Movement is a central element in Renata Francescon’s wall of porcelain tiles in the new Öckerö Municipal Hall. The clay and the glaze capture a living sequence – the energy of nature – that appears rooted in the local topography. The billowing surface suggests the power inherent in the water surrounding Öckerö, or the sea breeze that sweeps across the island. The surface of the china ripples, creating a myriad of details, evoking the image of waves, streams or trembling leaves. To entice an expression of activity from something that is actually immobile is a recurring challenge to many artists. But this porcelain wall is more than a suggestive image that appears to resist its own constitution. The wall is part of a room and the energy it invokes is also part of the room’s energy. Here, motion is yet again the central issue. Renata Francescon’s wall is positioned so that viewers approach it while moving in or out of the entrance hall, or up and down the main staircase.
It is worth noting that the relationship between the china wall and the building as a whole is not entirely uncomplicated. Öckerö Municipal Hall is characterised by block shapes, right angles, mono chrome surfaces and a sober finish. In the centrally placed ceramic wall, however, we find a fragmented, organic surface drenched in glazes shifting between hues and between glossy and matt. The colours keep to a scale of green, blue, grey and white, growing gradually paler towards the upper edge of the wall, a rising movement that symbolically echoes the confidence radiated by the new Municipal Hall in general. But where the building itself appears to manifest the stability of the municipality, with its massive and easily comprehended form, the porcelain wall adds something different and more contradictory. Here, the dynamics of society are expressed in changeability, shifts, a portrayal of the power in a process that can actually alter its course.
On many of the small leaves that make up the wall the glaze has run into thick, glassy areas – drops, lakes. In places there are visible cracks, pat terns of fine crackling. In others there are small black spots, traces of impurities in the clay that have precipitated in the firing. The richness of detail invites the gaze to an exploration but also makes us want to touch it. Our fingers are drawn to the soft and fat but occasionally sharp-edged leaf shapes that cover the underlying tiles. Each porcelain leaf is hand-made by the artist herself, a choice of method that is not without significance to the expression of the finished work. The same two hands are behind it all, and their presence is palpable. The painstaking detail and the artist’s insistence on a direct and physical experience add a further dimension to the large, open space of the entrance hall. The wall attracts the visitor’s gaze and hands and creates an intimacy in the midst of this official, public environment. The wall has body, it is tactile and establishes a contact that forces us to pause; its movement paradoxically slows us down.
The wall also conveys an inherent friction between beauty and the uncontrollable and shapeless. In her book Voices: Contemporary Ceramic Art from Sweden (2006) the critic Sara Danius draws a parallel between the runny glaze that is often seen in Renata Francescon’s ceramic works, and the secretions of living organisms. She describes the latter, the mucus as “the essential lubrication in the grand machinery of nature”, something that could be perceived as yucky and revolting but is nevertheless necessary to the existence of beauty. Mucus has no spirit, but without it there would be no life. It may feel unpleasant to talk of mucus in relation to the wall in Öckerö Municipal Hall – water might be a more useful metaphor here- but the wall certainly has just the tension that Sara Danius identifies. The vertical plane appears as a quivering mass while presenting a seductively attractive surface. The meatiness and power of the wall is set against its obvious beauty.
Like the runny glazes, the fragmented surface is a feature that has appeared in Renata Francescon’s work repeatedly for many years. Often, the surface layer of her ceramic objects cannot be differentiated from the actual body, the shape. The surface can consist of joined, thin pieces of clay that create a restless interface against the world, while building up and defining the sculptural volume. Something of this effect can be seen in the Öckerö wall. There are also some interesting differences worth noting between Renata Francescon’s wall and many other ceramic works for buildings. Ceramics in architecture often make use of and enhance the lines and rhythm of the building or space. The repetitive shape or joining of the ceramic tiles or bricks is readily enhanced. Renata Francescon’s wall is also made up of tiles, but the construction is not attributed any value or relevance in itself but on the contrary is obscured. The totality and illusion of the image is more crucial here than to reveal the underlying structure. The work demonstrates the wide range of ceramic art today, where rational thinking with regard to design and function co-exists with a striving for emotionally articulate and often contradictory expressions.
When the light hits the wall, its weight and materiality are slightly dissolved in a play of shimmering colours and reflections. In many of Renata Francescon’s previous works light also appears to be an element of the composition, on a par with the shape and colour of the ceramics. For instance, the artist has used small pieces of clay to make wide cylinders and shallow bowls that are suspended from the ceiling. The display style here underlines the light ethereality of the perforated, apparently weightless shapes, but the light also makes the frag ile constructions expand. The light trickles through them, casting shadows, forming silhouettes, leading our gaze astray. There is something dreamlike about these works, an invocation of vague memories or experiences that are nevertheless always based on the conditions of the physical space. A clear emphasis on physicality is also present in the more solid art works produced in more recent years. Here the artist has piled thin leaves of clay to form cylindrical objects utilising the tension between the lightness and fragility and the actual weight of the aggregate mass. A similar dramatic connection between the parts is evident in the ceramic wall in Öckerö Municipal Hall. The relationship between the details and the totality attains a particular poignancy in this work thanks to the monumental dimensions. Again, we are confronted with the question of how the imprint of the artist’s hand is expressed and how it communicates with the space and its visitors. The 24-square-metre wall can be compared to a screen on which a story of human effort, its challenges, ideas and possible developments, is projected. The title of the work, Frozen Moment, alludes to the local geography, the water, but also to time- the time the artist has devoted to shaping each separate leaf and the time the viewer must dedicate in order to take in every detail of the work. The moment is reflected as part of a gushing, massive flow of energy and motion.