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Henny Linn Kjellberg: Critical Mass.

Henny Linn Kjellberg

Critical Mass


WITH HER IMMERSIVE INSTALLATION CRITICAL MASS, the Swedish artist Henny Linn Kjellberg has expanded the ideas--and range--of what ceramics as a medium can be or proffer. It comprises more than 1000 thin porcelain 'pages' strung together with filament line and suspended, seemingly by the air itself, from the Rochester Art Center's lofty 50 foot high atrium ceiling. The site-specific work was inspired by the 1651 political-philosophical book Leviathan by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The influential tome established social contract theory, still the foundation of most Western political philosophy. Each page is marked by a passage of text from Leviathan in a black under-glaze.

Hobbes' main concern is an issue of social and political order: how human beings can live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict. In Leviathan, Hobbes believes society must have an absolute sovereign to oversee the many and to enforce limits to guarantee certain rights, freedoms and peace--a social contract--for all.

Conceptually, Critical Mass is an exploration of the dual interpretations of the widely used term. Kjellberg states, "Critical mass is most often used within nuclear science to describe the smallest amount of fissile material for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. It is also used as a socio-dynamic term to describe the existence of sufficient momentum in a social system, such that the momentum becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth. Critical Mass reflects on the idea of the growth of human knowledge and the force of the group dynamic such as political movements and uprisings and how actions and events sometimes can grow fast, or out of control, with either positive or negative outcomes."

As such, and by the artist's design, the individual porcelain sheets are more densely clustered in the installation's centre and gradually become more dispersed toward its edge, thus reinforcing the idea of critical mass. Symbolising the position of the individual within larger society, each porcelain page of text is unique but weighs in as part of a complex whole, aesthetically allowing for a visually--and conceptually--compelling resolution of the piece.

Critical Mass elegantly straddles the boundary between installation and performance art by drawing the viewer into its embrace. Animated by the atrium's ever-changing natural light that washes over the work, Critical Mass is also slightly kinetic in the atrium's shifting air currents. Significantly, the atrium's internal but open staircase and balconies allow the viewer to engage with the piece at close range, thus becoming part of Hobbes' social contract theory dialogue. Whether ascending or descending the stair, Critical Mass also becomes a highly associative piece, shape-shifting within our gaze. Viewed from the edge, the piece is reminiscent of a sea of small, undulating magic

carpets. From above it appears to be a flight of swallows, from below a kaleidoscope of butterflies. No matter from what vantage point, one becomes a player in the ever-proliferating collective.

Kjellberg's painstaking process to create Critical Mass is worth reiterating. Its genesis lies in her discovery of an original edition of Leviathan in the rare books collection at Uppsala University in Uppsala Sweden. The artist then photographed pages of its text from which she made screen prints. These were then printed with black underglaze on delicate sheets of tissue paper. These delicate sheets were subsequently transferred to the leather hard porcelain pages (measuring approximately 10 by 6 inches) and then high fired without glazing. No two pages are alike, as each was individually laid over a form to create a unique shape.

Equally labour intensive was the installation of Critical Mass. Kjellberg was in residence in Rochester, Minnesota, US for a week conducting research and preliminary oversight for the installation. In addition to stringing together the 1000-plus porcelain sheets, these long strands had to be attached to the soaring atrium ceiling. Strategising that at least one page might fall, Kjellberg created a surplus. And, indeed, more than one shattered on the floor.

Ultimately Critical Mass is an indeterminate environment that in its visual generosity beckons us to enter into Hobbes' notion of a social contract. It is as austerely gorgeous as it is conceptually provocative and one loses sight that the work is porcelain. Even with limited understanding of Hobbes, or Leviathan, the viewer surrenders to the compelling dynamics of the installation. With knowledge of its literary and political-philosophical foundation, the work becomes a cerebral tour de force. From the stair or adjacent balconies, one becomes witness of, if not participant in, this intellectually complex installation. With Critical Mass, Henny Linn Kjellberg has reinforced her reputation as an innovative artist by expanding the limits of the ceramics medium. In the process, she has proven herself a formidable thinker and critical force in the area of installation art.

Mason Riddle is a Saint Paul-based (US) critic and writer on the arts, architecture and design who once threw pots and made slab-built sculpture. She is a former director of the Minnesota Percent for Art in Public Places program and former Interim Director of The Goldstein Museum of Design.

The exhibition was held from June 2013 through September, 2014, Rochester Art Center, Rochester, Minnesota, US (



A Review by Mason Riddle
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Author:Riddle, Mason
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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