How to offer a simple and straightforward explanation of the idea behind an exhibition on the passionate, almost Shakespearean relationship between glass and ceramic? These are two materials that would appear to have little place in conceptual design. How can I justify their presence at the 56th Venice Bienniale, that island temple of contemporary art where concept reigns king?
Even the enlightened regard of the wanderer, lost in the countless Calli, Campielli e Canali* where art beckons at each turn, could not be satisfied with a modest, overly rational explanation. Glass and ceramics presented together under the same roof on the piano nobile of a 16th century Venetian palace is like serving comfort food on an antique marquetry table. Where is the nobility? The triangle is incomplete. What would Desdemona and Brabanzio be without Othello?
And what would the color – and the life – of ceramics and glass be without fire? Fire, the paradox of a chemical reaction that disintegrates yet offers shape and beauty. Fire is the missing link, the essential piece of a dialogue that sets the stage for master alchemists of ceramic and glass, Gallifa ceramics and Murano glass.
FROM GIANADDA TO ARTIGAS
It was during the inauguration of Sam Szafran’s exquisite frescos at the Gianadda Foundation on November 19, 2005 that I began to delve into the innumerable facets of ceramics, captivated by that sensual allure that beckons one to touch. Under the watchful eye of Joan Gardy Artigas, whom I met on this occasion, I embarked on a journey of initiation that would lead me to Gallifa. The Catalan cradle of the Artigas Foundation, Gallifa saw the creation of the Escalier and Philodendrons frescos that now decorate the Szafran Pavilion with their subtle glaze.
Sixty years earlier, in these same furnaces, the founding father Josep Llorens Artigas began his famous collaboration with Miro, who travelled to Gallifa to tame the fire and give body to these swirls of substance and color – sarcastic fountains, quirky gnomes and goblins, dishes and antiplats that stare at you with their beady eyes.
In the 1990s, the ceramics artists Johanet invited artists from all over the world to pay tribute to this great ceramist. Tapies, Chillida, Flanagan and many more came together to compose a beautifully mismatched collection of original plates in the furnaces of Gallifa. The collection has since continued to grow with a new generation of talented creators such as Isao and Jane Lebesque. We are inviting visitors to discover a selection of these artistic plates in the main hall of Palazzo Passi. The exhibition captures the dialogue with fire and guides the observer through a dimly lit room, plate by plate, towards the light of the Grand Canal.
FROM GALLIFA TO MURANO
While the masters of fire in Gallifa play with pigments, earth and ash, those in Murano fuse silica and fluxes to breathe transparent incandescence into the simplest of objects. On this tiny Venetian island, glassmakers have jealously guarded their secrets since the 13th century. Here, Francesca Giubilei and Luca Berta opened their doors for me to peek into unexpected workshops, where living fire is tamed by master glassmakers and gives form to artwork and everyday objects. In the heat of their furnaces, fire transforms the material and beauty is born from these fragile things. Too delicate to touch, they emerge from a motley jumble of broken
glass reminiscent of Jean Genet’s description of the Alberto Giacometti studio*.
“Everything is stained, in a state of refuse. It hangs precariously, about to collapse. Materials liquefy, disperse, flutter, float. And yet the entire thing is seized in a sort of absolute reality.” The Dialogue of Fire hopes to sublimate the prosaic reality of everyday life by opening the doors of the Palazzo Passi to two master glass artists, Judi Harvest and Silvano Rubino. I trust my friends and curators Luca Berta and Francesca Giubilei to showcase their splendor.
EVERYDAY MOMENT. The poetry of objects
Alchemy is the art of “usefully” transforming natural substances. The term derives from the Greek word khymeia, which means ‘to melt’, ‘to cast together’. Fire is attributed with the trans-mutational power of change, which transforms simple elements like sand or clay into precious materials such as glass or ceramic.
