Contradiction and Desire

Simon Groom

Albisola has always held a fascination for me: any place that could give rise to a movement so quixotically named as Movimento Internazionale per una Bauhaus Immaginista was worthy of note in my world, and the fascination was given added weight in that I could never locate it precisely on any atlas. I knew roughly that it was in Italy on the Ligurian coast, but whether it was actually on the coast or in the mountains, as I thought all places of rest and relaxation for bronchial complaints had to be, having conflated Asger Jorn’s retreat with the Magic Mountain (and probably a little bit of Death in Venice), I didn’t know, nor could I ever gather from a map, or reports that I gleaned from accounts by artists, since Albisola would become Albissola, or simply Alba (or maybe that’s somewhere entirely different). The delicious ambiguity about its name has made the place and its relations with the rest of the more ontologically stable world mythical in status, poised tantalisingly between fact and fiction, actuality and imagination.
These characteristics that I identify with the place seem to me also qualities that characterise an artist’s relations with the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporay Art, as well as characteristics of the material, clay, itself. The status of clay remains uncertain in relation to modern and contemporary artistic production, still redolent of violets and patchouli oil, an activity at evening classes for bored husbands and wives or, as Grayson Perry complained, “I hated pottery – it was something that hippies did.” Yet its overwhelming physicality in its raw state has a metamorphic power unrivalled by any other medium, when cooked and fired its brilliance and range of colour is second to none, nor is any material more compelling in its unpredictability, yet capable of greater purity of form.
It is precisely because of this ambiguous nature of the material, and its infinite flexibility, that the artists I considered most interesting to submit a proposal seemed at first glance to have absolutely nothing to do with the messiness of clay, nor its cool domesticity. With no one did this seem truer than with Liam Gillick, an artist whose cultural production ranges widely across a great number of disciplines including design, criticism, literature, music, architecture, and film. The sheer elegance of thought, form and execution in all his works, and the range of materials associated for the large part with anonymous industrial production, such as Perspex and aluminium, seemed at great odds with the materiality of clay, even if the range of his practice appeared in its variety to be as protean as the plasticity of the medium. The exploration within much of Gillick’s work of the continuing relevance of Modernist form, ideology and aesthetic, and its reconfiguration and re-appropriation within the context of a society now dominated by very different structures and desires, falls within a wider cultural critique that seeks to reveal the extent to which grand narratives such as Modernism are always already founded upon the suppression and occlusion of other competing histories. In Gillick’s work the grand promise still seems to be present: everything is rational, harmonious, well-designed, shiny and sleek, yet we remain alone with fragments of a language we recognise, unable to understand any more whether they add up to a story, like finding bits of colour littering the landscape when what we are nostalgic for is the radiant arch of a bright rainbow flexing the sky.
But the liberation of other stories more than compensates for a nostalgia, always imaginary, for a unified world, one such being the story of clay. Works in the medium have been thoroughly erased from all accounts of Modernism, where encounters and works in clay have traditionally been dismissed as at best merely playful, in Hilton Kramer’s pompous words, indicative of “high unseriousness”. The works in clay by an artist such as Lucio Fontana, who himself spent much time in Albisola, are usually disregarded, generally dismissed as aberrations of taste, as kitsch or playful experimentation, successful only as models to be transformed into the acceptable currency of bronze. Even more ironically, given the sheer delicious physicality of much of his work, Fontana has earned his place in the pantheon of modern art, repeated ad nauseam in all conventional art historical narratives, as a precursor of Minimalism, in his attempts to open up the work to a new conception of space symbolised by the purity of his slashed canvases. Such a view, obviously, fails not only to account for most of his work, but also to foreclose alternative readings of immensely more interest. Yet one need only return to early “masters” of Modernism, such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, both of whom came early to clay, to see the degree to which such repression operates when an aesthetic polices itself in privileging intellect over touch, form over decoration, work over play.
The unravelling of the myth of Modernism continues to reveal other fertile terrains, alternative histories, of which the renewed interest in clay by contemporary artists, symbolised most visibly by the foundation of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, only in its third edition, is but one. With it is another, and that is of the Romantic-Modernist emphasis on the individuality of the artist as heroic creator, relevant especially to the field of ceramics, where those with the technical know-how who have thrown, fired or glazed the works in collaboration with the artist, have normally been ignored. The emphasis on the collaborative nature of making works in clay is at the heart of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemproary Art, where the invited artist develops a proposal in collaboration with the technicians and artists in the long-established ceramic laboratories, works which although limited to the size of the kiln, are limitless in terms of ambition, complexity, and challenge.
