SAVONA, ITALY -- Biennales are commonplace these days, hoisting the flag of contemporary art, showcasing the sometimes more outlandish examples and attracting an international clientele in droves. But there's a new model afloat, one more profound in its impact and more academic in nature.
Simply consider the first international meeting of the Biennale di Ceramica nell'Arte Contemporanea held Oct. 19-20, 2002, in Savona, just west of Genoa. There Tiziane Casapietra, a 35-year-old dynamo, and her partner Roberto Constantino have launched a Biennale under the aegis of the Attese Cultural Association, which is fast making a once major but now declining ceramics center an important stop on the global art shopping circuit. And in the process they're inducing a slew of artists from Third World countries as well as Europe to take on the mantle of ceramists. Call it the alternative Biennale, one loaded with altruistic intentions.
The weekend was really more conference showcasing curators, art historians with artists destined for the second edition of the Biennale to take place this summer. And the participants could not have been more top tier from Nelson Herrera Ysla, founder of Havana's Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center as well as the biennale there, to Anne-Claire Schumacher, curator of the Musèe Ariana in Geneva. That museum, boasting more than 80,000 pivotal examples in both glass and ceramics, can be compared in terms of the stature and connoisseurship to London's V&A Museum.
But first the coastal town of Savona, whose streets are lined with potteries and the sidewalks of the promenade are splashed with mosaics turned out by artists like Wifredo Lam and Lucio Fontana. In fact, this seaside spot of 65,000 dates back to the Bronze Age and ceramics have played a pivotal role here for centuries. Also nearby Albisola Marina, Albisola Superiore and Vado Ligure boast countless potteries now turning out renditions of 15th century pharmacy jars, breakfast sets and vases with 18th-century Rococo scenes.
"We wanted artists to return and revitalize a significant artistic tradition here," says Casapietra, a professor at Milan's Brera Fine Arts Academy and editor of ArtIndex, the international art and finance magazine. She points to the decades of the '50s through the '70s when such influential artists as Fontana and Lam flocked to this area to turn their hands to ceramics. To that end, more than 20 artists were invited to work alongside local craftsmen in a total of 12 ceramics factories. Their works will be presented next summer.
But at the same time, the intentions of the co-founders of the Biennale are highly sophisticated and politicized in a manner that is quite frankly foreign to the contemporary scene in the U.S. Their emphasis, which runs opposite from cultural uniformity, stems out of counterculture globalization and radical art criticism. "We aim to reinterpret the territorial context of art," says Constantino.
"Glocal" is the term they use for the latest efforts of contemporary artists working in ceramics under their aegis. By that they mean: the human scale is dominant with artists from Argentina, Cuba, Cameron, Zimbabwe, Korea, Iran and Serbia following in the footsteps of a centuries-old local tradition in a specific localized area. Plus, there's an educational component with some of the artists working in a classroom setting with local school children.
The local municipalities as well as a bank foundation are supporting this Biennale with funding and total cost is a modest $300,000.
The setting, the 16th-century Priamàr Fortress complete with Roman ruins, could not be more appropriate. This monumental structure overlooks the dazzling Mediterranean Sea. Nearby is the home of the late Danish Surrealist painter Asger Jorn with its walls covered with painted tiles, scallop shells and pebbles forming endless artful creations.
As to the ceramics on the slate for the 2002 Biennale, expect the quixotic. At the 2000 Biennale, Loris Cecchini turned out motorcycle helmets in teal blue and a hospital-like magenta while Nina Childress created wigs.
Last year, the Geneva museum snapped up two works for their permanent collection. And now Constantino is envisioning an Italian museum dedicated to ceramics.
For the next version, the Beijing-born Paris artist Wang Du, known for his paintings and installations, is preparing a memorial to the World Trade Center tragedy, consisting of massive ceramic of jagged fragments covered with a poster shot of the towers. The images seem as fragile as a crumpled newspaper. "The process of firing in the kiln is important and in its own way traumatic," says Wang Du. Considering that Arturo Martini, who worked here during the '20s and later turned out a World War I memorial with life size figures, Wang Du is extending that tradition. Other artists include Havana's Angel Rogelio Oliva Lloret and the Austrian Rainer Ganahl, who had one of the last shows at New York's now-closed Baumgartner Gallery.
When Picasso, Dufy and Miró worked in ceramics, there is no question that they revitalized that tradition in the south of France. So surely, this Biennale can achieve the very same results: remarkable objects but by an international cadre of artists, a renewed tradition and a demonstrated economic impact on a specific region.
BROOK S. MASON writes on antiques and the fine arts.