A dialogue made possible through ceramics

Hou Hanru

The Biennial of Ceramic in Contemporary Art, hosted in the “remote” town of Albisola on the Ligurian Riviera, Italy, traces a much-overlooked chapter in modern art history. A group of international contemporary artists were invited by the curators to the town which holds such a special place in the oeuvre of so many modern masters who came to this small town to live and work. For this reason, these contemporary artists’ commitment is quite relevant: hailing from different cultural backgrounds, and using a variety of media and languages they are, like their predecessors, drawn to the ceramics, a local specialty. The collaboration between the invited artists and local specialists has made for a coherent, ongoing dialogue between “outsiders” and the local community — the global interacting with the local  —  an issue much to the fore in this age of globalization.
More interesting still is the fact that this dialogue should be formulated within the context of such a radically “traditional” material (ceramics), a material so often consigned to the realm of handicrafts. Ceramics belong to an ancient poetics and have long-since been a pariah of the ideology and aesthetics of contemporary art. However, they have made various comebacks as an erstwhile player in the oeuvre of many an artist, though rarely as a central element. Artists like Lucio Fontana knew it well. Infact, his Concetto Spaziale not only explores the actual use of ceramics, but more essentially transforms the material into a metaphor for the universe itself, creating as it does a tangible and sensual microcosm, a sort of entropy-scape, a black hole that oscillates between the joys of erotic energy, birth and the destiny of the world. Ceramics are the ideal material through which to represent such a dynamic, sublime and powerfully vital process. Fontana would use the movement intrinsic to the manipulation of clay to articulate the contrast between the softness and fluidity of the gesture and the hardness and sheen  of the finished form, in an intense play between fullness and emptiness, solid and void. A perfect incarnation of Space, this is a true Concetto Spaziale.
Fontana demonstrated the immense expressive power of ceramics as an artistic language, revealing its potential as a discursive embodiment of history and culture. His ceramics’ oeuvre draws us into the very historic implications of ceramics. Historically and archeologically, ceramics have always been considered an indicator of the past. Not only do ceramic relics stand as landmarks, they also represent a condensation of the economic, political and social transformations that have taken place throughout history. This includes, no doubt, the evolution of global movements, exchanges and negotiations, which have formed our world today.
In Western languages, the country I originate from is called “China”. Porcelain, the “sister” of ceramics, is also referred to as “China” in the West. The connection is direct and easy to trace: China is where porcelain manufacture originated. The “Porcelain Route” occupies a position every bit as important as the “Silk Route” in East-West trading history, however less well-known. Between the 17th and 18th centuries, when European colonialism was at its height, porcelain, as an exotic, luxury product, was considered an indication of wealth and power. The European imperial powers would only serve to intensify its market expansion. China is now part of the global economy projected by the colonialists, its rich and “mysterious” cultural products not only accessible, but status symbols. Motifs à la chinoise, or chinoiserie are all the rage; and they are even partially responsible for the formation of a specific period in Western European culture and art: Rococo. Undeniably, this is one of those cases where the Colonial power conquered the non-Western world by appropriating and dominating the other, at least in western languages and discourse.
Global trading and market expansion today are reaching an unprecedented peak. Ironically, for any Chinese entrepreneur, or a newly enriched artist who belongs to a new upper social class given birth by the Post-Neo Colonial globalization, one of the most fashionable accessories to own today is a made-in-Italy toilet!
Almost a century ago, Marcel Duchamp created the most anti-fetishist fetish of all when he signed a ceramic urinal with the name R. Mutt before dispatching it for exhibition in a museum. This is just one strand of contemporary art born of ceramics. Since then, many artists have set out to attack ceramics as part of some anti-history manifesto. On 8th October, 1992, Chinese artist Wu Shanzhuan actually pissed into one of Duchamp’s limited-edition urinals in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet collection —  a veritable fief of contemporary art. Here, a dialogue between different parts of the world has been made possible through ceramics.

Text published in the catalogue of the 1st Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art “The Happy Face of Globalization”, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2001.