The Magician’s Tentacles
Trude Westby Nordmark’s ceramic works and Ernst Haeckel’s marine ecology
Solveig Lønmo, September 2019
Translated by Arlyne Moi
In September 1869 - exactly 150 years ago - the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel observed a tiny, spherical, multicellular organism in water samples he had collected off the coast of the island of Gisøy in Norway. He had been collecting sponges for his research, but the discovery of what he called the ‘magician’s ball’ (Magosphaera planula) eventually played a key role in his evolutionary theory. The organism, he claimed, alternated between breaking up into separate cells, amoeba, and reuniting again. Haeckel never observed the magic ball with the complex life cycle more than that one time, and nor was it ever observed by anyone else.
Marine life is fantastic and diverse, and many aquatic organisms are still completely unknown to us. Haeckel, who was also a philosopher and an artist, was fascinated by the symmetrical and ornamental appearance of forms in nature, both large and microscopic. Structures and patterns found in everything from bats to corals seem to have been created by a brilliant artist. In his research-based lithographic publication Art Forms in Nature (1899), Haeckel drew, among other creatures, amazing jellyfish. The pictures of these Discomedusae show tentacles in an ordered chaos, intertwined and waving in accordance with the animal’s movements. The drawn bells of soft jellyfish appear as complex mandalas, as amazing ornaments; they are not designed by Haeckel, but are presented for us to marvel over.
We face just such a universe- organic, wavy, aquatic - when encountering Trude Westby Nordmark’s ceramics. Some of her recent works have an aroma of sea spray; she has gathered and dried seaweed and surrounds her ceramic installations with it. The seaweed’s matt surface harmonises with unglazed clay, or stands in contrast to her glazes - brightly coloured, crystalized, metallic, dripping, succulent. Ceramic sculptures literally grow out from the seaweed bed like towers of tentacles or chorales. The ceramic shapes are organic, but with a will towards a direction, just as with the tentacles of swimming jellyfish.
Ceramic tentacles or interlinking rings recur in many of Westby Nordmark’s sculptures, in fact, ever since she completed her master’s degree in 1995. The linkages have a compositional purpose and a clear direction and dynamic quality. Even though the ceramic sculptures are non-kinetic, it seems like they were fluid and moving towards something before being fired. The glazes envelope the forms like kiln-fixed moments. At the same time, the forms seem to live autonomously, unseen by people and their scientific instruments. The habitat for such forms is perhaps on the ocean floor, or in another sphere that neither the artist nor others of her species can control.
Human exploitation of nature’s resources leads to minor and major changes in the ocean’s complex ecosystems. Increased precipitation transports particles, via rivers, to the sea. Water temperatures rise, and this affects the conditions for plankton and its crucial photosynthesis; plankton is the basis for marine biological production. One of Haeckel’s main ideas was that all forms of life are related and influence each other. Three years before he visited the Norwegian coast, he was the first to use the term ‘ecology’.
Nature’s interactions and symbioses are intricately demonstrated by parasites - organisms that live on or inside other organisms and gain nutrients from them. Parasites exploit resources others provide. Our own species should feel implicated. The word ‘parasite’, however, stems from the Greek parasitos, meaning ‘one who eats at another’s table’ - like a guest - and there are many examples of situations in which close proximity between species is mutually beneficial. An example from marine life is the relationship between sea anemones and clownfish. The fish live amongst, and are protected by, the anemones’ tentacles, and the anemones gain nutrients from the faecal matter of the fish. Other types of sea anemones live on the surface of shells inhabited by hermit crabs. In addition to providing nutrients and protection for each other, the parasitic anemones gain mobility. The crabs, meanwhile, live in old snail shells that have become too small for the snails who made them. These marine communities are truly hospitable.
Westby Nordmark’s installation Snyltere (Parasites), from 2019, consists of small ceramic objects with organic shapes that put us in mind of molluscs. Hundreds of them have taken over a wall, almost like mushrooms or polyps, perhaps propagating like the link-limbs in her amorphous sculptures. The parasite forms are irregular and unique, but when seeing hundreds of them together, we realize they clearly belong to the same species. Seen together, the small objects seem to coalesce into one large ornament, like a zoomed-in segment of the nature that fascinated Haeckel. Westby Nordmark allows experimentation in the studio to enter the art gallery; the parasites are bold and successfully impressionistic. Like a magician’s unintentional discovery. And they take over the wall, sponge off the air. They are the cells in our bodies, they are you and me.
The artist has also previously let swarms of organic beings occupy and take control of art spaces. Swirling and hectic as insects (the installation Ca. 365, 2002), or slowly wasting away like soft mollusc bodies (Trophy, 1997), she has allowed the clay bodies to appear invasive and alarming - perhaps humans will not be the ultimate survivors after all. Her creatures are strange and charming when seen individually, but as a group, they appear almost threatening.
In the series Organ (2018), she retains potential energy in compact forms. The works seem to pulsate, to expand and contract. They are beautiful, grotesque and speak almost bodily to the viewer. They might suggest budding life, rainforest lungs or as-yet undiscovered organisms on the ocean floor, entangled inside pumping coral-coloured blood veins. It is as if the forms open up but then close again, in metamorphoses biologists cannot quite explain - because the phenomenon is observed only once…
In 1895 Haeckel formulated what he called the ‘World Riddle’ (Weltratsel), which concerns the very meaning of life. What is the nature of the universe and what is the nature of human thought? This is a double question, but there is only one answer, because human beings and the universe belong to a single physical system, which Haeckel called the ‘mono-system’. If we fully understand the connections between energy and matter, we will also know exactly what a feeling or a wish consists of. But like a magician, Haeckel does not give us the answer.
Trude Westby Nordmark orchestrates the clay matter and imbues her forms with energy. With her own invisible tentacles, she draws us as viewers into the tangled structures. There we leave all our wishes for the future, in the hope that they will be encapsulated and sealed in a vitally important organ. There they can live until our aesthetic development has reached the same level as our technological development, and we move one step closer to solving the riddle.