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Even as Ravenna Italy is the eternal steward of mosaic’s Byzantine past, it is also the incubator for the art form’s dynamic future.
This is no more evident than in the Young Artists and Mosaic (GAEM) competition, a biennial contest hosted by the Art Museum of the City of Ravenna (MAR) in conjunction with the international mosaic festival, RavennaMosaico. Invited artists under the age of 40 are asked to create works that “should deal with the constitutive, formal & poetic language of mosaic.” (MAN article on 2011 GAEM here.)
This is where the very nature of mosaic is poked, prodded, and, if successful, expanded. In 2013, this included the use of nails and felt, an audience-participatory build-your-own-ceramic hamburger and a luscious video of a man and woman painting tesserae on one another – imagine those Byzantine icons coming alive. Even in the crowded traffic-jam of Notte d’Oro last October, we were mesmerized by many of the works and quite honestly flumoxed by others.
Takako Hirai (Japan) won the Traditional Technique Award for her absolutely stunning Vene which appeared to be the construction, destruction, and reassembly of an organic shape that seemed ready to depart from the wall at any second.
Andrea Poma (Italy) took the Experimental Prize for his brilliant Impressioni – a work which turned the mosaic component of “interstice” on its ear. Poma used an etched piece of glass to project the shadow of spaces between tesserae onto a wall – as opposed to those shadowy spaces being created by the indentations in a wall covered in mosaic.
These are not your nonna’s mosaics – to be sure. They are surprisingly cerebral, engaging and beautiful. But . . . are these musings on an ancient, time-consuming, historically pedantic art form relevant today? Or, as Exhibit Curator Linda Kniffitz puts it:
“Does mosaic still possess an autonomous, expressive power outside of the confines of Ravenna’s strong identity as a custodian of this ancient and highly symbolic art?”
What follows are the thoughtful and illuminating Exhibition catalogue essays by Curator Kniffitz, who is also the Director of the Center for International Documentation of Mosaic at MAR, and her co-curator for the 2013 GAEM, Daniele Torcellini, art critic and professor at the Academy of Fine Art Ravenna and Genoa. They offer knowledgeable, passionate responses to the questions above and in the process touch on art history, criticism, current art world trends, and the nature of art vs craft — all within the context of the glorious possibilities that mosaic has to offer. This is heady stuff for mosaic makers and nerds alike. Take your time and enjoy! – Nancie
Finding an Identity for Mosaic – Linda Kniffitz
When we initiated the GAEM competition in 2011, our intent was to stimulate a discourse on contemporary art in relation to mosaic and in doing so, to create a moment of comparison between makers from different schools and countries. In 2013, we received another set of very positive contributions in terms of both the richness of the visions proposed and the international provenance of the young artists.
But why indeed should we dedicate a competition to a technique that appears to be so complex and slow compared to the current trends in the visual arts that no longer envisages linearity and narration, but instead reward circularity, contamination and the use of different means of expression?
Does mosaic still possess an autonomous expressive power outside of the confines of Ravenna’s strong identity as a custodian of this ancient and highly symbolic art?
In its beginnings, mosaic was associated with the strong political purposes and economic investments (carefully chosen imagery, precious materials, highly specialized artisans, ) that forged it into a supremely stately instrument. In the last decades of the 19th century, it was rediscovered for its inherently symbolic character in an anti-Impressionist and anti-Naturalist function. The young art critic George Aurier, in championing the acceptance of Symbolism, spurred the revival of medieval visual art forms like mosaic and mural decoration.
In the 30s, the Futurist painter Gino Severini (whose name is now synonymous with modern mosaic) extolled the virtues of mosaic not for its value as a surface covering, but for its extraordinary capacity to express a synthesis – to condense an entire meaning into a single stylized, highly representative sign.
The Exposition of Contemporary Mosaics of 1959 in Ravenna organized by mosaic author and historian Giuseppi Bovini signaled the beginning of a multi-decade long discussion of mosaic and its place as an art form. In the 1990s, mosaic’s “right to be” within the contemporary artistic landscape was championed by Italian art critic, painter and philosopher Gillo Dorfles who initially defined it as a “super modern medium of expression.” In the end, however, he unfortunately came to look at mosaic solely within the context of artistic “design-object”, a phrase which smacks of refined craft.
