Ceramist Jacob van der Beugel is known for his pottery that shows all too clearly (as Crafts notes) his debt to his two mentors, Rupert Spira and Edmund de Waal. Based on this evidence one would not have expected him to have produced one of the most original and powerful relief sculptures to cross this desk in months. He emerges as a major sculptor and one awaits the pursuit of this aspect of his career with anticipation.
Below is excerpt of an article on van der Beugel published in the last issue of Crafts. It discusses the artists’ bold new take on the concept of a family portrait: rendering the DNA sequences of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in ceramic.
“There’s something extraordinary happening at Chatsworth. In the 20-metre long North Sketch Gallery, columns of DNA are appearing, protruding from the wall. It’s a family portrait, but like none you’ve seen before.
“It is the work of ceramist Jacob van der Beugel. A room clad entirely in ceramic panels which detail, among other things, the DNA sequences of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and their family. On the day we meet, he’s at the end of the first installation period, having completed the main sections with the trickier borders to be tackled in the New Year. As we chat he’s engaged, and talks with the spark of someone who’s still very much on the inside of a consuming project. He’s also very, very tired. In March, when the permanent installation is completed, van der Beugel will be at the end of a four-year journey, the last two focused on making 659 panels to cover all four walls of the gallery.
“It’s his largest and most complex piece of work to date – but when the idea of a ceramic installation was first mooted at Chatsworth, the original plan was to commission a series of chimneypiece works. The Duke approached consultant and curator Joanna Bird to get her thoughts on who the Chatsworth House Trust should consider. Bird created a shortlist of six artists, van der Beugel being the youngest and least experienced in large installations. After much discussion, the Duke and Duchess asked the ceramist to present his own vision; no longer a chimneypiece installation but whatever he felt compelled to create. ‘He came back and was so inspiring, so convincing,’ says the Duke, that they took a leap of faith, commissioning an entire ceramic room.
“The permanent installation is made from repeating, regimented – yet hand-made – ceramic panels. On one wall, the tiles are punctuated with columns of small inserts, while the opposite wall is covered in mirrors, each one given a ceramic frame. The border sections will soon be hidden, but as we are here mid-installation we can glimpse the underneath, the darkness that creates those crucial shadow gaps.
“The inserts represent the revised Cambridge Reference Sequence for human mitochondrial DNA, with flush or sunken inserts marking where the personal DNA of the Duke, Duchess, their son Lord Burlington and his wife, differs from this sequence. If the placements of the blocks are precise, their form isn’t. They have been cut, scored and then torn by hand to create an organic surface, a rock face in miniature. ‘These little inserts embody what the piece is about,’ explains van der Beugel. ‘Which is the rationalising that science can do, rather than the reality of what it is to be a person. It loses so much in that process so it’s about putting those two things together, to speak about humanity. If you imagine the rough texture to be someone’s landscape, someone’s history.’
“The walls of Chatsworth are heavy with paintings of ancestors, the distillation of identity into image and symbol. Here we find a contemporary interpretation of that tradition. Within the mass of DNA datapoints there are other, personal references to be enjoyed. The beady-eyed may notice that some of the inserts are transparently glazed, and they pick up the light that floods through the large windows. These glazed points add another layer of meaning. There is the outline of the Duke’s favourite walk around the house’s gardens: ‘The idea of walking through your own DNA landscape I thought was a lovely metaphor,’ says the ceramist. A pattern of notation from the Duchess’s favourite piece of music is also used (a John Rutter composition, for the curious).
“Van der Beugel’s installation is a conversation between structure and chance both in terms of its subject and the process of making it. The coding of DNA is juxtaposed with more human characteristics, such as this favourite piece of music – and then there’s the panels, so precise and defined and yet each one perforated with moments of dynamism, unmediated tears and rips. The moment of letting go is essential within all the planning and measuring that van der Beugel was tasked with: ‘That’s really important. Otherwise things become so restricted. It’s nice to have something you can have no control over.’
“Although this is van der Beugel’s most ambitious work so far, those already acquainted with his work will recognise his hand. Over the last ten years, he’s created arrangements of thrown vessels that trace such abstract subjects as the FTSE 100 index, his time as apprentice to Rupert Spira and assistant to Edmund de Waal plainly visible.Over this same decade, the Duke has been developing his interest in contemporary craft. ‘The line between craft and contemporary art is getting more merged,’ he explains to me. ‘Furniture has limited editions and artists’ proofs. Everything is more blurred, so what that means now is you have PAD as well as Frieze. I think the most important thing of the year is COLLECT, where I see things and people and find out what’s happening – that’s really important for me.’
“So what are the Duke’s thoughts about his own family’s DNA being integrated into the fabric of Chatsworth? For him, it isn’t about connecting the family to the house, but instead another opportunity to connect visitors to it. ‘It used to be the family that was important at Chatsworth, but now it’s the house, the garden and the park. Because it used to be for the people who owned it, and was lived in for two or three months a year, but now it’s a place for a lot of people to come for quiet enjoyment. For intellectual stimulation. That’s Chatsworth’s contribution now. It’s a place that people can get all sorts of different pleasures from, at different levels.’ Reflecting this, the central section of van der Beugel’s installation includes small pieces of mirror in some of the spaces, allowing the visitor to become part of the contemporary portrait.
“Having watched the project from start to finish, the Duke is looking forward to the result, and there is no denying his support for it: ‘Our luck is that Jacob should’ve chosen us to have done this here. It was a gamble for him, and he’s given us three years of his life. He’s done something that is extraordinary, right from the genesis in his mind. He has stuck to it, adapted it and expanded it.’”
Above image: The North Sketch Sequence opened on March 16 at Chatsworth House, Bakewell, Derbyshire.
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