ARTIST ROOM

ASTRID DAHL

b.1977

IF THE MICRO IS MACRO

Astrid Dahl
Astrid Dahl, Detail of Work in Progress, White Earthenware, 2022

ON FORM AND PROCESS IN THE WORK OF ASTRID DAHL

Words by Sophie Cope

Images courtesy of Astrid Dahl

South African ceramic artist Astrid Dahl makes vessels that are, in some essential sense, about vessel-making – expressing the shapes and processes of ‘themselves,’ not standing as symbolic place-holders for anything ‘else.’ Predominantly composed of white earthenware, Dahl’s work pays homage to form and symmetry before anything. A practice in pursuit of the form that is perfect and timeless – something essential that has yet to emerge, is probably impossible, but feels very close. If the perfect thing is forever on the horizon-line, there is reason to continue tomorrow and tomorrow – and we can see this in Dahl’s work. The vessels exist as vessels, filling the centre of a room with real presence, and they also exist as material traces of a rigorous daily searching for the things that are beautiful and worthwhile and true.

‘A practice in pursuit of the form that is perfect and timeless – something essential that has yet to emerge…’

Portrait of Astrid Dahl in Studio, Photographed by Antoinette MacDonald, 2021

ORIGINS AND PROCESS

Dahl describes always loving coiling, and being good at it. All of her vessels – large ‘organic abstractions’ – are made using this technique. The limitations of coiling (requiring a base, a certain way of working layer by layer) allow for a freedom-within-constraints. When you’re not having to reinvent (or use) the wheel everyday, there is an expansiveness within the known frame. You can lean really far into what you think you know – understanding it better, testing the limits of it, catching yourself by surprise. The artist is not afraid of scale, and will go as big as her kiln can manage.

Astrid Dahl, Detail of Work in Progress, White Earthenware, 2022

Dahl studied Fine Art at what is now the Durban University of Technology, and was inspired by her lecturer Hennie Stroebel who encouraged her to continue making things with clay (specifically hand-coiling), and ‘to explore and create using clay as a language’. Later, after experimenting with various mediums and approaches, design expert Neville Tricket introduced her to the images of Karl Blossfelt, which ultimately instigated Dahl’s expansive career of botanically-inspired work – maintaining specific emphasis on form, juxtapositions of gravity and light, and making the micro macro.

Astrid Dahl
Astrid Dahl, Hellebore Seed Capsule, 2012, White Earthenware, Photograph by David Ross

‘If the perfect thing is forever on the horizon-line, there is reason to continue tomorrow and tomorrow..’

Perhaps increasingly, the artist describes the process as inherently organic – both formally, and in her approach to making. Working without drawings or references, Dahl’s vessels – although meticulously executed and finished – are formed quite spontaneously.

‘When you’re not having to reinvent (or use) the wheel everyday, there is an expansiveness within the known frame.’

Astrid Dahl, Orchid Vase, White Earthenware, Alexander Lamont Collaborations

THINKING

In Dahl’s experience of making, thinking arises in the material engagement with clay, and the gap between ‘thoughts’ and ‘things’ is eliminated. The artist describes making vessels big enough to echo her own voice in the studio – in a sense a process of finding one’s ‘self’ in the material exchange between hands. ‘My work is me,’ the artist says, ‘but I can’t really tell you what that is. It contains everything of who I am. In my studio, my mind comes together. And then, like anyone, I’ve got to come back to reality and face what’s going on in the world.’

Astrid Dahl, Detail of Work in Progress, White Earthenware , 2022

PERFECTION

Dahl’s work tends towards a willing pursuit of the unattainable – the perfect form that lasts forever. But in this, there is an acute awareness of how transitory it all is – how the clay is likely to chip and discolour, and how organic forms are never in stasis. The beauty in much of Dahl’s work appears to arise in an embodiment of form and symmetry that is at once eternal and subject to organic cycles of renewal and disintegration.

Astrid Dahl
Astrid Dahl, Dacrima, 2019, White Earthenware

‘…thinking arises in the material engagement with clay, and the gap between ‘thoughts’ and ‘things’ is eliminated.’

SPACE

Physical space is important for Dahl. An expansive studio space appears to echo and facilitate the making of expansive work. Recently, with a bigger kiln and a renovated studio, the artist describes new intentions to make work on an expanded scale, and to take her own creative process more seriously – in order to have more breathing space, and (perhaps) to be able to play. 

‘…an embodiment of form and symmetry that is at once eternal and subject to organic cycles of renewal and disintegration.’

Astrid Dahl
Astrid Dahl, White Earthenware (Detail)

 The seriousness that facilitates the breathing space – the gravity that must precede the bright light forms – these juxtapositions appear to define much of Dahl’s process.

Astrid Dahl, White Orchid, White Earthenware

A Latin phrase comes to mind – res severa verum gaudi – which translates as ‘to be serious is the greatest joy.’ Exceeding words, a search for what is true and beautiful and perhaps eternal – an ongoing search – Dahl’s work echoes a similar kind of serious, meditative joy. 

‘The seriousness that facilitates the breathing space – the gravity that must precede the bright light forms – these juxtapositions appear to define much of Dahl’s process. 

Astrid Dahl
Astrid Dahl, Naticidae, 2019, White Earthenware

ASTRID DAHL

BIOGRAPHY

b.1977

South African ceramic artist Astrid Dahl explores light, purity and symmetry in large botanically-inspired earthenware forms. The artist studied Fine Art at what is now the Durban University of Technology, graduating in 1999. Dahl demonstrated an early love for clay and hand-coiling at university, and was encouraged by her lecturer Hennie Stroebel to continue working with clay after graduating. Several years later, design expert Neville Trickett introduced the artist to the botanical photography of Karl Blossfeldt, which inspired the artist deeply, and continues to influence much of her work.

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