Daniel Kruger. On Camp Ceramics and Other Diversions

Published: 25.05.2017
Ernst van der Wal Ernst van der Wal
Ernst van der Wal
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Daniel Kruger, Platter, from the Dinner Service Athletes, 1992..
Daniel Kruger, Platter, from the Dinner Service Athletes, 1992.

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The present article by Ernst van der Wal is one of the texts at the book Daniel Kruger: On Camp Ceramics and Other Diversions. Ceramic 1984-2005.

The erogenous and sensual images of men that graze his work speak of an endeavour to accentuate the decorative and delightful characteristics of the male figure.

As a non-metallic solid that is heated at high temperatures to fix it to a given form (to make it durable and lasting), ceramics as a practice, tradition and symbol speaks of a human investment in an object that can possibly outlast its human maker and even generations of subsequent owners. While ceramic might be incredibly fragile and brittle, the very delicateness of the medium also lends itself, to a large degree, to its beguiling and treasurable nature. For to own, or even just to handle, a piece of ceramic demands a concerted effort to make it last, to safeguard it from idle or clumsy hands. Hence, ceramics has become cemented in the human mind as something that echoes the cultural values and personal endeavours of a given time – it reflects a desire to see something even more fragile than our own lives and bodies accompany us, give us pleasure and, if fate would have it, outlive us.
For this reason, ceramics is strongly invested, albeit as a traditional craft, in the idea of holding form, avoiding cracks and fissures and staying put. While this idea has been challenged by contemporary practitioners and artists (consider Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei famously dropping a priceless Ming vase in a series of photographic portraits, with the last frame capturing the vase transformed into an eruption of shards), our everyday engagement with the medium always skirts the edges of what the ceramic object can withstand. Great effort might be taken in preserving an invaluable piece of porcelain, yet popular culture has also inundated our visual landscape with images of the pleasure that arises when the solidity of the medium is tested or thwarted. For all the seriousness – the skill and sincerity – that might pervade the ceramic medium, we love it equally for the humour and fallibility that comes with it; for its ability to hold itself together but also to let go.

Daniel Kruger, Tulip Vase, 1995. Clay, tin glaze, inglaze painting. Private Collection, The Netherlands.

It is exactly these attributes that are echoed in Daniel Kruger’s approach to the medium, for he seems to be intimately aware of the varying, and sometimes conflicting, qualities that pervade ceramics. If anything, he seems to revel in its symbolic slipperiness, in its simultaneous evocations of solidity and fluidity. Here, the term ‘camp’ seems quite apt for, as Kruger himself acknowledges, these pieces speak of a certain stylistic and conceptual quality that lends itself specifically to such a term. Susan Sontag’s seminal essay ‘Notes on “Camp”’, first published in 1965, provides an important backdrop when approaching this term and its manifestation in the visual arts. The most salient characteristic of camp that Sontag identifies is its ambivalence, its fluctuation between irony and sincerity, and its ability to underscore, through stylistic and aesthetic codes, the artifice of modern society and its products. As Sontag maintains (1965), camp ‘sees everything in quotation marks’ as it is ‘alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken’. For Sontag, camp is ultimately a mode of seduction – a way of treating objects, identities and ideas in such a way (through exaggeration, extravagance or artifice) that their sense of the serious is suspended. 
According to such a perspective, camp is a means of translating surface into depth, and vice versa. As Ann Pellegrini notes in ‘After Sontag: Future Notes on Camp’ (2007, p. 170), camp has a ‘sideways relation to reality’ as it plays with the relationship between the represented and the real, the superficial and the profound. It is ultimately a transformative device that allows for forms of interplay to reign (be it between form and function, style and concept) and clear-cut categories to lose their sense of priority. 
It is exactly this transformative play that is central to Kruger’s ceramic works. On a formal level his work demonstrates the ‘sideways’ approach of camp by testing the boundaries and decorum of the ceramic medium. Quite often, the surfaces of the works that he creates seem to erupt, either in image, form or texture, thus destabilising the smooth contours of the vases, tureens and plates that he uses as bases for many of his creations. Such moments of pleasure are also evident in the painted surfaces of some of his work. Fluctuating between the kitsch and the homoerotic, the commemorative and the banal, the imagery that graces the surfaces of his work plays a definitive role in his own interpretation of and homage to camp. While some of the images are more overt in their homoerotic undertone, others are perhaps more sly (like those taken from press photographs of embracing athletes and football players, for example).

Daniel Kruger, Platter, 1997. Porcelain, image transfer, onglaze painting. 35.5 x 35.5 cm. Collection of the Artist.

Here, camp’s ability to reinvent playfully is drawn to the fore – its capacity for taking that which, at first glance, seems ‘innocent’ and then presenting it in such a way that the sexual, political or historical undercurrents of a given reference is made visible. In his blue-and-white majolica plates, the intricately painted surfaces offer spaces of obvious delight – they are meticulously painted and carefully crafted and pay tribute to a tradition of craftsmanship that forms the basis of the ceramic medium. But these are also more than just decorative ornamentations, as the rendered and charged surfaces intimate – these are visual spaces where the aesthetic intersects with the sexual and the erotic. In this regard, the tension between surface and depth is maintained (and tested) on both a formal and conceptual level.

Daniel Kruger, Platter, 1999. Clay, tin glaze, inglaze paintuing. 33 x 33 cm. Collection of the Artist.

For Kruger, the camp qualities of the homoerotic are crucial for maintaining this tension. The erogenous and sensual images of men that graze his work speak of an endeavour to accentuate the decorative and delightful characteristics of the male figure. Such visual pleasures also abound in his other pieces where the phallus is a shape that recurs throughout, be it in the form of bananas, pinecones or aeroplanes. Here, the homoerotic tendency of camp is an undeniable force (or thrust, rather) that is at once light-hearted, serious and poignant. His work pleases while it provokes, and it rouses the eye to look and look again.

Daniel Kruger, Tureen, 1999. Clay, glaze. 25.5 x 33.5 x 24 cm. Stedelijk Museum 's-Hertogenbosch

About the author

Ernst van der Wal (PhD) is a senior lecturer in Visual Studies at Stellenbosch University (South Africa), where his teaching and research expertise is geared towards interdisciplinary forms of visual, auditory and historical recollection and curatorship.  Speaking to both academic and grassroots environments, his work is specifically concerned with how outsider subjectivities function in the current South African context – that is, how they are visualised, conceptualised and lived.

His doctoral research and current writing projects are focused on the manner in which the photographic archives of trans subjects function as sites of intersubjective recollection and impacts on contemporary understandings of, inter alia, gender identity.  This research suggests ways of identifying and understanding those discursive and visual practices that human subjects who find themselves at odds with hetero- and cisnormative conventions use to negotiate a sense of self. In all, such projects address the radical erasure of local queer histories within South Africa, and seek ways to conceptualise such histories in relation to a larger global context – a subject van der Wal has published on widely.