Ceramic and contemporary art

Elio Grazioli

Having been asked to prepare a brief seminar on some general issues concerning ceramic in relation to contemporary art, with a historical review covering selected milestones, I began what turned out to be a rather difficult bibliographical research at the end of which I confirmed above all to what extent, in terms of bibliography, the two worlds are still quite distinct. The reason is the usual one, so to speak. It depends on the fact that contemporary art abandoned the craftsmen techniques or implemented them without practicing them directly with expertise.
General issues: on one hand, we can think of a similar situation involving other means of expression, such as photography, and the numerous subsequent analogies; on the other, the idea of minor arts and applied arts, to which the craftsmen techniques were linked; and finally the evolution of both in modern times, and the most recent in particular.
The fact remains that most books on ceramic in general, and on the history of ceramic, embarrassingly stop at the threshold of the contemporary topic, mentioning only the inevitable illustrious examples, and very general stylistic influences. They continue with a specific history about ceramic that ends up diverging, without making additional comparisons, from that of art, that moved in other directions.
The issue is not taken for granted, but on the contrary is brimming with implications and important ideas. So, back to the beginning: why focus again on ceramic, produce new works, and dedicate a Biennial to it? How should ceramic be used? Does this technique provide any conceptual ideas that are still considered useful today? And, considering the social and political implications, what risk emerges in terms of nostalgia or ideology, not to mention demagogy, with its return?
I asked myself: does a return to ceramic indicate a need for material, reality-solidity-concreteness and dexterity-interaction? For nature and primordiality?
Ceramic, in fact, ancestrally, is the art of the four original elements: water for life, earth for matter and chaos, air for breathing and fire for transmutation. Through their interaction and use human actions remain fixed and interpretable within matter itself, that is transformed, cured by fire and made inalterable forever. The actions that they originated are essential, basic, unmediated, and primarily symbolic.
Even the mechanical aspect that it implies is the simplest and most direct and, together, is the base of geometry, of form, of abstraction, and perhaps of visual thought: rotation and the circular appearance form the principle of containing, of the centre, of concentration, of the meditation of doing, of the mind fixed on the movement of material modelled by hands, of the relationship between hand and eye, between surface and edge, empty and full, inside and outside. But, on the other hand, perhaps it is the break-up of such primordiality that leads to the birth of the contemporary, also in ceramic. At least in two senses. The first is that of another type of trace, the one, so to speak, without action, of the mould, of the direct derivation (copy by negative), mechanical (that also changes meaning), without hand-expression. Mould that in modernity becomes anti-sculpture (Georges Didi-Huberman1), readymade (Marcel Duchamp), reproduction (Walter Benjamin), index (in the sense expressed by Rosalind Krauss2). The second is that of a different symbolism, of secondary importance, sought because lost, backward in time and space, outside and elsewhere, mixed with the present, the current, made avant-garde. In other words, that of Paul Gauguin who is, in fact, the first great contemporary artist to have assiduously dedicated his efforts to ceramic, subverting it in the same way as painting and sculpture. For Gauguin, ceramic is one of the ways to change the object, through vases that are not vases, carafes that are not carafes, and to modify sculpture, for example inserting “holes”, and naturally with a sexual implication. The self-portrait is the cut (and bleeding) head, the nude is sex, the vase is fish (both symbolically, for which the object is what it symbolises, and in the sense that the container is the contents and vice versa). Gauguin is contemporary, i.e. he is the other side, and together the response, to knick-knacks, exoticism and tourism.
The Twentieth century marks the explosion of the avant-garde movements that also overwhelm ceramic, but not without including it in their programs, not without tasting it, bending it to their needs and conceptions, perhaps in this way really changing it, in a distorted, diverted, deviated use. We can also use modernist terms: not refusing its “specificity”, but seeking another, others, while violating the presumed established rules. And this applies also to Futurism, and the second one in particular, of which Albisola was the focal point, as already documented by the past editions and by the relative catalogues of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art. Consider how the rotation turns in the Profilo continuo – Testa di Mussolini by Renato Giuseppe Bertelli, with a subtle action, in the dual nature of the profile, and of the edge between inside and outside.
