It all started when Roberto (1), rather than buy industrially-produced plates, decided to ask Danilo (2) to show him something craftsman-made, something that was literally fresh from the kilns. He had been taken by the idea of serving up trenette in pesto (3) to friends on plates made in the Ligurian tradition. Danilo suggested that Roberto come down and make the plates himself, just as he saw them in his mind's eye. The workshop, the clay, the colors and the kilns would all be at his disposal, and the results would be split between the Roberto and the factory. This was precisely how things used to work in the 1950s and '60s when Albisola would play host to so many artists intent on working alongside ceramics craftsmen (4): once the ceramics were finished, half would be for the artist, the other half left with the factory.
So, Roberto spent an entire day in December 1999 at Danilo Trogu's workshop painting plates in a vaguely expressionist key, the chosen motif a lucky clover. Things had thus got off to an auspicious start.
Once the plates had been produced, we had the idea of taking this fun experiment a step further by inviting some artists to come and work at Danilo's workshop. Thus, we would be emulating the "mythical" years when artists such as Lucio Fontana, Pinot Gallizio, Asger Jorn, Wifredo Lam and Piero Manzoni would descend upon Albisola to work alongside local ceramists (5).
The first artist we invited was Sislej Xhafa, his response unexpectedly enthusiastic. A pleasant surprise. Next, we contacted Alessandro Pessoli, Loris Cecchini, Perino e Vele, all of whom looked upon the idea of working with ceramics as an interesting challenge.
We had wondered whether this raw material would weave any spell over artists today. Ultimately, the idea of the material and the chance to work with local craftspeople, rather than a threat, was a source of curiosity.
A few weeks later, Kristian Hornsleth arrived in Italy. He took up our invitation to come to Albisola the same day as Sislej did.
By now, the vague initial idea began to take on a more concrete form. We would have to get the production of works underway and, along with some friends, we managed to cobble together a welcoming committee. Adelina Robotti offered to put artists up in her house in the hills overlooking Varazze. From this vantage point, you can take in the spectacle of the gulf of Liguria, which would certainly help the artists feel at one with the territory alongside all the other artists from all over the world. Even the Pilar cafe, just across from the Albisola beach, came to our aid, by offering lunches.
As we had agreed, Sislej Xhafa and Kristian Hornsleth were the first to arrive, one May 2000 weekend. Sislej proceeded to transform a slab of clay into a black manhole cover which he asked us to exhibit on a red base as a monument to inner city drains. Kristian, meanwhile, closed himself in a tiny room to translate the horrors of North European fairy tales into ceramic form: a ferocity blunted by the preciousness of the color, a dripping gold that blocks the Viking energy in a jewel.
Kristian di Albisola falls in love with working the clay, enough so to make him want to return the following summer. We are all astonished when he actually does return in late June in an enormous white van, only to stay here the whole of July. He takes up at Danilo's workshop for an entire month where he produces sculpture after sculpture. He defines this a cathartic operation.
By mid-summer, we had the pleasure of the company of Alessandro Pessoli and Loris Cecchini. In true "Fantozzi" spirit (6), we all set off from Milan in a Fiat Panda 750, its heating on the blink and therefore always switched on. Once we touched down in Albisola, Pessoli spent the weekend creating and painting forms in ceramics. He would return on various occasions to work at Danilo's workshop in order to get his work in shape and to oversee the making of the iron table his work would be exhibited on.
Cecchini, meanwhile, aimed to reproduce five motorbike helmets in ceramics, and this would require plaster casting. Enter Massimo Trogu (7), a wizard of the plaster cast, who painstakingly produced what Cecchini needed. Once they had been realized in ceramics and colored, Cecchini proceeded to smash them up only to recompose them. The inherent fragility of ceramics comes into collision with an object, in this case the helmet, the reassuring, lifesaving connotations of which are promptly shattered.
Meanwhile, Perino e Vele's project arrived; it would entail the creation of a large scale ceramic cushion. Danilo prepared the cast and Perino e Vele arrived for work in Albisola in July. On the surface of the cushion they arranged a series of squares creating a sense of depth to the surface by means of optical illusion.
