The possibility of an island*
Eugenio Alberti Schatz
La seule atmosphère pour une création artistique
c’est la régularité, la modestie, la continuité, la pérséverance.
At the small, oblong bay of Cheronissos wedged into the northern tip of the island of Sifnos, in the Cyclades, on a beach thronged by tourists in the summer and tamarisks all year round, stands an unassuming shop. The sign is written in wobbly letters: “Pottery, the troublesome art.” The master craftsman Constantin De Pastas is part of a tradition that is still going strong on the island. Sifnos is mentioned in the history books for three things: its electrum mines, which yield a natural alloy of gold and silver, and brought prosperity, enabling the inhabitants to build the Siphnian Treasury at the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi (of such great beauty as to grant its backers the right to consult the oracle before all others); its 235 monasteries and churches (in a place with a population of 2000 inhabitants); and its potters, who have passed down their techniques from generation to generation for over 2000 years. We enter for a conversation.
As his surname indicates, Constantin De Pastas is of Italian lineage. He is cheerfully in his eighties, and welcomes us with a rather diagonal smile that seems to be aimed at the horizon behind us. After all, we woke him up. His appearance is shabby: he seems to share the age-old conviction of the worker that getting dirty is inevitable. In the courtyard out back his daughter shows us the traditional kiln where they fire large plates, pots, lids, and small whistling terracotta birds – a little nuraghe of human stature. To insert the pieces to be fired, one has to stretch out and crawl. She shows us how it’s done, and offers us a bouquet of fresh mint. Constantin learned his art from his father, at the age of 8. Back then the wheel was turned using a pedal; the motor didn’t come along until the 1980s. He tells us that until recently seven workshops not only covered all the needs of the island for crockery, but also managed to export some of the output. The family workshop sent pieces all the way to an emporium in Alexandria. Today many potters have made their fortune in Athens, or have opened workshops that seem more like stores or art galleries, gauged – not without cynicism – to the tastes of the tourists.
Following in the footsteps of Archimedes, Constantin has invented pots with systems of hollows that retain or release water, depending on where you blow. He feels like a great inventor and seems to be more interested in showing off his scientific originality than in thinking about artistic merits. He tells us how he goes to select the red clay at a quarry on the island. He decides on the place for excavation, and the clay is then packed into white sacks: he can recognize the best material at a glance.
I slip back in time and think about the First Potter, the ancestor. Of course that is fiction, I know very well that there are many forebears, not just one, a relay race of men and women, across many generations. But I still like to imagine that First Potter here in Sifnos. He loved his island and caressed it with his gaze, as one does with a garden. He perceived it as an entity to touch, a sensual presence. Like the coat of an animal.
Like a sculptural landscape that features rocky breasts, shapely flanks, lowlands and sudden ascents. And so one day he must have had the desire to replicate those vivid forms with his hands, using the same material, which was in abundant supply. He took the earth to reproduce the forms of the earth. This is where it must have all begun. The forms of the body, ample, archetypal (the Great Mother), vessels for water and food, promises of the future. Degree One of progress: the vessel. Water and food could be stored and not immediately consumed – the first step towards a programmed existence, so as not to live at the mercy of day-to-day fortune.
Earth made of earth that speaks of earth. Yes, it must have happened thus, protection and Eros. Survival (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and narration, appeasement of fears, the reassuring pleasure of the touch. Pottery is still made like that, and in its foundations it is an everyday return to the origins of the world. Then came trade, competition, the pursuit of excellence and art, the geometric and the Oriental styles, the black figures, the red figures, the big industrial production of amphorae and immense kraters to celebrate the myths of power. But it all began with the eye that saw the earth and the hand that tried to reproduce it. It all started with a desire to imitate.
In Constantin De Pastas’s workshop the objects are set on rugged tables. Nothing worth mentioning. But then an object on the wall catches the eye. The master De Pastas has taken two pot covers, each with a white bird on top, and glued them together to create a sculpture. The two birds will gaze into each other’s eyes forever. A divertissement? Did he get an artistic intuition and follow it through, without taking himself too seriously? The two hypnotic birds remind me of TV Buddha (1974) by Nam June Paik.
It is as if our host had made the same leap as Guido De Zan, a parallel leap. To take our cue from a film by Krzysztof Kieślowski, we might say “the double life of Guido.” Both began with humility, dedication and obstinacy, constructing useful objects. And then both, at least once, must have felt a little tremor, a realization, out of serendipity, asking themselves: “What if the useful is actually useless, meaningless?”. One might as well plunge into research that has broken free of the imperative of purpose.