Revealing histories and acknowledging alternative networks of collaborative relationships is at the heart of Goshka Macuga proposal. Researching the history of artists associated with Albisola, Macuga’s interest fell upon Pinot Gallizio, an artist who had come to Albisola in 1954, only a year after he had abandoned his life as a pharmacist in Piedmont developing and selling what we would now call alternative medicine. In Albisola he met Asger Jorn, with whom he and a few others founded the Movimento Internazionale per una Bauhaus Immaginista (MIBI). As the name suggests, it was founded in opposition to the renewed attempts in the postwar years to develop an art tied to form, function and reason that cohered around Max Bill’s Hochschule für Gestaltung, founded upon the principles of the early Bauhaus, and which found its ultimate expression in the 1st Congress of Industrial Design at the Triennale di Milano in 1954. MIBI’s ethos, by contrast, was based upon an absolute rejection of functionalism and architectural and social rationalism in favour of an anarchic and revolutionary release of creative energies in all fields of life, underpinned whenever convenient by appeals to archaeology or cosmic theory.
Gallizio began to speak of his art in terms of an “antiworld” and “antimatter”, which found its most spectacular realisation in a total environment entitled Caverna dell’Antimateria, which he created at the Rene Drouin Gallery, in Paris, in 1959. By chance Macuga had herself also made an installation called Cave at the Sali Gia Gallery, in London, in 1999, in complete ignorance of Gallizio’s earlier work. But despite this coincidence, the interest in Gallizio is one of method rather than form. MIBI, which in 1957 joined forces with Guy Debord to become the Situationist International, was always nomadic, an endless process of exchange and transformation that superseded any individual or fixed cultural values, and is a characteristic shared by much of Macuga’s own way of working. Rather than recreate a cave, Macuga’s proposal was to remake some of the works Gallizio made whilst in Albisola in collaboration with the artist Piero Simondo, works whose existence remains only in the photos of the time. Macuga’s decision to remake these works dissolves the idea of authorship, and further extends the principle of collaborative works and new networks of relations, in this case across time, that was central to MIBI. The artists’ original lost work now becomes part of Macuga’s own practice and, in turn, her own work becomes that of the artists she is exhibiting.
In her emphasis on method over form, Macuga’s proposal can be seen as standing in diametric opposition to that of Gillick’s, whose proposal was based around the realisation of a form that the artist had designed on a computer. Entitled Multiple Revision Structure, Gillick conceived of a number of simple ceramic forms, identical in shape and form, differing only in colour. Whilst this sounds formally closer to Max Bill than MIBI, the proposal may actually be closer to Gallizio’s sceptical rejection of Modernism once we take into account Gillick’s indifference as to the conditions of their display and use. For not only can the forms be stacked and displayed in any way or even combined with works by other artists, there is a humility at work totally at odds with the grand rhetorical designs traditionally made for the autonomy of the object, when the artist asserts, “It is hard to make this simple form, yet its place in the world should pass with little comment.” In its recognition of the place that such forms occupy in a contemporary context, the designs present a rather contemporary perversion of Modernism’s original promise, the work now appearing closer to what the Situationist’s term a dérive than a desire to recuperate Modernist form. In his only comment upon the work, Gillick writes gnomically, “It is an object that sort of operates in the gap between modernity and modernism...”.
The collision of cultures, traditions, and sensibilities is perhaps the engine of most of the things that we find interesting, as it refuses to allow contradiction to settle down into something coherent, understood and known. The work of Heringa/Van Kalsbeek is almost a visual analogue of this complexity, both reflected in and produced by their working practice. Often large in scale, their sculptures are a result of a “chance outcome” of the combination of threads, colours and textures which constitute the dynamic structures that often enclose a readymade porcelain figure. Already working as partners, the pair decided to work with three other people on five works simultaneously, each person spending half an hour on a work before moving on to the next. This merry-go-round meant that each had to deal with the unexpected moves of the other, and ensured that there could be no possibility of a work conforming to a pre-determined design, or any one person exercising total control. Like some organism, the chaos of the internal structures looks capable of mutating and proliferating, the random collision of numerous elements generating a beauty and a complexity at odds with the chaotic nature of its production.
Finally, I was drawn to Amie Dicke by her series of small porcelain statuettes of an animal or a figure, each shrouded in a stocking in which, one realised as one looked closer, there were also strands of hair. Separately, the objects could all be considered individually as objects of desire – a stocking, the lock of hair, the small figurines, the kind of familiar object found on a thousand family mantelpieces. Together, however, they became tokens of death, turning memory and desire into something altogether darker and more sinister, creating a shock out of the familiar in much the same way as Donne’s dark phrase, “a bright hair about the bone”. Like her earlier work in which she made cut-outs from magazines of models, what is not present often stands in for and becomes more powerful than that which remains.
Contradiction and paradox seem, then, to be the defining themes to emerge. Certainly, in an era of globalisation, a return to the soil, and to a specific place associated with a tradition of ceramic production because of ancient geological conditions, which has resulted in the establishment over centuries of the cultural tradition of working the earth, may seem perverse, and to counter the prevailing normality. Yet if the soil remains the same, the ideas and techniques are continually being pushed and expanded to renew and reinvigorate the tradition. One could do worse than take Gallizio as a model, and all those others who have come to Albisola, whose play and desire for revolution are themselves part of a long tradition of those who have revolutionised the medium by unorthodox means.

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