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Planes meeting: con-figurations by Hanna Back.


HANNA BACK IS WELL KNOWN FOR HER POTTERY, less well for her architectural forms concerned with basic configurations as a lived and living experience which also, curiously, serve as urns. Architectural structures and gardens depicted on tiles tend to elicit Southern images countering the North in which Back now lives and works. She grew up in a land in-between, as it were, in Germany which after the war did not have a coherent aesthetic (or moral) sense following the ravages which destroyed the self-image of a nation that had prided itself on its superior Geist, superior culture. Back worked as a metallurgist with the foremost German research institute sponsored by the Max Planck Society.


Back was fascinated by the visual aspects of microscopic images but was drawn to render them into forms, entered art school and chose pottery. After completing her training, she moved to Canada and made a new beginning. She acquired a wood lot in the country and built a workshop which already showed some of the forms she would later use in her work. She created a garden which expresses that life can be transformed from a state of nature which is nasty, brutish and short into one which, still short and often brutish and nasty, can also be a Garden of Earthly Delights.

The pieces she refers to as Planes Meeting, represent a return to basics in a deconstructive mode. Points have no dimensions; lines which connect points are literally one-dimensional, point to no/where rather than to a now/here. Adding another dimension results in planes which are two-dimensional but have no objective existence. Objects are configured by matter, are three-dimensional, assert themselves in space. But materials, in and by themselves, have no form, call for hands to inform them. Clay is one of the most malleable materials, has long been associated with pots as a primary phenomenon of humans able to turn the raw into the cooked, an essential difference between nature and culture. And pots, as far as we can trace them, have been formed into shapes we still admire, were bestowed with ornaments, with drawings and paintings throughout the ages. Clay, in the form of tablets, the kind of slabs Hanna Back starts with, has also been one of the earliest materials used for the inscription of signs ranging from accounts of business transactions, of what is owed and what is owned, to accounts of deeds to assure the continuation of the memory of a people, to inform subsequent generations.

The configurations which Back calls Planes Meeting are indeed what this says. She starts with rolling out a slab of clay forming a rectangular plane which as yet makes no claims. The transformation begins by being confronted with another slab of clay, another plane, creating a tension between one-another, forming spaces between and around them. They amount to configurations which are, and are not, a whole, defined by tensions and resolutions. The planes merge and diverge, evoke strong sensations in the viewer, reflected by titles such as Dancer and Longing. One title, Wave, was supplied spontaneously by a viewer for whom it recalled a wave of the Tsunami which had recently occurred.

Another, Angel, expresses the relation between immanence and transcendence which many pieces evoke. A tension arises between of stillness of the pieces and their powerful impressions of movement. This is an old contradiction examined by Lessing in Laokon, and indeed it can look silly if on repeated looking a piece does not change. Movement in these pieces emerges from the changing position of the viewer. The configuration of a piece moves with the changing angle of vision in an harmonious way which indeed suggests movements such as dancing. They can also evoke disharmonies as in Scream where movement transcends the piece as is the case when it suggests the threat of a wave.

As suggestive as those pieces are, they avoid any recourse to mimesis, the kind of deception already condemned by Plato. They gain their configuration and meaning from the viewer. Some of them show a unity of the planes expressed in titles such as Monk, a unity of utmost simplicity constituting a form that rests in itself and yet evokes a sense of mediation and meditation, points beyond, transcends the immanent. One is reminded of Wittgenstein's expression "whereof one cannot speak, around that one must create silence". Pieces such as Angel and Archangel arouse complex emotions, depending on the angle of viewing. They express, in Rilke's words, a "beauty which is nothing but the beginning of terror". The Archangel may well stand at the gates of paradise denying humans entry, a desire they never lost.

Another configuration (the word 'figure' won't do) is entitled Guardian, a sign for something one senses but cannot grasp. This also emerges from viewing Longing in which the tension between the two planes is resolved in the spaces they create beyond them. Looking at Unfolding, this sense is reinforced by the use of black and white which unites and yet separates the planes.

The prime fascination of this work is the apparent simplicity of forms which seem to be non-representational but define themselves in the process of viewing, elicit more and more complex associations. Without the work of the viewer, they exist but have no being. One is astonished again and again by the variability of the relations between the two planes which define every piece, an astonishment which increases if one views a number of them.

The process of firing adds its own unpredictable variations. Back says that she has to judge each piece anew after every firing whether the changes that occurred add to or subtract from the work. Some pieces have to be abandoned; in some cases, judgement has to be deferred. Once fired, clay, unlike other materials, can scarcely be modified. It is a venture in which the work asserts itself from beginning to end. And every clay has different propensities and capacities. The outcome can never be fully predicted. By the same token, this gives the work a special dimension which defies sameness and repetition, a problem of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction as argued by Walter Benjamin. Finally it ought to be said that the pieces which are no larger than 50 x 50 cm convey a sense of monumentality, can be envisaged as monuments.


Article by Johannes Mohr

Johannes Mohr is Professor Emeritus of York University, Canada.
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Author:Mohr, Johannes
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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