I suspect that there are no pat answers, that ceramists use their instinct to get their bearings, alternating phases of utility and phases of beauty, or at times achieving a temporary, fluctuating synthesis. Pottery puts up with the status of a younger sister of art, a status that keeps it moored, more than might be necessary, to the world of craft. But when we consider the chthonic and almost mystical relationship with the material – the homo faber who kneads and transforms the landscape – and if we recall that already in the Archaic period the Greek art of pottery ceased to be art at the service of functions, and the surfaces of urns became screens on which to project mythical figures; and if we accept the fact that function and aesthetics do not necessarily have to exist on a crash course, then pottery ceases to be the maidservant and gains appreciation as a noble link in the chain of art history, almost a journey into the unconscious of art, a pilgrimage back to the roots.
Obstinacy, we were saying. This is the right term for Guido De Zan: to get up every morning for forty years and to go work with clay. The practice of pottery has always been a training ground for method and perseverance. In 1965 Le Corbusier wrote: “Dans la vie il faut faire. C’est-à-dire agir dans la modestie, l’exactitude, la précision.” The architect’s words are pertinent, given the fact that the ceramist has to evaluate and know the strength of materials, their bearing and life span. He too has to come to terms with the weight of things. For the potter, every day is like a return to an island in the Cyclades, swept by the wind, with the mountain-climber goats, the orthodox priests who walk like dancers, the rocky inlets and the rises in the terrain that are so irrepressibly sculptural that new forms for the firing cannot help coming to mind. With quiet obstinacy. Knowing that by wrestling with nature the polished form of humanity will gradually emerge.
And a second word, depth, going into things, mingling with the earth before doing so with people. An expression of Luigi Veronelli resurfaces: “walking the earth.” (Which is quite different from “walking on the earth.”) This belonging, this affinity with the entire organism of the planet, also explains certain traits I’ll run the risk of indicating as being shared by ceramists as a human category: calm, discretion, a way of being taciturn and a bit detached. They are busy doing something else, playing with something else. Pottery is also the survival of an ancient culture that has miraculously wedged itself into our contemporary sensibilities. The radical courtesy, the sober pace, the terse manner belong to those who do not excel at words in the agora, but in the solitary duel with matter.
Earth, towers and theaters
Ceramists repeat themselves, make mistakes, try again, work on families of objects they then interpret in infinite variations, also to achieve refinement, to attain certainty in the results. Apart from this proviso, an interpretation of Guido’s evolution should be attempted. That is why I would like to try to divide into periods the four decades of his work, celebrated here, starting from the main subjects and types of shapes.
The first phase has to do with knowledge of the material: clay, its mixing and manipulation, firing. It fills the first decade of his output, approximately. After two initial years working on majolica, in the early 1980s De Zan switches to raku, a technique he explores for about ten years. He works in the classic manner, with a wheel, producing vases, cups, plates. All the forms are round, organic, harmonious, roomy, archetypes of motherhood. They all arise around a central axis, which aligns them with the planet as if there were a secret connection between the axle of the wheel and the Great Axle. It must be said that, over his forty years of work, the production of useful objects will never cease completely.
The raku technique offers lessons of unpredictability. The artist doesn’t know what might happen in the kiln. To receive the imprint of truth, the work has to survive the trial by fire. Like a race in which everything is decided in the last lap. Long schooling in patience, technique, Zen acceptance of the will of the material, which hidden from our gaze behaves in an independent way. A way of gentle council, accepting the laws and whims of nature, learning to embrace fate.
In the early 1990s, together with the shift towards stoneware and porcelain, the second phase starts. De Zan moves away from the wheel and decides to work with slabs. (Some of the photographs show the process of assembling taller pieces with four hands.) This opens up a new world. The monody, the tyrannical harmony of the wheel are silenced. The forms of the pots become elliptical. Rugged unsyncopated lines emerge, cutting through space without compromise. In his self-imposed exile from the wheel, De Zan discovers the freedom of moving inside non-Euclidean geometries. The vases get twisted. They begin to look at the world askew. They leave the beaten track and timidly at first, then with greater daring, they try to lose their balance. The pieces, though they still have a functional role, become characters with a tangible dramatic force. They seem like they are about to fall down. They remind us about human resistance, about the impossibility of foreseeing the outcome of the chess game with death. Maybe this is the delicate passage in which the artist, for the first time, breaks free of the potter and clears his throat, preparing to make himself heard.