Luca Beatrice, in the catalogue of the 1st edition of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, stated correctly: “An apparent contradiction contains perhaps the key to fully understanding the importance and difference of the Second Futurism [...]: the contradiction in fact between the recovery of craftsmanship, of dexterity, even of tradition and of what resides in the minor history of Italian art, contrary to the very modern myth of the machine and the philosophy of the futurist reconstruction of the universe3”. A position to be compared to that of Fernand Léger, who moreover used ceramic instead in a very plain manner, purposefully tending toward two-dimensionality, and to that of Russian constructivists: ceramic applied, yes, but to the revolution, to the construction of the new world.
Pablo Picasso was also a ceramic butcher since he used and shaped this material in all possible ways and forms. For the Spanish artist, ceramic is a support like any other to expand painting, regardless of its appearance, since it can have any, seized by the image and pictorial metaphor. This possession of which Picasso is at the mercy of just like his products also make him humoristic (especially in imaginative portraits) and is this perhaps the salient character of his relationship with ceramic. A relationship worthy of being defined as Dionysian, with reference to the focus on figures, such as fauns, nymphs, satyrs, and flautists and other similar types, as well as topics like the bullfight, that characterised a conspicuous part of his production.
Mutatis mutandis, the same applies also to Joan Mirò, just as dedicated to ceramic and experimentation, free from painting and sculpture, as in a form, or a medium, intermediate, in the middle, capable of reconciling and blending them, literally, like no other.
New issues emerged in the second post-war period, in particular between the Informal and Situationism. On one hand, the theme of the formless couldn’t do anything but consider ceramic as an intrinsically suitable material and technique: “an exceptional medium because of its primariness, it can used quite efficiently in that new relationship that the artist, that by fostering or provoking and instilling with new existential meanings, establishes with the aspects of the case, with those unpredictable modifications that occur during the artistic creation”, writes, for example, Luciana Martini4.
Let’s consider Lucio Fontana and Antoni Tápies, the two main exponents of this context, at least in our discussion. Fontana had a real passion for ceramic, that he considered the “fusion” of the elements of the pictorial and sculptural language, at the level of a conceptuality that he used to fill the space that he sought. He also defined fire as an “intermediary that perpetuates form and colour5”. For him, ceramic was nature raised to a concept, instead of to a metaphor, of the universe. Tápies, instead, offered one of the most efficient images of all his work with respect to one of his ceramic pieces, known as Triangolo: “The work is the end result of a slow gestation by the artist. He gets into the habit, so to speak, of thinking and reacting through images that then, at an almost unconscious level, settle, impress or cancel themselves. But when we think we are able, all of a sudden, to work on a specific idea, we realise that even the work commands, because it has its own laws – internal and external – of development. It rebels and imposes its conditions on us like Pirandellian characters. Like everywhere where there’s life, a dialogue takes place between the author and the material of his work. At the beginning, the end is not always clear: ‘The path emerges from the first few steps’6”.
First in the Cobra group first and then in Situationism, ceramic reaches a radical, negative turning point, in its use against the demanding expectations of art, but also positive in its absolute availability of freedom, indeed as a site for this research. For Asger Jorn and for Pinot Gallizio material is, according to an expression by Guy Debord, a “perfect disorder”, the object that will emerge from it should be “strange and chaotic”, an expression of a “human desire7”. The fabrication of ceramic is a free decoration, a work that puts forces and collective actions into play. Freedom combined with imagination and experimentation are the key words, the game, the model that most closely adheres to the aesthetic conception: elementariness of expression, no seriality, no function, no use.
Piero Manzoni creates a unique ceramic and puts a simple line on it: neither pleasing, nor complex, nor demanding, a line. A concept? The same “thing”?
So, up to here, I have summarised the history of the relationships between ceramic and contemporary art through what seemed to be the most significant examples, as well as the most intriguing ones, from a problematic viewpoint. Without restating everything, I will now focus on the unforeseen combinations. One of those is between Nanni Valentini and Draghos Gheorghiu. Valentini is a very particular type of artist who considered ceramic as one considers a medium, as it would be said today, i.e. as a technique that becomes expression. Hence, it’s exactly what makes it possible to recover archaic meanings, i.e. the “philosophy”, of ceramic and of form through ceramic that is, in a certain sense, in fact the initial form (pre-Socratic) of philosophising (see Gaston Bachelard and Mircea Eliade, but also Paul Valéry8).
