Ironical ceramics

Vasif Kortun

During my first trip to Albisola, the word “ironical” was mentioned in relation to the artists that I had invited to the exhibition. This comment registered furthermore a degree of reciprocality between myself and the artists I wanted to work with in this exhibition. All my arrogant, biting, cynical, defiant, derisive, double-edged, and sneering comments were neutralised during the few days I spent there. My body first ticked to a different clock and I began to preposterously fantasize of a languid Italian Riviera, where time dilates in the heat. The visits to the master craftsmen, the remains of the colossal factories testifying to a hyper-industrial second half of the 20th century, and finally a communist institution organized dance party high up in the mountains, anchored it as a place that has endured with its customs.
It is obvious that taking time does not imply sluggishness, but we often lack the understanding how different moments, paces and seasons can co-perform. Time is something that is incomputable and in acutely short supply. It is not just the time of the artist that may be fickle and arbitrary; the time of making, drying, baking, and waiting involved with clay becoming ceramics is not so precise either. It is not an exact science, but a belief that is the result of patience and familiarity. One can never quite predict the result.
As it has distinctively presupposed self-consciousness, irony has been one of the paramount metaphors of art for much of the 20th century. But, the artists I wanted to work with are hardly ironical. They do not employ irony but they certainly resort to humour and part of the joke may be also on them. Humour is open ended. It eases the way to an infinite number of contemporary concerns, catches the viewer off-guard, suggests implausible alternatives and offers a hospitable climate for a difficult issue that may follow. Humour is the privilege of the underdog, the trickster and the court jester. It is also a flexible manoeuvring tool to seek freedom outside the highbrow culture and narratives as well as the generated trends.
The attraction of ceramics for non-media-bound contemporary artists also derived from the fact that ceramics was often considered to be a lowbrow medium, a medium not in the premier league of high culture. This is what Björn Kjelltoft's works in the exhibition are also about. He unhooks from the crisp, lucidity of the life-style design languages of his home country Sweden. Björn uses loud colours and decorative patterns and adopts a working strategy of aesthetics borrowed from the “pariah” of high taste, Ulrica Hydman Vallien.1 Within the realm of ceramics he expounds on this particular taste without any hint of irony, and applies it to the indicators of the shopping industry such as shopping centre anti-theft devices.
Nedko Solakov, by far the funniest storyteller in contemporary art today who has in the past remade himself a 106 kg snowflake, is a trickster who has proven that the world is flat. In his work for this exhibition, Nedko displays the evidence of his fear of flying, truly a curse for an artist who travels incessantly. The little deformed pieces of baked clay carry the impressions of his fingers squeezing the raw material during flights. The work is in effect a failed attempt to exorcise his deepest phobia.
Hale Tenger used to be very humorous at the end of 1980s, humorous to such an extent that her work for the 1992 Istanbul Biennale, a glittering wall installation of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil statuettes and ancient fertility figures with enormous erect phalluses almost landed her with a ticket to jail.  With an MFA in ceramics — an idiosyncratic  distinction in this exhibition — she conflates a new version of the fertility figure with Ottoman Nicean decorations to create a jovial, if not palatable cultural hybrid.
Gabriel Lester is similarly concerned with working with a readymade but with little alteration. A copy of a bust of Julius Caesar is animated by the onlooker peering through his imperial eyes, but watch your back! Gabriel asks the question of what statues look at, and if we were statues ourselves, how would we look stuck in a museum during the day and after hours.
You can never say to a child that raisins are candy and get away with it. Ceramic art is akin to the raisins of the art world.
(Björn Kjelltoft)

1 Ulrica Hydman Vallien is an extremely popular glass artist originally with an established reputation as a ceramicist.

Text published in the catalogue of the 2nd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2003.