“I would like to be a vase”

Giacinto Di Pietrantonio

The first question is: why a flower vase? Followed by: why have religious figures, anthropologists, ethnographers, philosophers, designers and artists all shown an interest in vases, and not just the craftsmen who actually make them...? And why, for example, does Alesandro Mendini write: “If I get to live another life... I want to be a vase. A vase is a receptacle for thoughts, designing a vase means creating a thought. A vase is made of earth and so are we. A vase is an ancestral object. It is made on a lathe, one of the oldest of all instruments. Its form derives from a flower and clasped hands. The vast array of vases characterising the history of vases is a metaphor for the history of mankind.”. As regards the aforementioned array of vases, in the early-1990s Mendini began a collective project to design ten thousand urn-vases to be decorated by one hundred contemporary artists as an idea for an aesthetic factory (made by Alessi) and “decorative man”, which is continued in the Albisola Biennial of Ceramics producing a vase created out of spheres which multiply as they interpenetrate - in the colours of gold, bronze and shiny black -, inspired by the way soap bubbles stick to each other, as proof of our fragility.
Further answers to the aforementioned questions can be found, for example, in the thoughts of the German philosopher Georg Simmel, who writes about the curve of a vase and defines a vase as being an open object and hence in continuity with the world, unlike a painting which forms a closed system. This means that a vase is, at the same time, both real and symbolic, empty and full. Vases create mythography, as we learn from Hesido’s Works and Days, which talks about Pandora’s Vase, the legendary container of all evils but which, in the end, also contains hope. So there are closed vases and open vases, like the one designed by Vedovamazzei with a flower cutting diagonally through it, because they see a vase as an object of love, a target for Cupid which, instead of being shot through by a narrow, is shot through by a flower - an object as a metaphor for life. Another receptacle is the goddess Fortune’s Cornucopia, a sort of vase which, instead of all evils, contains everything good in the world. These stories and other myths and legends, these and other uses tell us that vases are indeed containers, but containers of the world, since they are used in cases of life and death, like the uterus-vase which Gaston Bachelard talks about, placing it on the cusp between something digestive and something sexual, a container of nutritional liquid and the elixir of eternal youth. But then it can be used for exactly the opposite purpose as a funeral urn or canopic jar, without forgetting that vases are also found on graves containing foodstuffs, cosmetics and sacred objects, ready to be used by the deceased upon reawakening in a different life and in a different place. This means that vases, verging between the real and symbolic, the here-and-now and the afterlife, ought to be given all the care and attention mentioned above, as a key feature of civilisation.
For some time now Alberto Garutti has been working on an artistic project for people who literally are not there, a project visible only in the dark rooms of a museum when all the visitors have left: chairs, tables, paintings and, in this instance, vases light up because they are painted with a special phosphorescent paint. These are vases which Garutti has borrowed from local ceramic tradition - stylistic objects like jars, tulip-holders and vases decorated with masks, which he “updates” by turning them into ghosts using zinc silicate, that phosphorescent white only visible in the dark. Sacred vases.
Indeed every single culture owns and makes vases, which provide us with information about people and nations. This once again underlines how vases stand on the borderline between the real and symbolic, between form following function and form following communication. Simone Berti’s vases are strange machines, relics of modern-day industrial archaeology, as we can see in the four giant sculptures devoted to flower vases made of terracotta, aluminium sheets and marble dust. Berti’s sculpture-vases seem to belong to the future, when vases will be monuments to mechanical modernity made of tubes and bolts, when nature is overwhelmed by technology and flowers hang from a thread, the thread of life.
This constant creation of sculpture and art work points towards the fate of vases, which, if for example they were only be used just for holding a liquid or seeds, would merely require the vase-maker to shape clay into a concave-convex form; but in actual fact vase-makers have always felt the need to engrave or paint symbols on vases to convey something more, often even signing them - like, for example, Euphronius in the 6th century B.C. So from the very beginning vases proved to be a model of interaction between structure and superstructure, between everyday life and the symbolic world. The fact that vases are so special can be seen from the way they are almost always placed in the middle of the table or sideboard - in the case of flower vases - or on an altar; in other words, a vase is, by its very nature, an exhibitionist object, a distinctive feature of the home or any inhabited place in general, whether it be of an everyday place or ritual location.
In this respect Corrado Levi designs flowers inspired by Andy Warhol’s Flowers, which are indeed flower-shaped, as if to emphasise the concept of conformity of form and function. In this case, a sculpture has been dedicated to vases, which draws on the well-known Zen concept of being or having, in the sense that flowers should not be cut to put them in vases - to have them - but left to grow in the field - so that they can be.
A vase is a micro-world of nature, but for art it is also a transition point, a node for classical painting, as we can deduce from the fact that we talk about “Greek vascular painting” (the word “vascular” coming from “vase”), since it is mainly concerned with pictures and stories conveyed by vases. Interaction between the old and modern lies in this intermediary linking painting and nature and in the fact that various artists have painted flower vases turning them into icons, such as Caravaggio or Van Gogh, or making them an obsession as in the case of Giorgio Morandi, who painted vases with or without flowers for his entire life. Michelangelo Pistoletto pays tribute to this age-old tradition through a great ceramic work composed of sixty reflective platinum vases, designed around the shape-sign of Pistoletto’s eternity, an array of vases which multiply as they reflect each other creating an image-metaphor for ever single vase in the history of mankind, all unique and different at the same time. This form of forms also shapes the New Sign of Infinity in his Third Paradise, because the culture of difference or Love Difference even turns destruction into an act for creating the world.

Text published in the catalogue of the 4th Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art “Changing the world with a vase of flowers”, Corraini Edizioni, Mantova, Italia, 2010.