During the same summer, we had Rainer Ganahl and Gianni Motti. Ganahl arrived one torrid August day complete with scarf and woolen beret only to catch an incipient fever. His project was to prepare a stamp bearing the date when the anti-Semitic race laws were passed in Italy, 19 November, 1938. This date was printed onto ten hefty dark brown ceramic blocks, a solemn sentence.
Gianni Motti meanwhile, was struck by the fact that there were not one but two Albisolas: Albisola Superiore and Albissola Marina. Two different communes, two mayors, two administrations. Thus he decided to propose a work playing on these two "separated parties living under the same roof" and, with Danilo's help came up with two urns. He pledged that on inauguration day he would stage an ad hoc referendum inviting the citizens to express their opinions regarding a possible unification of the two Albisolas. Jokingly, he suggested maybe a third Albisola might be posited, Albisola Capo (currently under the jurisdiction of Albisola Superiore), perhaps as an independent constituency...
Luca Vitone too was inspired by the territory, or, more precisely by an amygdala, a Paleolithic stone knife which had been dug up in Liguria. Once again, a plaster cast was needed to produce the 10 amygdalas in ceramics that Vitone had in mind. Once they were ready, the ceramic forms were punctured internally to create a still useful and actual object: a cylom. Each piece comes in a rough wood box containing a map pointing out where the original amygdala was supposedly unearthed in Liguria.
Having arrived in Europe from San Francisco for the Locarno Video Festival this past summer, Persian artist Sohela Farokhi immediately made a diversion for Albisola where she painted phrases from the Koran on two ceramic hands joined in prayer. That evening, we took her to a trattoria in the heart of Albissola Marina to try the famous Genoese minestrone (8).
Momoyo Torimitsu, who was in Paris for a show at Xippas, reached us in Milan, while Daniel Firman, with wife Emanuelle, joined us by train from Lyon. All five of us left for Albisola by Panda (once again it was a comedy nightmare escapade, especially when, mid-way up the steep road leading to Adelina the wheels started to skid and give off smoke). At Danilo's workshop, Daniel, assisted by Emanuelle, set about painting clay discs which he would play during the exhibition. Momoyo Torimitsu, meanwhile, came up with a fainted, belly-up rabbit, regaling us with tales of the youth craze in Japan for "Para Para". Although it was September, we managed one of our last dips in the sea followed by dinner at Danilo's house (he also happens to be an excellent cook).
Unfortunately, as sometimes happens when working with ceramics, Momoyo's rabbit took a suicide dive in the kiln some weeks later, and burst into a thousand pieces. Massimo was prompt to help out. By reassembling the remaining fragments, he managed to reconstitute the rabbit and to prepare the plaster cast needed to clone the little victim for eventual multiples.
Our last swim in the sea came a few weeks later when Yuan Shun arrived from Berlin. For him, Danilo prepared three large ceramic eggs upon which Yuan inscribed the symbols of I Ching, symbols of the elements of nature. Once fired, the eggs were painted in red, black and white.
Nina Childress arrived one rainy September day from Paris. Once in Albisola, she translated the trademark wigs from her paintings into ceramics. Danilo was afraid that with their twists, turns and tricky curls, the wigs would meet the same fate as the rabbit once consigned to the kiln. Instead, they held their own. A lover of opera, Nina talked us into accompanying her to the Chiabrera theater in Savona.
At around the same time, Luca Pancrazzi arrived and asked Danilo to come up with a copy of his identity card in ceramic. This would necessitate yet another plaster cast. As a painter, Pancrazzi was a frequent presence in the workshop, working painstakingly on the 34 documents in ceramic, no more than a millimeter in thickness. Indeed, a symbol of the fragility of identity.
The artists were participating with great enthusiasm and this prompted us to invite even more artists. A fax to Marisa Merz, and she seemed interested. The same day she was there, along with Mario Merz, at Danilo's where, over the following days, she produced a small ceramic head. Paola Boggi of Albisola's Hotel Garden was prompt to offer accommodation to the Merz's. Alas, Marisa left with the ceramic head which, to our great disappointment, will never be seen again in Albisola. (We suppose we will see it exhibited elsewhere in the near future...)
The number of artists involved continued to increase, and this meant we would have to widen our network of collaborators. Ceramphoto opened its doors and offered its services in reproducing the fake magazine covers on ceramic blocks created by Uros Djuric. These feature photomontages with an ironic take on the stereotypical image of the Serbs as promoted by the western European tabloid press.
