Like Deep Towers in the Wind
Eugenio Alberti Schatz
1978-1998: Twenty Years of Work by Guido De Zan
What is it that distinguishes Western from Eastern man, in the intersecting projection of our preconceived ideas? The original sin of the Ancient Greeks, hubris. The blasphemous intention to challenge the gods and the will to upset the balance of nature to safeguard and profit one’s own self, introducing a spirit of rebellion and daring conquest. Perhaps this was the origin of the myth of secular or religious Eurocentrism, to which, more or less reluctantly, we all lend credence, only occasionally suffering the bitter aftertaste of the profound and unresolved contradictions it involves.
In the eternal dualism between technical man and the order of the universe, between artifice and nature, it is no surprise that every time Western man wishes to regain a humbler, more attentive vision of nature – seen as a vast circus in which men are just some of the many jugglers, clowns and acrobats – he should look to the Orient. ‘Made in the East’ has become a kind of trademark, a seal of quality for everything spiritual and authentically natural imported into our culture: from Zen meditation to Tibetan medicine, from martial arts to yoga and Tài jí, from the tea ceremony to the classic erotic literature of the imperial courts.
It was exactly twenty years ago that Guido De Zan, after studying sociology in Trent and working in psychiatric care, set out on a career hallmarked by his aloof stance from European intellectualism. As also by a personal vein of nostalgia for nature; for the all-pervading spirituality of its materials. Strip the veil from the material and you will always find a vast shining mirror which, with never-predictable results, returns to the handler a geography of the profound, a map of the motions of the soul.
De Zan looks to the Orient consistently, seriously, as the home of the great traditions of non-industrial ceramics, produced there, as in calligraphy and the art of drawing, in a manner in which the bond with nature is a starting point never called into question.
In Japan, unlike Europe, ceramics is viewed as an art in its own right, whose leading practitioners are keenly contested by art galleries. Not only is the social prestige of ceramists enhanced as a result, but ceramics itself is capable of absorbing the demands of ‘modernity’. A surprising contrast has emerged from the process: artists in the East, while still following traditional techniques, explore new avenues of expression, verging on the abstract. It is indeed the only way forward, if they are not to become mere artisans, reiterating the same codes ad infinitum.
In Europe and the United States, on the other hand, attention is concentrated on more orthodox sources, and so on ancient craftsmanship. So much so that Shoji Hamada, one of the great Japanese masters who, from the 1940s onward, together with the father of British studio pottery, Bernard Leach, was instrumental in catalysing enthusiasm for oriental ceramics in the West, was pleasantly surprised when in 1968 he was asked to write the preface for Herbert Sanders’ wide-ranging and meticulously researched treatise on techniques and tradition, The World of Japanese Ceramics. He was struck by the extent of scientific interest, as if the Japanese tradition were being reborn overseas.
Over the past two decades De Zan has explored the most extreme techniques of the spiritual-natural tradition. Raku, for instance, in which enormous importance is given to chance, to the play of unrepeatable combinations of material, elements and input from the craftsman. The potter becomes a hunter, his prey the fleeting moment of perfection. Raku is the search for the poetry of a moment, attributing to the impulsive gesture the same kind of significance it had in Action Painting. These twenty years have also seen De Zan complete a round trip, however: discovery of the Orient on the outward journey, and of research more distant from tradition on the return leg.
After taking on board oriental teachings, though never directly as a pupil, De Zan did not stand still in his research. He came up with ceramic steles, graphic compositions on ceramics and drypoint engraving, created an alphabet of cryptographic signs, and followed that with talking vases – strange characters that stretch their heads upwards at odd angles. Lately he has also begun pictorial work, in pastel and engraving. Always with a great wealth of languages. A unique, irreducible restlessness of expression which has tended to overflow from the traditional channel of the thrown and fired object.
That restlessness, which in an early phase pushed De Zan towards finding equilibrium – harmony of form, tonality and material – was not quietened when the result for which it had been striving was actually reached: equilibrium itself. And so it brought De Zan ‘home’ to the West, to the more typical expression of art as a locus of unrest. To an ambience in which even the essentiality and religiousness of a Fontana represent an epic of violence and interior conflict. A poetics of the gaping wound. After all, as Goethe put it, balance of forces in nature is unnatural, because all is motion, renewal. Breakdown and searching for a higher balance beyond.
All of this can be seen most clearly in his works from recent years, in the symptoms of a gradual erosion of balance, even of a growing imbalance. As De Zan himself has commented: “I like to think my shapes might represent characters, each with their own mental and physical traits. One characteristic they have in common, unfortunately, is extreme instability, or rather their highly precarious physical balance: they’re always on the verge of falling over. Maybe they need more grip on the ground, more surface contact with the earth, in other words, but then they would no longer be themselves... I like to see that they’re light, airy, barely tied to the earth, that they stand up in space despite their worries, their fears, their precarious equilibrium.”
Every piece that comes out of the kiln goes to join a dreamed-up metaphysical crib scene, animated by very human stories. Its mute but curiously articulate characters sound out the disruption of space, make play of static interference and shifts in weight balance both optical and physical. They do so gently, not emphatically, but with the clear intent to seek a way out from the stagnation of equilibrium: in the final analysis, De Zan is a Western artist.
His constructions challenge the wind, and in that dialogue with the fourth element (after the three already inherent in ceramics, as we know – earth, water and fire) there is a very strong intuition: to imagine his own creatures, emerged from the kiln to decorate homes and urban environments, being exposed to the whim of the elements. Battered and bent by the wind. Beaten by acid rains. Shaken by the rumbling of trams. Players not in a pastoral natural environment, but in ours, in the tormented nature of our industrious and absurd cities.
Without erasing the memory of a long and fertile journey to the East.