Gheorghiu, another unique case, is a scholar so convinced of the uniqueness of the archaic experience that he is keen on redoing it as is9. And thus, he would reconstruct the Neolithic firing techniques, using procedures, materials and tools from that period, including places and ways of living, wherever possible. Is this archaeology-anthropology as a form of art? In any case, it is no coincidence that it is ceramic that induces similar experiences and reflections.
On the other hand – and in a certain sense the opposite, but without ignoring that historically the two must go hand in hand – even the Fontana by Marcel Duchamp, the readymade urinal, is a ceramic, a (the) readymade ceramic. For this reason, it has all the right to be involved in what has become the reference exhibition on the subject (and see its embarrassing and necessarily very brief bibliography), A Secret History of Clay, from Gauguin to Gormley, held at the Tate, Liverpool, in 2004. And so, even ceramic, can be taken and assumed as an object, or technique-object, as is, and utilised as a work in itself, as any other readymade object. This is what Jeff Koons and Sylvie Fleury did, in a post-modern context; this is what was done before and in a completely different context, by an eccentric like Robert Filliou with his Briquolages: “I like the bricks (briques) and the contrast between the weight of the brick and the lightness of the spirit really interests me. So, the project began from here”. For Filliou, the ready-made is not a cold, detached or conceptual gesture: “It is part of the perspective of this ideal of ‘Permanent Creation’ that I proposed to myself and to others, and that is based on a relative secret of the Permanent Creation: ‘anything that you may do (think), do (think) something else; and to an absolute secret: ‘calmly seated, don’t do anything’, and whose main tools consist of ‘innocence and imagination’ and ‘travel light’”. Hence: “Any discussion is bricolage. Taking the expression literally, I felt real pleasure in (seeking to) rendering (render) the wings to such a grandiosely down-to-earth material like the brick10”.
Even Pop Art, Arte Povera and English sculpture have had representatives that have gotten mixed up with ceramic (and just to mention a few names: Roy Lichtenstein, Giuseppe Penone and Marisa Merz, Tony Cragg and Antony Gormley), but it’s not important here to review those analyses, that are interesting however owing to their implications. Instead, it would be better to focus on some final issues.
On one hand, in addition to the movements appropriately designated as artistic, I also found ceramic used within the critical notions that have emerged most frequently over recent decades. This is the framework for grasping the concept ceramic in the sense of “formless”, as re-interpreted by Rosalind Krauss and by Yve-Alain Bois11, starting from Georges Bataille, that they exemplified in Fontana’s Ceramica spaziale “cube”, and which I recognised in the most recent ceramics by Didier Vermeiren or Nobuo Sekine. Or consider the previously mentioned analytical shift introduced by the re-interpretation of categories and notions such as “trace” (Jacques Derrida), “mould” and “impression” (Georges Didi-Huberman), “index” (Rosalind Krauss) and the experiences related to them. For example, consider the moulds of the cavity formed by the hands wrapped around a piece of clay by two artists such as Gabriel Orozco and Nedko Solakov, opposites in some cases, owing to the idea of fear and travel added by the latter to the former’s primariness of the gesture.
From the previous editions of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, I also extracted examples and variations of other recurring categories. And so there is a strong return by situationist issues, such as the détournement, a deviation of something from its function and purpose toward different ones, when not opposite and contradictory, deconstructive and post. This would seem to be present in various authors: from Björn Kjelltoft to Gabriel Lester, Hale Tenger, Loris Cecchini, Luca Vitone and slightly in Luca Pancrazzi, each in his own way, and each an opportunity for discussion and confirmation in my brief seminar.
Consider also the recent relational idea of art. Among the many possible examples, perhaps the most suggestive is the one provided by Soo-Kyung Lee. Within the context of the last Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, she established a remote dialogue not only among the traditions of Albisola and of Korea, but also among personal subjects placed in comparison through her efforts, and between story-text-concept, thanks to the translation device (thus tradition/translation, and transport, travel, as well as transition, dream, poetry…): “during the various stages of the translation the sense of the white porcelain of the Choson dynasty was dematerialised by the vases to the text and then translated and transformed, to materialise again and represent itself as a vase12”.