Around this time, another savior would appear, in the form of Ernesto Canepa who, like Danilo, would give us full use of his factory, the Ernan Design studio. Here, we would bring some ten artists. Ceramics virtuosos Bertozzi & Dal Monte Casoni (their ceramics output even includes underwear) proceeded to take over the Ernan studio, scooping up all the locally-produced plates they could to incorporate into their crazy, disparate assemblage. The results even feature a ceramic skull.
Come October, and we were joined by Bili Bidjocka. Ernesto Canepa had already prepared for the artist a slab of clay which Bili proceeded to cut into various forms which he subsequently fired and painted black. Like a jigsaw puzzle made up exclusively of black pieces, the shapes are to be pieced together on the wall to map out the form of a dress.
Ana-Laura Alaez arrived from Madrid the same day as Costa Vece came in from Zurich. Ana Laura's project was for two tea tables of identical dimensions but one painted light pink, the other bordeaux. On top of each table, a cup and saucer to match the color of the table. Her intention was to confer a hint of industrial design on ceramics, reducing the manual nature of the craft as far as possible to the zero degree.
Costa Vece, with the help of Mohamed Lamrahi of the studio Ernan came up with a fully-decorated ceramic wedding cake: a Pop monument of cream, cherries and profiteroles, alas all in terracotta. Elke Krystufek asked for a model of a WC with arms on which to place a laptop and a mobile phone, all in ceramic. Krystufek then asked Anna Maria Pacetti (9) to portray her, painting in a face complete with false beard, inside the toilet bowl no less!
Getting Nicola Costantino over from Argentina to Albisola was a truly complicated affair. In the end, she sent over her life-size fiberglass model of a dead calf fetus. Canepa used the model to obtain a cast from which six calves were produced. Placed one after the other in a circular formation, the never-born calves, painted in a delicate flesh pink, constituted a sort of bas-relief apart.
Soo-Kyung Lee descended upon Albisola from Seoul following a 17-hour flight plus three hours in the trusty Panda from Milan. She related to us, in English, an ancient Korean legend. The tale, which I simultaneously translated into Italian, was subsequently illustrated on twelve vases in an iconography mid-way between that of Korea and that of Albisola. At the end, Anna Maria had to tell me the story she had illustrated on the vases in Italian, while I translated the story back into English for Soo-Kyung, while she recorded me. This intertwining of language, iconography, cultures and traditions comes in the form of a text published in the catalogue alongside the photographs of the twelve vases decorated by Anna Maria. This is the same legend mechanically translated by Altavista (10) in English and Italian.
Jane Simpson too created a piece based on the contamination between different languages. Basing her work on two engravings by Giorgio Morandi, Simpson had Mohamed Lamrahi reconstruct Morandi's still life in ceramics. Once the pieces had been rendered in ceramics, they were soaked in a glossy, transparent white pigment symbolizing ice, a medium Simpson often works in. Jane joined us in a trattoria in the historic center of Albisola Superiore to enjoy a Ligurian farinata and some Nostralino (11): a veritable triumph of tradition.
Now that the mixture of history and culture was well underway, we felt able to take the proceedings even further by tracing down Lou-Laurin Lam who accepted our offer for her to tell of her years spent in Albisola (12). She joined us with her son Timour in March this year. While in Albisola, she worked at the studio Ernan, illustrating plate after plate. Some of these, Lou illustrated with frogs in an homage to the theory of Brisset which holds that man is a descendant of the frog. Other plates, meanwhile, were dedicated to Piero Manzoni whom Lou had come to know well in Albisola. These plates featured Manzoni's startled eyes, while others, titled Merda Solida (Solid Shit), reproduced the artist's legendary Merda d'Artista (Artist's Shit)(13), not canned this time round but, in Lou Lam's interpretation, served up on a plate.
Finally, only this past May, El Anatsui arrived from Lagos. At the Ernan studio, El worked on thirty-three forms in clay, made concave so as to contain fragments of colored glass which, when the kiln was pumped up to over 1000 degrees, would liquefy. At room temperature, they would re-solidify, taking on the form of so many water mirrors. Positioned one after the other at ground level, they take on the form of a river which El, a smile on his lips, defines as a Digital River.
