Roberto Costantino
Guy Debord
Olu Oguibe
Cecilia Chilosi
Lauri Firstenberg
Lucio Fontana
Hou Hanru
Luca Beatrice
Eva Grinstein
Marco Senaldi
Lou-Laurin Lam
Massimo Trogu
Hans-Ulrich Obrist
Nelson Herrera Ysla
Tiziana Casapietra

The turn of the twenty-first century is profoundly unique in the history of human creativity. Never before was there a greater array of facilities, media, strategies of expression and creative manifestation available to the artist. From clay and chalk and charcoal and stone, the oldest media known to artists, through paper and canvas and oils, to the most sophisticated digital and electronic media, the artist of the twenty-first century is limited not by a dearth of variety in media but only by the contours of his or her imagination and skill. No longer must the artist toil at stone or scale the face of a cliff but by choice. No longer the limitations of place and terrain when the most cumbersome medium can be moved about, transformed, worked upon from a distance, or mechanically formulated through automation or digital manipulation. The humble muralists of the Roman court, or Cimabue and his apprentices grinding away on rust and vegetable oil to produce their own paint, must look upon this moment with both envy and disdain.

Even so, when we contemplate the profound disconnectedness with meaning in contemporary art at the turn of the century, meaning as opposed to theory, craftiness, or mercantilist cunning, it becomes apparent that the profusion of media and techniques that graces our time has come at a cost. That cost is a growing and perceptible loss of understanding of, and identification with the conglomerate essence of media. That artists today are knowledgeable about the literal possibilities of their media is without doubt. That they are fascinated by them there is no question. Even when they have no personal skills in the direct manipulation of their chosen media, which is increasingly the case since fewer and fewer of them can draw and hardly any working in new media can do so without technical help, there is nevertheless little doubt that they are acutely aware of the spectaculary nuances of such media. What is often not in evidence, however, especially among younger artists, is knowledge and understanding beyond the mechanics of media, beyond the face value of their material. In other words the disconnection from meaning or the complete truth of the work, its full essence, resides and manifests in this absence of affinity with material beyond its logistical efficacy.

Every medium has its complex truth. Its physical or chemical composition, its history and its location in the history of art and ideas, its peculiarity among other media, its metaphorical resonance, the way in which it exerts upon the artist and dictates an application template of its own, all come together to constitute its specificity and uniqueness, and therefore its meaning or purpose. In effect, oil differs from acrylics not merely because one dries quicker than the other, but even more so because each medium is inextricably imbricated with the skins of history, each implicated by and complicit in a textual as well as textural convolution beyond its mere chemical consistency.

Graphite belongs in an evolutionary moment and possesses a chthonic resonance that may not be associated with digital media or even crayon. Stone connotes an intricacy of ideas and references that underlies the stonemason's devotion to it. The oil stick speaks to a different milieu and sensibility than oils. As medium watercolours resonate within a specific significatory bandwidth that cannot be dissociated from its use in painting and drawing. These attributes and associations - which are inherent as well as extra-literal - constitute the logic of the medium and circumscribe the work of art even as they magnify it. The medium, therefore, is as much a locus of meaning as the strategies and details of its transfiguration into idea. It is a language, a system, a code. It is also a paradigm within which the work of art is contained.

Of all media in which artists work, clay occupies a very special place. As earth it is the most elemental of all non-transient media. Unlike stone or steel, clay is a breathing form constituted of matter both living and dead. In this sense it is organic in a manner that is lacking in wood. Its malleability is magical and resonant of the very nature of our genesis, which perhaps explains its election by the gods as their medium of choice, according to legend in most cultures. When the artist handles clay, kneads it, shapes it, watches it evolve and harden into form, he or she experiences something that the potter knows too well; the excitement and challenge of our own creation, for to shape such amorphous matter till it comes into being is to bear witness to the hand of a greater creator. The challenge is magnified by the numerous processes that clay must go through before it becomes a vessel, and more so by the fact that the results, at the other end of the tunnel of creation, are unpredictable. Between the virgin clay, the grog, the unfired vessel or object, and the final product is a long, treacherous route fraught with occasionally frustrating moments to challenge even the finest master of the medium. Sometimes vessels collapse or crack, slips run, and objects are blown to smithereens in the hellfire of the kiln. In Yoruba mythology even the gods tripped on this route as they created humans, producing albinos and cripples in the process.

We are uniquely affined to clay if not because it is the material of which we were made, according to myth, at least because it is the earth to which we return. It is perhaps no coincidence that the greatest artists are drawn to clay at peculiar moments in their career; Picasso in his later years, the British modernists in retreat in St. Ives, the Cuban Wifredo Lam and the artists in Albisola, the African sculptor El Anatsui convalescing from illness in the north of England, pop artist Bridget Riley in the twilight of her career. The genuine artist is drawn to clay because it reaches beyond the mere convenience of a medium to connect with a chthonic region of the human spirit and constitution. The therapeutic nature of working clay is well known by all who work naturally in it, but even more so, on a particularly metaphoric as well as psychic level clay resonates with both our mortality as corporeal beings and the immortality of the soul. This psychic and figurative resonance was understood by all ancient cultures, and it does filter through to the greatest of artists that the ability to recycle clay - to pulverize disused ceramic into grog and with this reinforce fresh clay as it is readied for formulation into a new object - speaks directly to the cyclical nature of our own journey on earth. The wheel, the hand and fingers, the holistic combination of the elements: earth, water, air and fire; the absence of clinicality and its place the very messiness and fleshiness and sensuousness of manual immersion, the requisite of patience and mutual submission whereby the artist is as much at the mercy of material as the latter is at the mercy of the artist, these and other peculiarities of the ceramic vocation avail those who truly seek of depth and understanding that is often absent in practice at the turn of the century.

There is an awful lot to learn at the potter's wheel, and contemporary art will no doubt be richer if we pay heed to that simple truth.

Olu Oguibe

Olu Oguibe is a senior fellow of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics in New York, and author or editor of several books including "Uzo Egonu: An African Artist in the West," and "Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace." As an artist Oguibe's works have been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums as well as biennials and triennials around the world. He has also curated exhibitions for major institutions including most recently, "Century City" at the Tate Modern, London, "Cinco Continentes: Third International Salon of Painting" for the City Museum of Mexico, "Fresh Cream" for Phaidon Press, and "Authentic/ Ex-centric" at the 2001 Venice Biennale.