Multiplicity, Debasement & Redemption

By Brown, Glen R. | Ceramics Art & Perception, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Multiplicity, Debasement & Redemption

Brown, Glen R., Ceramics Art & Perception


SPREAD LIKE A DIAPHANOUS VEIL OVER THE FACES OF 13 otherwise banal industrially-produced porcelain plates is an image that none will fail to recognise: an image that has been so relentlessly reproduced, so widely disseminated and so thoroughly engrained in popular consciousness of art that it has come to epitomise the eternal masterpiece. With arms spread to delineate a triangle that simultaneously evokes the Holy Trinity and formally anchors the composition of Leonardo's famous fresco, the doleful figure of Christ graces the centre plate of Marek Cecula's Last Supper with visual and conceptual gravity. Surrounding this focal point in metonymic reference to the 12 disciples, a dozen more plates solemnly acquire sections of the image like supplicants receiving fragments of the Heavenly Host. The allusions to redemption in this play between picture and plates are difficult to miss, and one rightly assumes that Cecula's attitude toward insipid mass-produced ceramic tablewares blends pity for their debased condition with hope for their ultimate salvation through the elevating influence of art.

Given their ubiquity, industrially manufactured porcelain plates were no doubt fated for entry into the work of art as soon as artists such as Picasso and the Dadaists established the sculptural legitimacy of found-object assemblage. Nearly a half century ago the Nouveau Realiste Daniel Spoerri made the mass-produced ceramic plate a mainstay of his tableaux pieges (picture-traps): relief sculptures produced by glueing to ersatz tabletops the dishes and other odds and ends left over from actual meals and then hanging these slice-of-life compositions vertically on the gallery walls. In thus turning the tables on the mundane, Spoerri raised the unobtrusive objects of daily use from the grey periphery of perception, making them the focus of uncommon attention. The sterile, mass-manufactured ceramic plate was in a sense rescued from obscurity through Spoerri's art, albeit in a manner rather different from Cecula's strategy. Spoerri imparted a saving grace to the mundane through emphasis on actual use and the consequent implications of human traces enveloping handled objects like so many glowing auras. Despite the strange frozen effect of the tableaux pieges however, the artistic value of the ceramic multiples they contain is only contingent: a quality enjoyed by all found objects so long as they continue to inhabit the context of art. Ironically, to wash Spoerri's dishes of their dried vestiges of food would be to dispel their dignity and to return them to quotidian banality.


Ceramists in general are not likely to scoff at the elevating effect that use can exert over things, since utility has historically been the raison d'etre of the majority of objects made in clay. Even Cecula, despite his leadership as a ceramics conceptualist, has never spurned utility itself as a debasing influence. On the contrary, through the firm Modus Design, now headquartered in his native Kielce, Poland, he has act ively contributed to the aesthetic development and industrial production of utilitarian ceramics. At the same time, he values the heuristic power that art wields in its role as an abstraction from life. Installations such as Last Supper are intended not only to confront the viewer with the baldly unimaginative character of much mass-manufactured ceramic tableware but also to inspire reflection on the potential for improvement in design. The porcelain plates in Cecula's installation have in this sense been transformed conceptually as well as materially.

Unlike Spoerri's diary plates, they do not record physical use and are not humanised by individual touch. Their redemption, on the contrary, comes through partial transcendence of utility, but also, to some degree, of the entire world outside the realm of art. Although they remain plates, they have become artistic devices: both of the world and otherworldly. …

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