What is Non-Art Made of?

Marco Senaldi

Surprisingly, Duchamp did not take kindly to being called an anti-artist, preferring to be known as a non-artist. The anti-artist is like the atheist: he denies God because deep down he still believes in Him. The non-artist, meanwhile, does not believe, period. He does not believe in Art with a capital A, indeed he doubts the very identity of art.
Negation upon negation means we are left with no such thing as Art with a capital A, as the development of contemporary art goes hand in hand with its estrangement from the real world. What we now have is committed, realist, appropriationist art, from sources such as  television and so on, yet try as it might to deny it, it mysteriously remains art. Why?
Like many other spiritual forms, art has shifted from symbolically legitimizing its products and producers, to an imaginary place which sees its very modus overturned and inverted. Whereas art once legitimized whoever produced it as an “artist” and the product as “art” (anti-art has always been a sworn enemy of this), the situation as it stands today is different. The drawn-out struggle, first by the avantgardes, then by the post-war movements (no exceptions) to change the meaning, nature and essence of art has finally met with success. The process might be compared to the history of Coca Cola which, following years of pop exaltation and after various attempts to bring it down, has finally come up with non-Coca Cola: Diet Coke, which is Coke-free while remaining Coke. In other words, after all the struggles against essence without appearance and appearance without essence, we find ourselves with the essence in its overturned stage. While it might appear to be the contrary of itself, it nevertheless remains itself through its own denial.
The same can be applied to art. Contemporary art does not represent the most recent piece but the scrupulous and total re-flexion of art. Basically, all the destructively heated debate centering around art, prompted both by artists and by art itself, was not actually aimed at debunking the burden of old art in favor of new art, but had the (often unwitting) purpose of transubstantiating the mystical body of art itself, reducing it to an essence that was the inverse of itself.
What has sprung from this is non-art, not as the bastard progeny of a cross between the noble world of art and the spuriousness of the world “out there”, but the pure distillation of the highest possible reflection of art on itself — a diet-art which, while intrinsically art, remains art-free. Unable to exert anything but this reflection (as an activity of symbolic adjustment it had already been brought to a close during Hegel’s time), art has devoured itself. Just when, perhaps with Duchamp, or even earlier, it coincided with its own definition, art was also signing its own spiritual last will and testament. Since then, art has transformed itself into an imaginary fact, an exercise of contradictory legitimization. Non-art is the sphere of life, the tin cans in the supermarket, the paving stones transplanted into the gallery, the fight against the powers that be translated into attractive images for magazines such as “Artforum”. It is and will remain art, but in a way that is twice-overturned, the identity of a spiritual form gained through negation and intended as a dialectic moment of reciprocal definition. Defining what is or what it is not art is not only the task of contemporary art but its very essence as the art-non-art of our times, an essence twice overturned, and therefore real.
Non-art is therefore marked by the constant inversion of the placement of every thing to which a symbolic value and identity is assigned: so, if a given thing is defined as art, it will immediately receive the status of “other-than-art” (Brillo Box, game, divertissement, simulacrum and so on). Meanwhile, that which is “other-than-art” can be understood only in terms of its pertinence to “art” (ready-made, installation, performance…). The constant paradoxical transition from one term of reference to another is inevitable.
The persistent contradiction between the thing and its reiteration without solution is what might be defined as the imaginary level of art or its status of double inversion, in other words obversion. What we must not overlook is that the imaginary is not confined to fantasy, and nor is it oneiric or surreally distant from “reality”. Malleability, for instance, is one of the features of the imaginary. It is certainly no coincidence that artists concerned with space, such as Lucio Fontana, should turn repeatedly to ceramics (Fontana produced a range of bizarre ceramic objects that were mid-way between his spatial canvases and decoration). Spatialism is rooted in the malleability of something that is conceptually rigid (such as space), a lesson we learn from the plastic spaces created by Giò Colombo. Earlier still, the futurists were pioneering the rediscovery of ceramics. Remember, they had spoken in terms of the “futurist reconstruction of the universe”, their crazed recipes even featuring a certain “plasticmeat”.
Obviously, plastic proved to be the ideal material for the imaginary realm, a material that allowed the impossible dream of objects that resisted deformation — unbreakable glasses, virtually eternal multicolored containers — to become reality. But the imaginary is also recursive, it turns on its own oversights, unable to contemplate that its own memories will evaporate, and that something might fall outside of its range of retrieval. Plastic would soon take over as the foremost material in our lives, just as wood was to the Medieval period, or iron during the industrial 1800s, to such an extent that ceramic today is not seen as the progenitor of plastic but as a substitute for it, bringing with it characteristics we had originally frowned upon: fragility, difficulties in the manufacturing process, a certain preciousness and so on.
The characteristic trait of our non-epoch is that the art (non-art) it expresses brings with it certain values belonging to the past — manual skill, imitation, craftsmanly quality and so forth — values which, precisely because they are outmoded, turn a thing into a salvage object, in the same spirit in which we protect certain species of animals because they are in danger of becoming extinct. This form of reflexive salvage would account for the fact that almost all the pieces by the artists invited to participate in this first edition of the Biennial of Ceramic in Contemporary Art are characterized by their non-identity. Although the artists present in this exhibition are representing a host of different disciplines and all pursue their own personal poetics, their relation with the ancient but futurable material, ceramic (it is, after all, post-plastic), ensures the presence of true non-objects, objects which are at the same time more and less than themselves.
Cecchini’s “fragile” (and therefore un-usable) helmets, the pseudo-wigs, courtesy of Nina Childress, Torimitsu’s fake furs, Vitone’s phony amygdales, Perino and Vele’s “rigid” cushion, Costa Vece’s inedible cake, Sisley Xhafa’s living room manhole, Daniel Firman’s impossible (yet functioning!) LP’s, Pancrazzi’s mimetic (but, alas, ceramic) credit card, to name but a few, are all perfect examples of this simultaneous excess and constitutive dearth. They are all works that can be termed “art”, not so much for their pertinence to any cultural tradition as for the fact that they are the fruit of craftsmanly insight. In short, they are non-objects produced by a non-artistic will — they are in fact counterfeits, true paradoxes, contradictions in terms.
We should show deep-felt sympathy for these non-objects because they resemble us “more than we could ever resemble ourselves”. As false fossils, they represent not so much our history as our history as we would like it to be told. As evidence of the imaginary, neither subversive nor perverse but obverse, they explain perfectly our status as non-individuals, subjects “with broken bones” — though nonetheless committed to reconstructing those bones, perhaps in the highly fragile material that is ceramic.

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