For this project, which we hope will be the first in a long series of biennials, El was the final artist to come and work in Albisola. Considering the time scale demanded by the material used, we found we could invite no further artists to collaborate with the local craftsmen.
We are eschewing the commonly-used curatorial approach of having works produced elsewhere. Indeed, our intention is to transgress the rules of global marketing which dictate that everything must be planned and uniform, and therefore anonymous and silenced pieces made wherever and available practically everywhere: be they McDonalds' burgers, Benetton sweaters, Guggenheim franchises across the world, or the art on show today at the Venice Biennale, tomorrow at Basel, the day after at Christie's, New York. This is the underlying principle of transnational economy which seems intent on everything resembling everything else, be it objects, cities, or the way art is conceived and exhibited.
Flying in the face of the dominant homologation, here we find Albisola, a wonderful, exciting dot on the Mediterranean coast, rediscovering the courage to assert the wealth of diversity that comes from its own traditions and those of the artists it hosts. And this is because, despite the odds, we still have the diversity of the provinces which, in terms of planetary surface, far outweigh that of the great capitals put together.
During the conferences on Biennials held this year at Arco art fair in Madrid, the consensus was that there was no longer any need for Biennials or large-scale art events in general in Europe or, indeed, in the United States. This was because in cities like Berlin, London, Milan or New York, people will always go anyway, independently of what it is presenting. The conference decided that it was time countries outside of Europe, outside of the West received attention.
Let us, however, remember that the "West" consists of more than Berlin, London, Milan or New York. In Italy alone, there is a multitude of areas well outside of the main centers, jealously keeping their diversity and typical traditions alive. Once seen as a penalty, exclusion from the great market circuits now represents a source of wealth. In a uniform world, these places, including Albisola, can finally boast their own traditions.
Culturally, this rediscovery of local peculiarities must not, obviously, take the form of an obtuse defensiveness aimed at hemming in local differences. Rather, it should serve to reunite culture with its function of probing contradictions and differences and presenting them in such a way that dialogue and a disposition towards presaging change, growth and enrichment can be achieved.
In this spirit, we have attempted to turn the ferocious reality of globalization to our advantage. It is actually thanks to globalization that we have been able to attract so many artists from the most far-flung cultures to discover local traditions (in our case, ceramics), that these artists be able to leave their own trace. This reciprocal exchange is the noblest aspect - the "happy face" - of globalization.
And the invited artists have shown admirable courage in opening themselves up. Admirable in the sense that there is always a risk in translating one's own identity through a medium with which we are not au fait. It is interesting to note that all the participating artists managed to stay true to themselves. Yes, they have bent in compliance with the material, and in the case of ceramics the unwieldy times required by the whole process, but without ever being subjugated.
This is why I thank, in all sincerity (culture also, perhaps especially, requires a degree of emotional vulnerability) the various artists who have participated in this venture, for their passion and their intellectual honesty.
Likewise the ceramists who have worked day and night, weekends included, and the graphic artist who has stayed up with us into the wee small hours in front of a computer screen.
And not forgetting the critical input of all those who have contributed to the catalogue, their intellectual contributions a further enrichment to all of us involved and to the project in as a whole.
Also indispensable has been the trust shown in us by the local, national, and international institutions whose support has prompted us along the way. On this note, I must share an anecdote with the reader: the first time we met with the mayor of Albissola Marina to outline our project, the chambers were struck by an earthquake (Assessor Ettore Molino, also present at the meeting will testify to this). It was a strong one and quite scary, yet in the face of Fontana's Colombina (14), as Italians with a certain religious superstition running through our veins, we opted to take the earthquake as a sign of fate, a wish from the otherworld that everything go well.
Like each individual work on show in this exhibition, so too has this entire project sprung from the raw material: worked with passion. We hope we have sowed the seed for a fresh new way of viewing culture and art, based on the expressive clout that comes from personal contact, diversity and complexity. This is the vital energy that will stand up against those plunderers of thought who have relegated art and culture to the level of mere entertainment which, on a planetary level, means chit-chat, merchandise and glitter.
And we intend to continue to work towards reinforcing what Susan Sontag calls "the International Republic of Letters", which we prefer to paraphrase as "the International Republic of Culture".
Co-curator of the Biennale.