And the vases become towers. I wrote about them in 1998, enchanted by just how explicit the emotions of the towers could be, saying that like anemones they jostle their way upward, begging pardon for not having yet risen off the ground. The tower is a human construction that speaks of enemies and sightings, prey and predators, slavery and islands long cut off from the rest of the world. It speaks of social competition in the historic Italian cities. It speaks of us. De Zan’s objects enter the history of mankind, which is a history of cities. (Some pieces are both archaic and constructivist towers, seeming to weld the dark, solemn legacy of Mesopotamian civilizations with the utopian thrust of Soviet architecture just after the Revolution.)
But these towers are also models of people who dig inside themselves, feeling their way in the darkness of the psyche. Everyone can adopt a tower as the mold of their own clumsy labor of liberation from the chains of ego. After his studies of sociology, I’d say, and after the years of engagement, for Guido the time comes for psychology. A practical psychology, of course. His creatures of earth are walkers on the tightrope of being.
The third phase starts shortly thereafter, at the turn of the millennium. De Zan listens to the solitude of the towers. It makes an impression. And he does what novelists often do with their characters: he lets himself be guided, trying to make them reach fulfillment. He begins to make them play with each other. A leaning tower is like a lover stretching to find the shoulder of the beloved, seeking tenderness with the lower part of the chin. Vases and towers establish dialogues. They keep each other company. They look into each other’s eyes, seeking each other, while remaining two distinct entities. The two-way relationship, in any case, is already a move towards politics. So it should come as no surprise that a shift soon happens from the two to the many, and the first little “theaters of life” appear.
Wooden frames that contain different characters and crèches in which the figurines emerge, like the Linea of Osvaldo Cavandoli, with their feet melting in the ground. In the theaters we can sense faraway echoes of the cycle Le avventure di Gustavo B. by Alik Cavaliere, and of Fausto Melotti, not so much the Melotti of ceramics (which in turn evokes Marini) but instead – on quite a different scale – that of the Sette Savi. Like De Zan’s figures, austere, summoned to gather for grave reasons.
The theaters stage the trajectories of human beings, their fragile destinies. They are like aquariums in which to gaze at life from the comfort of your seat (Olympus?), with all the implications of awkward comedy, resignation and failure. But human beings are made thus, and herein lies their dignity: though they know the play will not have a happy ending, they’re back on stage, every day. And it is interesting to observe how each character, even in the complexity and cheerful confusion of these riotous gatherings, keeps a clear individual gaze. Each of them looks in a precise direction, not letting themselves be distracted by the group.
I got to know Guido in the early 1990s, when I was living at the Colonne di San Lorenzo. On the staircase in my building, I could see one of the four stepped towers that stand as the basilica’s sentinals. This place is dear to the people of Milan, and full of stories. There is via Mora, which reminds us of the collective psychosis against the plague spreaders described by Manzoni, and incredibly enough there were still barber shops on that street at the time. There were still crannies cluttered with rubble from World War II, the last traces of that summer of 1944 when the Allied planes dumped the bombs originally destined for the factories in the northern part of the city, making room for the Parco delle Basiliche. I was in love with that place, which coincided with a happy period of my life, and since I am curious I soon discovered Guido’s workshop on via Pio IV. Like him I am timid, but one day I got up my courage and entered. Since then my friendship with Guido has never been interrupted, but has moved forward with ceramic obstinacy thanks to the excuse of working together on editions and booklets. I immediately liked the towers, and I fell in love with the spirit of the place.
A rather faded and slightly old-fashioned shop window, which I hope will never change, invites a chosen few to enter. (I have a photograph by Guido of an abandoned window in Burgundy that nimbly captures the temporary nature of life.) Once inside time vanishes, and you find yourself in an aquarium where enchanted objects float around you, to touch with the eyes. For years, on the glass next to the door, hung a crumpled message written by Bruno Munari. The table. The kiln. The books. A few pieces of jewelry by Guido and by artist friends, behind glass doors. The drawings. A thin coat of white powder on everything. The quiet smiles of Guido and his assistants. On the loft, in total opposition to the thrift of the pieces on view, the cavern of the whale: a little heap of pieces, in no apparent order. More like a pantry than an archive. Or maybe an ark that gathers objects useful for future generations in case of a universal shipwreck.
The trajectory of Guido’s encounters could be defined as follows: few but intense. When you travel on the Silk Road you encounter desert desert desert, and then an oasis. Desert desert desert, then a marvelous city in which to gain refreshment and to talk with people who open your heart. He narrates them like this.
