Aims and goals of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art

Roberto Costantino

An immediate characteristic is apparent when contextualising this 2nd edition of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art within a broad frame embracing the usual international expositions. Frequently, curatorial projects take shape through the juxtapositioning of pre-existing works and aim at a spectacular consumption of the exhibition. This Biennale is instead founded on original production. Even though at the present time there is no visible exhibition, the Biennale is actually in progress in the form of workshops.
The preliminary features of the Biennale include the hospitality offered to the international artists and their cooperation with local manufacturers and schools, an initiative designed to reinforce young peoples’ sense of belonging to an authentic local culture in an era of “coca-colonization.” The exposition, the customary form of Biennale consumption, will be the result of multiple experiences and a temporary conclusion ahead of the third edition.
The reality of labour and the places in which it is performed in relation to art is one of the strands running through this Biennale and in fact represents its concrete link with two local communities, Albisola and Vado. During the course of the twentieth century, the artistic avant-garde encountered Albisola through its majolica factories. A situation that was similar in certain ways was also to be found in Vado Ligure, the factory town where Arturo Martini was able to create his terracotta works thanks to the collaboration of the fireclay workers and manufacturers. Places that were functional by definition were thus able to contribute to the creation of non-functional works, artist ceramics or terracotta pieces that expressed liberation from the demands of function.
The sponsoring of the Biennale by the “A. De Mari” Foundation Cassa di Risparmio di Savona, the towns of Savona, Vado Ligure and the Albisolas allows us to highlight the convergence of two trends sharing the same objective: a critique of the material conditions of existence as articulated by art in the ‘50s, the heroic season of this district. In Albisola, Asger Jorn assumed the role of spokesman for that radical criticism of art bartered in the form of goods that is founded on a generalised critique of a society founded on labour conducted by the Situationist International (leaving aside the watered down interpretations, Jorn represents one of the most radical adversaries of modern art and its dominant values). In Vado, instead, in the wake of Arturo Martini, the hegemony of the working class and its values was to lead to the constitution of the Vado Prize devoted to the world of labour (a prize which this edition of the Biennale intends to revive and dedicate to Arturo Martini). The Vado Prize was the fruit of another strand of opponents to modern art that originated from the editorials published in Rinascita by Roderigo de Castiglia, alias Palmiro Togliatti who refuted avant-garde art as a bourgeois phenomenon far removed from the masses.
A significant part of this Biennale is devoted to an examination of the work of Arturo Martini in Vado and Asger Jorn in Abisola. In fact there will be an exhibition of Martini’s small-scale ceramics at Villa Groppallo, Vado Ligure and a series of studies, most of them previously unpublished, regarding Jorn’s house at Brucciati, a remarkable example of architecture composed of the residues of the productive cycle. To date only one such study has appeared, a text by Guy Debord written in Albisola in 1972 and published in a very rare art edition by Fratelli Pozzo of Turin (Italy).
Departing from these historical notions, the Biennale brings art back to the factories. As if in an attempt to oppose the dominant values, it diverts it to a place in which its very contemporaneity is questioned by the local ceramics tradition. The foundations of the Biennale consist of the cooperation between artist and craftsman. This relationship also facilitates the rejuvenation of the ceramics tradition, preventing it from falling into the trap of folklore. The tie between the artist and the factory and the “making of” the works of art in ceramics will be documented in the catalogue of the Biennale through the presentation of the projects submitted by the artists and the photographs recording the various phases in their realisation, all within the ambit of a valorization of design culture.
Associating the work of art with the world of labour is a no mean task: just think that the work that is usually regarded as having inaugurated modern art is the ready made of Marcel Duchamp. The first work of conceptual art, Duchamp’s urinal is a clear demonstration of how the reality of labour is far removed from the usual interpretations of contemporary art. Conducting art through ceramics instead allows us to take an opposing point of view, to see Duchamp’s urinal as a product of labour that has been appropriated by art, an object by chance is also made of ceramics.
The anchoring of art in the world of labour is the humus in which the Biennale is rooted, it is a history to be reinterpreted in relation to the present. However, this event is intended, above all, to be a knife plunged into the future, to use an expression coined by the sociologist Bauman. In order to come to terms with the future, the Biennale re-territorializes art; it leads art back to these places so as to redevelop their reality in a glocal reality of flux and cultural exchange.
As this Biennale appears to be based on the hijacking of identities and symbols, the concept of “détournement” developed by the members of the Situationist International may prove to be useful. The avant-garde’s entrance within the factory was a form of hijacking/détournement of the manufacturers. In the case of the Biennale, this détournement corresponds to the hijacking of the artists invited to test themselves against a material and a history foreign to them, ceramics having long been absent from the great international events. However, the project itself has been subjected to a form of détournement, through the constitution of a team of international curators who have led the Biennale in unexpected directions.
We start out aware of the rarity of ceramics on the international scene and of the alternative values it is capable of expressing. The objective is that of making of this artistic and entrepreneurial district a point of convergence between cultural and social capital, departing from the connection between culture and the synergy between territorial bodies and companies that is increasingly necessary in terms of the planning of the cultural, economic and social development of this area.
It would not be possible to stage a Biennale of this kind, an event of glocal proportions, without the present-day means of communication and the space-time compression offered by the Internet. Ceramics today is a patrimony rich in ethical and moral values, but this alone is not sufficient to support a Biennale. As Young Chul Lee says, we have terracotta and Internet. These are instruments with which we can thrust that knife into a future that does justice to both art and labour.

Excerpt from the Proceedings of the “Local ceramic traditions and globalisation of contemporary art” conference, 19/20 October 2002, Fortezza del Priamàr, Savona.

Conference proceedings Local ceramic traditions and the globalisation of contemporary art