Two very particular cases involve Bruno Peinado and Rainer Ganahl, because of the medial, linguistic and communicational issues that they tackle, with a translation concept quite different from that of Soo-Kyung Lee.
Finally, one cannot ignore the broader implication of these last notions and practices concerning the relationship between ceramic-art and globalisation-glocalisation. The curators of the last editions of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art focused quite thoroughly on this – from Roberto Costantino’s direct approach to what was only apparently an indirect approach by Hans-Ulrich Obrist – because I must insist even more, if not reiterate the importance, the repercussions and consequences involving all other formal, ideological, aesthetic and human issues.
I intend on concluding with a reference to at least three special cases. There are three artists who have made a unique and interesting use of “ceramic”. I use ceramic between quotation marks because they are not really involved with this material, but for this very reason I wanted to compare them directly with ceramic.
One is Rolf Julius, who uses terracotta as a musical instrument in a personal way. There is no creation of sophisticated, fragile and precious real instruments, but rather the use of simple vases hung in trees to integrate a specific form and sound with their own: in fact, Julius has created small music, consisting of microscopic particles and vibrations, micro-variations for acute attentions and sensitivities, landscapes more than concerts or installations: “leisurely walks within – leisurely walks outside [of sounds] – and please don’t try to understand the music of these pieces, even if they’re not ‘high enough’. Can you imagine at what level sings the lotus?13”.
The other two are Dieter Appelt and Pere Noguera – the latter invited to the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art – that I put together, as I already did in my book La polvere nell’arte14, because one uses earth to completely cover objects, huge spaces in which various objects are scattered, and the other completely covers himself, in a native unification with the earth and nature and a use of the body and of photography (the technique used to record) that is truly unique. Second skins of what they cover, they offer the meaning of their mystery by such covering, the difference and yet the recognizableness of the object, its natural transubstantiation, the literal return to the earth. It is certainly not ceramic, but it is certainly the raw earth/fired earth dialectic to have suggested it to him. What could be more “primary”?

1. Georges Didi-Huberman, L’empreinte, exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1997.
2. Rosalind Krauss, Teoria e storia della fotografia, Bruno Mondadori, Milan 1996.
3. Luca Beatrice, Albisssola città futurista, in Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, vol. I, Attese, Albisola 2001, pg. 86.
4. Luciana Martini, La ceramica informale, in L’Informale in Italia, Mazzotta, Milan 1983, pg. 107. 
5. Lucio Fontana, La mia ceramica, in Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, vol. I, Attese, Albisola 2001, pg. 75.
6. Antoni Tápies, in Tápies a Milano, Mazzotta, Milan 1985, pg. 19.
7. Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, mentioned in Giorgina Bertolino and Francesca Comisso, Asger Jorn e Pinot Gallizio: le due Albe del Bauhaus Imaginiste, in Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, vol. I, Attese, Albisola 2001, pg. 211.
8. See: Gaston Bachelard, La terra e le forze, Italian trans., Red, Como 1989 and La terra e il riposo, Italian trans., Red, Como 1990; Mircea Eliade, Forgerons et alchimistes, Flammarion, Paris 1956; Paul Valéry, De l’éminente dignité des arts du feu, in Pièces sur l’art, N.R.F., Paris 1936.
9. See: Dragos Gheorghiu, Il passato come opera d’arte, in “Ipso Facto”, no. 9, January-April 2001, pp. 50-61.
10. Robert Filliou, Briquolage (1982), in Robert Filliou, catalogue of the exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1991, pg. 125.
11. Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, L’informe: istruzioni per l’uso, Italian trans., Bruno Mondadori, Milan 2003.
12. Soo-Kyung Lee in Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, vol. II, Attese, Albisola 2003, pg. 177.
13. Rolf Julius, Small Music [Grau], Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 1996, pg. 147. 14. Elio Grazioli, La polvere nell’arte, Bruno Mondadori, Milan 2004.
14. Elio Grazioli, La polvere nell’arte, Bruno Mondadori, Milan 2004.

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