subtle encounter of light, emptiness and matter that assumes a monumental dimension. An essential part of the procedure focuses on preparing the materials. The black pieces are shaped in stoneware or in porcelain mixed with wood chips. For the white pieces, the same porcelain with wood chips is fired once at 1000° C. While working, the artist felt the need to develop new experimentation into “vitrified porcelain” which interested her because of its particular tendency to deform. To enhance this specific property, she decided to tackle what for her was a completely new formal lexicon: the sphere.
Setsuko Nagasawa’s personal path expresses a kind of need for movement, or better yet, a refusal to remain sedentary. Starting from Japan, her trajectory has continued in the sense of moving away. Her American sojourn was an opportunity to establish a healthy distance from a ceramic culture filled with traditions. Liberating and stimulating, the Californian experience also involved limits that were revealed to Setsuko Nagasawa in what is often a superficial approach to material. This observation allowed her to measure the profound extent of the first years of training, to distinguish the truly important aspects for her personal growth. For the artist, the essence of this cultural sub-stratum became an acute sense of the specificity of the ceramic procedure. And it was even farther away, in Europe, that her work took shape and affirmed her artistic personality.
Through her work, Nagasawa continues to move, constantly exploring new territories. Evoking her Japanese identity after more than thirty years of voluntary exile, Setsuko Nagasawa perceives it today with a new intensity. Like all nomads, she has learned how to eliminate some of her traditional cultural baggage, leaving her work with the vestiges of what is essential.
This is the spirit in which Setsuko worked alongside the ceramists of Albisola. She arrived on the Ligurian coast “without preconceptions.” She brought neither tools nor materials when confronting the local traditions. She brought only the forms that she imagined as wholly belonging to her and she modelled them with the tools that she found at the site. A unique phenomenon in Nagasawa’s work! The sudden explosion of colour is a reflection of the centuries-old tradition of Ligurian majolica. The forms created by the artist will later be assembled to create an installation, or better yet, various installations, changing and ephemeral, reinvented constantly in relation to space. Once again, Setsuko Nagasawa leaves traces of her presence in Albisola that are strong yet discrete, ambitious yet subdued.

Text published in the catalogue of the 2nd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2003.