Ceramic wastes

Interview with Bertozzi and Casoni

Tiziana Casapietra and Roberto Costantino

Tiziana Casapietra: I have always heard you say that ceramics “disgusts” you and yet this is the only material you use and with a scientist’s expertise. How do you deal with such a conflictive situation?
Stefano Casoni: I have a gut loathing for the entire world of ceramics, for the techniques and for ceramics as a material. We studied at an Art Institute that in fact specialised in ceramics. Thus, such a material is part of our training. This loathing is a contradiction that we have learned to live with and that also helps us to continue our experimentation. A kind of contradiction that leads more toward determination rather than escape.

TC: To me it seems as if your revulsion focuses more on the world of ceramics rather than on the material itself.
SC: This material exerts a great attraction on us, and a very strong repulsion, because it’s very difficult to deal and get involved with. But it’s also true that we often ran away from the same ceramic environment, preferring to work with design or to come in contact with other languages.

Roberto Costantino: Ceramics can do without contemporary art. But if you don’t want to be involved with contemporary art, what would happen to your ceramics?
Paolo Bertozzi: We have always been focused on the idea of ceramics. For what concerns contemporary art, the problem involving materials has been completely resolved. In fact, I believe that today contemporary art has learned how to coexist with all materials. 

RC: Probably the fact that contemporary art has become receptive to a myriad of materials has also given you the freedom to use a medium that is not so often utilised.
PB: Perhaps the times have become more mature in this direction. Today, there are many important artists who work and get involved with artisan techniques. 

TC: At the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art many artists are invited to work with ceramics for the first time. Instead, you are both contemporary artists and great ceramic technicians. One of your works, a masterpiece of technical knowledge, was exhibited at the I Biennale along with, for example, the very simple plaques by Rainer Ganahl. 
PB: An artist who considers ceramics without being restrained by technical skills starting from totally different assumptions can develop a myriad of important innovative ideas in the same ceramic world. However, I believe that good knowledge of materials along with the same in-depth knowledge of contemporary art can produce a mix that’s even more interesting. 
SC: We must not forget that technique is a language. Language is learned by speaking it every day; in this way it is refined, and sensitivity is filtered through the fineness of language. We must not forget that we as the artists involved with visual arts say things through the objects that can be seen. 

RC: You present yourselves as artists who use ceramics and at the same as a company that is dedicated to art. In this way, it becomes possible to recover a tradition that today has practically disappeared but that is part of a certain trend found within the history of contemporary art. I’m referring to the experience of the “Factory,” even if others were usually made to do the work there. So, what does it mean to be a company today in the world of contemporary art, and moreover a company that adopts a single means and a single language? 
SC: We come from a production-oriented culture that has a relationship with material; from an environment that has always operated “as a team.” It’s sort of the history of the art workshop, of the work of art, of the industry of art. We know how this industry of art ended up, the transition from craftsman production to industrial production. But, when we began to work together, we felt above all the need to emerge from the stagnation of an environment in which art had lost the object in the name of the idea. To break out of this situation of introspective stagnation we had to dialogue and to experiment. Experimenting also means giving up your subjectivity by listening to others. The “Factory” is an extraordinary example to this regard. What does Warhol do with the “Factory”? He gets rid of all his subjectivity. When he asks the first girl that passes by: “excuse me, what colour would you make this flower?”, he is doing something very intelligent and very up-to-date. And this is what happens in general within a company.

RC: If you had not been set up as a company, would you still be artists?
PB: If I didn’t work with Casoni in a company, I would still be an artist. 
SC: Instead, by myself I’m not interested one bit in doing nothing. Twenty years ago, a big incentive was getting a loan to build the laboratory. When you have a very big problem you have to solve it in some way. To solve it we had the ability to know how to make ceramics. At that time I only saw things I didn’t like and I wanted to try to do things that more closely matched my sensitivity. 
PB: The fact of being able to get a shed, of having a laboratory and debts, gave me that framework of artistic work that I was looking for. 