In the twenty-first century, the time has come to circumvent all of these deliberations and endow mosaic with an identity – a term out of fashion, perhaps, but still useful. Mosaic needs an identity that must be directed and defined – squeezed for all its worth in order to extract its meaning and possible new directions. Mosaic possesses visual characteristics which capture attention because they are not accessible with a single glance; in order to really appreciate a mosaic, it is necessary to not only explore the perceived image created in the medium, but the relational properties of the individual pieces that compose the image.
In looking for an identity for mosaic, it is also necessary to clear the field of the production of many famous contemporary artists who may utilize certain elements of mosaic like fragmentation and the recomposition of elements in the construction of an image, but have not consciously chosen to create a mosaic. English art philosopher and author David Davies states that it is not possible to appreciate art in a purely perceptive way disassociated from any contextual knowledge. This is especially important if the implementation is mosaic. An artist is obviously free to express an inspiration in whatever technique he wishes thus affirming his autonomy. But, if he decides to use a technique like mosaic, he chooses an approach that has some specific characteristics that drive the work such as the synthesis and simplification of the sign, the fragmentation and recomposition of constituent elements.
All of these characteristics of mosaic can be expressed in many forms; can depart from the use of inert materials, can embrace installations and even video art. A shadow projected onto a wall from a sheet of etched glass offers the shapes of shimmering tiles. Drops of silicone, each laden with its own microstory, executes a larger narrative in the course of the tesserae. The installation of lights in a dark room provokes the same awe that grasped ancient visitors to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.
From a different perspective, the unconventional use of mosaic tiles to create a table of fast food that transforms the surface-observer into a product developing-maker.
These are all examples of a centuries-long journey begun with enamels, mortars and scaffolding; mosaic reinventing itself in shapes and instruments always new; it would be ill-advised to attempt an inventory.
Critical Issues – Daniele Torcellini
How could I handle a critical text on mosaic works in Ravenna in 2013? The subject of the discourse is inherently difficult.
The mosaic. Poised between ancient glories, romanticism and modernisms that reopened a road, a contemporaneity discontinuous but conceptually expanding. Even the place is not immune to difficulties. Ravenna. The privileged location; sensitive, yes, a natural observatory. But, it obscures a hazard; a codification of mosaic that does not represent all the possibilities of the mosaic. And then, broadening the field of vision, a centre emerges clearly unresolved. the mosaic, or rather, the works that are done in mosaic by those who make mosaics, or even some of an extreme derivation, choices, are almost lacking a critical approach in a systematic, recognized code.
Except for a few, and even good, isolated voices, the absence is felt of a trend in which my text will be received, making it primed for the likeminded or hardened against ideas not shared. There is no lack of theory – Filiberto Menna in The Criticism of Criticism, 1980, would be a good starting point – but of critical practice. A debate that allows collecting ideas, proposals, suggestions – that takes stock of the situation, that contextualizes, that defines the playing field, that interprets and evaluates and asks itself about its role.
To break the ice, I would like to emphasize how in this contemporary world – wherein technical boundaries are now weak, where things overrun into each other without discrimination, the admixtures kept under watch by the critics and the markets – the choice to oxidize one’s expressive aspirations around an idea – fixed, self-limiting, of dubious association as it is considered – and often wrongly – that the mosaic appears both brave (a dip back into the tank of liquid contemporaneity as a springboard for something that is not old-school and not even vintage), and not very significant in terms of the results achieved (“today you can say anything any way” is the opinion of some). But, it is a choice, that of the mosaic, which in the end appears beyond the distinctions between the liberal arts and mechanical arts – artistic techniques and decorative techniques – with all the related hierarchies of values. A visual, aesthetic and expressive and perhaps even scientific search for meaning, can be made with mosaic as with any other medium or combination of media.
One the role of the medium, even in its relation mostly to physics – of the environment in which a phenomenon plays out – my reflection would find a stopping point. The medium determines the result; it circumscribes the possibilities, insinuates itself under the skin of the message (it is the message, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, adding that the content of a medium is another medium).