The Wonderful World of Veera Kulju
The essential thing about Veera Kulju’s ceramics and porcelain sculptures is how light is reflected off their surface and what the selected material looks in any given lighting. Light reflecting from a white or a black surface looks quite different; the black seems almost minimalistic compared to the white surface. The unglazed black clay absorbs light and appears gloomy. An artwork glazed all black is like a mirror, with a deep darkness that can yield one’s own reflection.
Kulju is a skilful merger of clay and glazes. Combining the original clay material with a glaze of different colour produces archaic-looking surfaces. How beautifully the red clay glows from underneath white glaze, giving warmth to the entire sculpture! And what an icy mood is created by a surface tinged by a touch of silver.
Veera Kulju’s previous exhibition in Gallery Halmetoja (Noir, 2020) was comprised of all black artworks. The exhibition delved into the world of masks, dressing rooms and sprawling gardens. Elsewhere, we sank to the ocean floor and paused to marvel at shapes that were more connected to the international tradition of contemporary sculpture, from Richard Deacon to Annette Messager, than Finnish Modernism.
This new exhibition is two-pronged, in black and white. However, its idiom falls into continuum with the previous series of exhibited works. Kulju sculpts the small details by hand, for example pressing the leaves against her palm as she sculpts them. This way, the artworks simultaneously hold the touch of their creator, the concrete handprint and the viewer’s desire to touch.
Kulju grows small, no bigger than hand-sized, elements into large artworks that aim for a forest-like atmosphere. Miniature sculptures woven in a thread seem to be repeating a pattern but, in reality, each of them is different, and there is no regular rhythm. The organically growing shapes function like a mobile, bringing lightness and airiness into the exhibition space. The breeze slowly moves the sculpture.
Kulju’s artworks have nothing industrial and mechanical about them, but centre stage is given to handicraft with the slowness and fragility it implies, as well as the possibility for human error. There are no visible balancing lines in the sculptures. Free association meets the richness of baroque and the energized composition of contemporary sculpture. In the reliefs, balance is born out of necessity due to the form restricted by the wall, but nevertheless, the surface is baroquely rich, opening vibrantly towards the viewer. Ceramics as a material is heavily present, although its boundaries are being tested. It can be said of Kulju’s works that while looking at their artistic form, one cannot forget the element of handicraft skills. Skill is part of the attraction of the artworks, although they have also been added a property that helps separate idiom from the physical labour its creation demands. That element is time.
The viewer has an opportunity to see quickly, immediately, and for a brief time. For the viewer, the artworks are finished, they become timeless. For the artist, the pieces always hold the time taken by manual labour. Nothing can be done quickly: The drying of the material cannot be too fast or slow, and as the form is finally finished, the firing is a process of anxious waiting. The firing gives the form its own finishing touch, which may be heavy-handed.
This difference between the artist’s and the audience’s sense of time creates a hidden tension in the artworks, typical for many handicraft-based methods of contemporary art. Kulju succeeds in utilizing this tension by leaving the material-based conventions of handicraft and design behind her and taking new steps forward. Consequently, her artworks may linger at the back of viewers’ minds for decades and then surface by accident. In so doing, they take back from the viewer the time the artist has spent on them. This is possible, because Veera Kulju’s artworks are so formally challenging, even a little strange and scary. You won’t forget them.