The mentor. “I met Claudio Nobile when I had just started to get interested in ceramics, halfway through the 1970s. I went to see him at his workshop in Framura during summer vacations, to watch him work, and to give him a hand when needed. If ever I had a teacher, it was Claudio. I learned the basics of the craft from him. He had worked for about ten years in Norway, and he acquainted me with materials I didn’t know about, like stoneware and porcelain. He taught me to make glazes starting from the raw materials.”
The incubator. “The encounter with Lorenzo Fiaschi, Maurizio Rigillo and Mario Cristiani, the founders of Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, was very important. With them, in the early 1990s I took part in many group shows and fairs, in Italy and abroad. I was able to come to terms with the world and the art market, with critics and collectors. Those years prompted me to extend my research towards sculpture and graphics, paying closer attention to the artistic aspect of my work.”
The photographer. “Arno Hammacher worked on my first publication, also doing the graphic design. He showed me how the camera is able to narrate art also on very different registers from those of the artist who made it.”
The architect. “Marcello Sèstito is an architect, designer, writer and an artist in his own right. In 1993 his text accompanied my work in a series of 135 porcelain pieces engraved with automatic writing. He prompted me to think about and understand certain things regarding the connections between my work and architecture, cityscapes.”
The big brother. “In 1994 Bruno Munari came to my workshop, accompanied by a mutual friend, the designer Marco Ferreri. I vividly recall his curiosity, the questions he asked about my work and the materials I used. He asked me for some sheets of paper and began to sketch the vases he had in mind and wanted to make with me. He said he would write something about my work. Some time passed, and then I went to visit him in his studio. He showed me all his prototypes, finished objects or projects in the development stage. I remember the bamboo vases he had designed with Japanese artisans. We exchanged gifts: I had brought two raku cups for him and his wife, and he gave me a travel sculpture. The vases were never made, because he fell ill, but the text did arrive.”
The critic. “Flaminio Gualdoni has always been interested in art ceramics, and he is the editor of Fragile, a magazine on ceramics. After making not very long visits to my studio and the workshop, he wrote an essay that amazed me. He had profoundly captured the meaning of my work, and therefore certain aspects of my personality, including some that were hidden from me.”
Lightness and other stories
The poetic manifesto of Guido De Zan can be summed up in one terse phrase. “I can’t keep still with idle hands.” Implacable understatement, no flights of fancy here. Even when he narrates the early days of his career, De Zan weaves lightness. As if life, and artistic research, were little more than a game.
“In 1975 my uncle, a mechanic, helped me to build a pedal-driven potter’s wheel, and let me use his old workshop. There, with two friends, I organized a studio. I bought two old kilns and began to make my first works, using the wheel. At the same time, my work with disabled children continued, until the end of the 1970s. I concentrated on pottery in my spare time, and on weekends I sold the pieces I produced (vases, bowls, teapots, cups...) at flea markets and local festivals organized by left-wing parties and movements. The encouraging success of my ceramics started to make me think I could make a career in that field. In 1978 I bought a space with two windows on via Pio IV, a small street next to the church of San Lorenzo, in the Ticinese zone, a central place that was a working class area at the time. Since then I have worked there, and many things have happened.” It all sounds so easy, so light.
The choice of place is already a way of taking sides. The workshop Il Coccio is in the city center, but at a rather hidden, secluded location. Too much a potter for artists, too much an artist for potters, De Zan has carved out his own perch – on that street and on the art scene – always with lightness, without fanfare. With the same lightness he has journeyed through other fields like graphic design, photography, etching, drawing, collage, oil and acrylic painting. With comparable levity he has indulged in his architectural obsessions – not without irony – suspended between a reconsideration of the souvenir and Milanese pride, especially with reference to the Torre Velasca and the Pirelli skyscraper. De Zan has conducted a true campaign on the Pirelli building, first with photographs and then with ceramics. And here the manner of the First Potter returns. “Today I go outside, I see that hill, then I return to replicate it.” The benevolent focus on the Pirelli skyscraper, that stalactite of concrete born to become the symbol of Milan, is a sign of love for the city and the modern calling of its inhabitants.
The word lightness is often repeated in the artist’s writings. There is a clear intention: making things light is a sign of virtue, a goal to be pursued. Hollowing, emptying, removing weight, removing material before firing to avoid the risk of cracks, are operations intrinsic to ceramics. In this regard, it is worth going back to one of the memos of Italo Calvino. “Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard.”
