Ceramics and the company museum

Linda Kaiser

Art and ceramics

Ceramics are earth, fire and air, but also water. For this reason I would like to begin with one of the great symbols of contemporary art, the Fountain, the celebrated urinal that Marcel Duchamp submitted for the first exhibition of the American Society of Independent Artists in 1917. All it required was a gesture, a title and a signature with the date to mutate the perspective from which this object was to be viewed. In order to read these characters, the urinal had to be overturned, to assume an alternative position, to leave the world of objects of everyday use and enter that of the work of art. The urinal was made of porcelain and became perhaps the most famous object of the 20th century made with this material. The original work has been lost, but when Duchamp himself between 1935 and 1941 prepared The Box in a Valise — a kind of portable museum bringing together reproductions of his works — the replica urinal was made of ceramics.
From the micro to the macro-cosmos: the works of “visionary architecture” frequently made use of ceramics. Apart from the house of Asger Jorn in Albissola, other examples of visionary environments included a number of international projects including the Watts Towers by Simon Rodia (1875-1965) in Los Angeles, a cluster of metal towers covered with ceramics and glass, and the Maison Picassiette at Chartres, the home of Raymond Isidore (1900-1964) and his wife, the name of which is a play on words alluding to the action of “taking away/stealing plates” and using them to decorate and construct a space. Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) also adopted ceramic fragments to enliven his architectural landscapes, particularly in Barcelona’s Parco Güell. These examples stimulate reflection on the relationship between contemporary art, ceramics, architecture and the domestic space.

Design and material

“Use your brain and your hands will work less” reads the citation on the walls of the Studio Ernan Design in Albisola Superiore. The elusiveness and variability of chance play a part in the process that leads from design to ceramics. This material contains within itself future forms, dimensions and colours that change during the firing phase. This is to say nothing of the risk of damage or even destruction to which the work is subject while it is being made. In 1990, Umberto Ghersi, who Lucio Fontana considered to be an “assistant in the gestation” of his important works, granted me an interview in his studio-workshop at Albissola Marina through which I was able to reconstruct the technical-creative process and the development phases of the figures that compose the decoration of the façade of the Parish Church of our Lady of the Assumption in Celle Ligure. In 1958, Fontana created this work in just “two or three days.” However, the Madonna figure alone required at least 1,000 kilos of clay and took over a month to dry. The three main figures were “reassembled like a mosaic” so that they could be installed on the façade of the Parish Church. The staff of St. Michael Archangel, protector of Celle Ligure, does not reach the monster, as shown in the sketch, because being made of terracotta it was too long and broke. This exemplary case illustrates the possible relationships between the “technically unreproducible” sketch and finished work with its variables and, above all, the relationships between artist and craftsman.

A history of the present

A splendid ceramic face stood out on the dusty shelves of a factory while it was waiting to dry. This was the portrait of that the artist Wang Du improvised of Ernesto Canepa, the founder of the factory that accommodated him. This object produced within the context of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art might be defined as a “gesture for the history of the present.” The Biennale is an event in which everything is potentially an element to be conserved and exhibited in a kind of “exhibition within an exhibition.” The projects submitted by the artists, the cooperation with the local manufacturers, the photographs taken during the execution of the works, the interviews with the protagonists, the relationship with Albisola, the city of ceramics, could actually become that which may be defined as the backstage of the work of art in ceramics: a path through space and time.

For the company museum.
From a periodic exhibition to a permanent exposition

A company museum is perhaps the most exemplary expression of the design and production culture of the Italian business system that invests in museums as a specific form of communication for promoting both the exchange of knowledge and experience and an interaction with the local area and the administrative authorities. The eventual creation of a ceramics district museum in the Albisola area that documents the history of the places and exhibits the objects produced and the art of ceramics would also draw on the history of the present. A dynamic, up-to-date centre for research and culture would represent a significant resource for the local communities, a basis for the development of thematic and touristic itineraries, the so-called “extended museum”, a network of distinct and complementary structures: artists’ houses, sculpture parks, the artists’ path, workshops, factories. Supported and updated with the contribution of local firms, a permanent exposition structure would make a greater contribution through signs, materials and values to the bringing into focus the identity of a region and its cultural, economic and social fabric. The documents and the objects produced by the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art could become the pretext for the creation of a permanent home to contain them, within the context of an international revalorisation of the area.

Excerpt from the Proceedings of the “Local ceramic traditions and globalisation of contemporary art” conference, 19/20 October 2002, Fortezza del Priamàr, Savona.

Conference proceedings Local ceramic traditions and the globalisation of contemporary art