However, we should more accurately refer to alchemy as a complex system that is expressed through the language of various disciplines, and not only science. Considering alchemist thought merely as a precursor to modern chemistry and the scientific method would be to oversimplify. Beyond the material signification of the chemical and physical transformation of the elements, comes spiritual and metaphysical research, which has left numerous traces is the history of art. In contemporary art as well, materiality is interconnected with the symbolic and philosophical dimensions. The search for the philosophers’ stone is transformed in art into the search for truth
and deeper levels of knowledge. Similarly, the alchemical transmutation of simple metals into gold becomes, in artistic practice, the transformation of matter and everyday objects into works that bear multiple messages.
In the vast repertory of 20th and 21st century art, the quintessential example of alchemy is probably The Large Glass by Marcel Duchamp, a complex, (perhaps) unfinished piece full of scientific, literary and philosophical analogies, allusions and references which all overlap. Glass was chosen to be used as a membrane that allows the passage from one universe to another, letting the artist penetrate and delve into reality to discover the true nature of “things”, and returning it to the observer transmuted under the cover of art. The relationship between reality and fiction, both ordinary and extraordinary, bursts from the works of artists featured in the The Dialogue of Fire exhibition. In the past, fiction was created by fancifully altering reality, and the border between the two worlds was recognizable and distinct.
Today, we live in a society where reality feeds off representation1, and their respective spheres are increasingly overlapping and interchangeable. Art now uses new expository contexts, as the artist is asked to question how much reality exists in everyday life, and, conversely, how much our ability to perceive can pick up the degree of fiction surrounding us. This may explain why artists are now more than ever driven by how their works fit into the specific spirit of their setting, which is no longer necessarily only a museum. They can be in an urban, natural or domestic environment2. In particular, Judi Harvest and Silvano Rubino – through their artistic contributions to the rooms of the Palazzo Tiepolo Passi, the 16th century Venetian palace still used as a residence today – create
an immediate and reciprocal relationship between artwork and space, together triggering a process of de-contextualization and re-contextualization of everyday objects, which become artistic works. In the bedroom, one of the most intimate settings of the palace, Harvest has installed a pile of glass pillows scattered across a round mattress, as if to suggest that someone has recently left the room or as an invitation to the observer to stretch out across them. A pillow is one of the most personal objects imaginable: we sink our heads into them to sleep, to cry or to make love. It is something we can hug or throw around, something that absorbs and gives back all of our most intimate emotions. In the living room, generally a lively and friendly environment, Rubino has created a setting in which each glass object talks to itself. There is a relationship between the elements, but it is difficult to discern as the narrative tying them together is characterized by the bias of representation and the inaccessible intimacy of the symbols. The dialogue is incomplete, and the room is presented as a space of possibility and change.
In the long foyer, a room once used for receptions and balls, a collection of ceramic plates painted by acclaimed contemporary artists (Antoni Tàpies, Eduardo Chillida, James Campbell, Jane Le Besque and others) transforms the round space of a plate into a creative vehicle for the explosion of everyday life. What unites all the works displayed in the exhibition is their ambiguity as objects, which do not have any clear purpose from a functional point of view (we cannot lie down on Judi Harvest’s glass cushions, nor can we dine seated at the table by Silvano Rubino, nor be served on the plates by Isao Llorens Ishikawa or Joan Gardy Artigas). As such, they also challenge the traditional system of values and call for a rethinking of the definition of “useful”, “everyday object” and of
course “work of art”.
The upside down ceramic vase, the glass chair that cannot be used as a seat or the rigid and uncomfortable pillow, all displayed in another room in the Palazzo, are in appearance common objects, but lead to what is known in poetry as a “privileged moment”, a state of grace in which the artist has a more authentic understanding of reality. They are instruments for a personal and individual story, never absolute and universal. They are a collection of ideas and emotions that represent a specific moment in everyday life.
GLASS, CERAMIC, CONCEPTS. The meaning of materials in contemporary art
One hundred years ago in 1915, Marcel Duchamp presented In advance of the broken arm, one of his first readymades. The piece was a mass-produced snow shovel, dated and signed by the artist. I believe that this event has had a crucial impact on modern artists in choosing the materials they work in (to take two examples, glass and ceramic), and I will attempt to briefly explain why.