Munari and Gualdoni have written about the inscription on the ‘skin,’ the alphabets of etched signs of De Zan. And Sèstito has acutely observed the metaphysical overtones – a factor I think comes to the surface in a non-marginal way in De Zan’s production. The creation of a multitude of similar objects with few variations suggests an imaginary library that would have appealed to Jorge Luis Borges. Taken all together, the pieces are transformed into melancholy archives of buried civilizations, remnants of collections and inventories of invisible armies that have never made up their minds to storm the Bastiani Fortress. I use the term metaphysical because as in Kafka’s castle, the series of these objects can never be fully known or fully governed. There is a moment of the ineffable. We are under the sway of dark forces, of which in the best of cases we can only be the humblest cataloguers of a portion.
I am thinking of the abaci of Mesopotamian origin, where the frame holds mysterious units of quantity together, and the steles, in which the tower is composed of small cylinders of different colors. But also of the wall sculptures with vertebrae of fantastic animals, a shark from Greenland or a narwhal, that have left traces of protruding fins or large teeth in passing. The noble forebears of Italian Metaphysics are De Chirico, Savinio, Sironi and Carrà. What do they have in common? A rarefaction, a measured desolation, the song that becomes the periphery of the soul. But above all the way of slowing time down to the point of congealing it, a sense of imminence of history. Something is about to happen. A siren that fends the air, a declaration of war on the radio, a cry in the fog... Or much less – the beat of an eyelid, a sneeze, the chirping of crickets, acts capable on their own of making ancient empires come crashing down. De Zan stands beside them, or at least it seems to me. In his works we can hear the sweet note of the faraway, at times of the transcendent. Spending time with Guido’s work, I have learned to recognize that note, a basso continuo, like the sound of a viola da gamba. If you ask him he’ll deny it. But I can assure you, that note is audible. The metaphysical is persistent praise of shadow, of doubt, of elsewhere, of distance. As Walter Benjamin said, if to take possession of the object we kill its sheath, then the distance crumbles, and with it the aura of art. The artist knows this, and is careful not to take that step. In the ABC of De Zan I get a strong sense of the elsewhere, the refusal to be satisfied with the here and now. The fact of not knowing what is our mission on earth does not exempt us from the damage we can cause to others in its accomplishment. The artist questions himself. At least he does it.
A woven hat, a potsherd and a sprig of basil
Spyridon of Trimythous is one of the most fervently worshipped saints of the Orthodox Church (in Cyprus he is honored five times each year!), and he is also a saint for Catholics. His life is a film. He was a shepherd in Cyprus in the 4th century AD, and when his wife died he devoted himself with some success to religion, becoming the bishop of a remote zone of the island. He remained humble and did not lose sight of his roots even after that appointment, and in fact he continued to tend to his sheep as if nothing had changed. He was much loved by the islanders and immediately considered for sainthood thanks to a series of miracles attributed to him, and he had a sturdy temperament: he refused to give in to the Emperor Galerius, and thus had to face exile. In his icons he wears a woven shepherd’s cap that seems like an overturned bowl, at times accompanied by a potsherd or a sprig of basil. He is the patron saint of ceramists and potters. We are tempted to call him a “democratic” saint, if this term can be taken to mean the ability to establish empathy with all social classes, including the least advantaged.
Spyridon, the saint of miracles, walked the island every blessed day, knowing that the earth is not generous with its treasures. You have to earn them yourself. On the hard earth there is the wear and tear of the wind, suspicion, human misery. I can almost glimpse him, on that windswept island, where he crossed exhausting distances on foot, sensing the ground beneath his feet as if it were a crust, recently cooled to hardness by the mystery of the sea. His features mingle with those of Guido (and of Constantin, and of all the potters in the world, even those not yet born) – a certain clarity of intent even in apparent hesitation, eyes that know how to look very close, or very far. I can see him obstinately caring for goats and souls, leading an existence without frills or finery, in substantial contiguity with the threshold of the divine: the blue of the sky, the black of the earth, the white of the spirit, and the other colors of the life of men, including the gray and ochre of subsistence, on which life and death can depend. And now, after so much “walking the earth,” I think Guido is ready to liberate his ceramic flock to roam the world, free at last. Every creature with its own imprint of origins, purity, the soft note from far away, the thrill of the senses, the proud solitude buffeted by the wind.
(*) The title of a novel from 2005 by Michel Houellebecq, which addresses the theme of memory in a science fiction setting, partly on the island of Lanzarote.