RC: What does it mean for artists-ceramists to make ceramic works that don’t seem to be that, that don’t seem to be made of ceramics. I’m thinking for example of your remade, and your Brillo boxes.
SC: But we don’t do hyperrealism. We never did it. 
PB: Already in the past, each ceramic production, each technique, each style, each ceramic effect, was always the result of some cultural conditioning. Such ceramics is so changeable and adaptable. It adjusts to cultures and to techniques, sometimes producing opposite results, but it’s always the result of cultural conditioning. In the same way when we make a Brillo box or fake cardboards, what are we doing? We indeed do not reproduce a cardboard. Better still, we say cardboard with the words of a new language, that of ceramic material. It’s the desire of expressing oneself through a language that utilises clay, silica and oxides. This is why I feel that I’m within the tradition of the historical naturalism. 

RC: I’m surprised at how much you continue to affirm the importance of technique over anything else. And yet there is a certain type of ceramics that has been able to become part of contemporary art while “biting the hand that feeds it.” I’m referring to those artists who have been involved with ceramics using shards, leftovers, recycled materials; to all the ceramics that came from the great period of the Fifties, that created formless works; but also to Jorn who modelled ceramics while riding a Lambretta motorcycle, with help from his dog. It’s the image of an art that’s able to make incredible ceramics, but without ever paying much attention to technique.
You are interacting with a Biennial that has already been involved with this tradition or better yet this anti-tradition. Where do you stand with regard to this history of ceramics that has become part of contemporary art in this manner? 
PB: These artists used ceramics because they considered such a material to be the right medium for experimentation. A very free way of dealing with material. But I believe it’s the same thing that we’re doing right now. 
SC: The experiences you’re talking about arose from the desire for experimentation. At that time it was necessary to break the plates of a tradition in order to shout about new things.
PB: I believe this mainly involves a concept of freedom. Freedom creates a sense of reverence toward this material that must be perfectly fired and dried and made into a shape created in a certain way, etc. These are the famous restrictions that in some way create that cage for you. Gradually, we’ve been able to liberate ourselves of them.
SC: In our work we also included everything that was “horrible” and “ugly” about ceramics, like photoceramics, that’s usually used for funeral images. It’s like getting down the real nitty-gritty at the beginning, without the typical prejudices of the world of ceramics. In any event, it’s the opposite way of working compared to the artists who you were talking about and who entered the world of ceramics from the outside. Even though we act from within the world of ceramics and with knowledge about techniques, we also act with the intent of breaking away and, in the end, the things produced acquired the charm that ceramics had lost. 

RC: Usually, we reason by dividing the fields of action, distinguishing the company from the artist, and the ceramist from the artist. Instead, you have been able to create this coincidence of roles. Let’s go back in time, to the year in which you were doing the work of others. What does it mean, for people like you, who are ceramists, artists and entrepreneurs all at the same time, to create another artist’s work, which is the thing that perhaps you also came from?
SC: I don’t see any difference. We have always wanted to be very open-minded in our way of operating, which comes from giving ourselves operative freedom. I’ll give you an example involving the production of projects by Mendini, such as his Poltrona di Proust in ceramics. Together with Mendini, we have always considered the value of this object as something that could be reversed on any specific occasion. Mendini signed it on the front as a classic work of art and we signed it on the back like a cheque, thus imitating the economic and aesthetic operation of endorsing a cheque. Appropriating it at the same time, but also making it possible for anyone else who owned it to sign it and use it. So, what we did was never in reality a reproduction of an object of another artist. But it was always a way to take possession of it, to share it, and abandon it to its destiny. Just like now, very freely, we reconstruct Manzoni’s little box of shit. We now work with the idea that waste is a material that can be used to make a work of art. We also freely use art wastes and we integrate them together with the other objects in constructing our work.

Text published in the catalogue of the 3rd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2006.