Duchamp’s readymades were the clearest epiphenomenon of a rift that ran through the art world, and that broke the continuity of its historical progression – or, as Arthur Danto says, led to the end of art, bringing on a new era characterized by the absence of linear development1. The break embodied in Duchamp’s shovel is that between art and manual work. Until then, artists individually chose their media and techniques (marble, wood, canvas, easel painting, fresco, etc.), which had their own history. Great artists pushed technique beyond its limits to find their own space of expression, while edging art a step further in its evolutionary journey. However, the refinement of manual skill eventually lost its meaning, diluted by the spread of industrial production technology, which guarantees perfection and large-scale reproduction. A work of art as a unique and inimitable object, resulting from the wisdom
of yielding to the exceptional individual, is now an empty stereotype. Duchamp chose a shovel, a mass-produced, esthetically neutral object to state that there is no longer any point for artists to dedicate their whole life to the chisel or paint brush (himself an accomplished painter) as instruments of expression. Artists should use every object as if it were a chisel or paintbrush. Each segment of reality should have the potential to be a color on their palette. And those segments of reality need not derive from the artist’s manual ability. Doing away with media and techniques, art is completely unleashed and free.
And this brings us to glass and ceramic. Today, an artist’s choice of material has a different meaning than in the past. It no longer involves simply opting for bronze over marble. The range of possibilities is so vast (performance, land art, installations, video, photography, post-media art, to name just a few),that the decision to produce an object in glass or ceramic must be driven by motivations that are intimately tied into the very meaning of the piece. Certainly not the artist’s personally developed manual technique, as contemporary artists largely employ qualified hands to produce their works, as is the case in this exhibition. However, delegating does not mean disregarding. Even if they do not execute the work, good artists consider the materials and their characteristics, the instruments used, the processes, how to organize the work. And all that is an integral part of the idea of creating. Except that to create that idea, artists must call on skills that are distinct from their own (the work of the craftsman is in essence like the shovel for Duchamp, the readymade that the artist selects to give it a new and different meaning). The metaphor of the movie director is often used, who is indisputably the creator of the film even if they do not directly operate the camera or personally manipulate the editing software.
However, the notion that the artist merely brings an idea, and that the question boils down to how to translate that into reality in the most faithful way, is fundamentally misleading, as artists often experience at their own expense. In fact, there is no material that responds to the idea without mediation, instantly transmuting into the artist’s intention (not even conceptual art functions this way, if only for the resistance that the formulation of a concept exercises regarding with respect to a given ‘pure thought’). And this is particularly true of the two materials featured in the Dialogue, glass and ceramic. These are difficult materials that do not allow for precise control over the process and remove all certainty as to the finished product. Fire is precisely what makes these materials essentially unmanageable, as it incorporates an incompressible wait, a metamorphosis leaving no possibility for correction or second thought. Fire acts (cooks the clay, makes glass malleable), the heat slowly dissipates, and we ultimately witness the epiphany of the final object. Often (with) an unplanned color, a hidden impurity, a small crack, an unexpected shine. If it is true that the authentic space of expression of the subject lies in the gap between the concept and its actual creation, glass and ceramic involve an incalculable margin in which every artist can lose control, while finding his or her expressive idiom.
In The Dialogue of Fire, the artists have called on the competence of exceptional craftsmen from Gallifa and Murano to create opportunities for beauty and meaning. A clean and round ceramic plate in turn becomes a force field through the calligraphy of Chillida, then a nocturnal backdrop for the golden butterfly by Isao, or the circle that contains not the balance of the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, but the orgiastic agglomeration by Hugh Weiss. The poetic substitutions by Rubino replace a moretto lamp with an impossible glass staircase or a clock with Mao’s Little Red Book under a crystal bell. Or, the transubstantiation of the very paradigm of white softness – the bed pillow – which Judi Harvest has transformed into a cold, colorful object, a festive hymn to joy bringing with it, through its material, a warning of fragility. And isn’t this a truth regarding happiness that glass allows her to express?
In art, matter speaks, saying something beyond the mastery with which it is worked. The artists of The Dialogue of Fire are given the far from easy task of giving voice to glass and ceramic.