Joan Fontcuberta, public art and ceramics

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A permanent public artwork, the first made on big ceramic slabs, that takes art to Reggio Emilia onto the street, outdoors, to enable everyone to access it: it is a ceramic photo-mosaic, 16 metres high and 6 metres wide, in which twelve thousand photographs sent in by members of the public in a single large image. 

The ceramics which make up the work – each of the thirty slabs is a one-off piece, making up part of the large image – were produced in partnership with Marazzi, which welcomed Fontcuberta as a guest during the production and digital printing phases. The work’s design and installation as a ventilated wall structure was handled by the City of Reggio Emilia, which took charge of the overall project for the area’s redevelopment, and Marazzi Engineering, the company’s specialist division.

The work is also inspired by a dialogue with the collections housed in the Reggio Emilia museums, a rich heritage of knowledge, studies, discoveries and experiments, expressing and generated by curiosity and a natural propensity for wonder. “Curiosa Meravigliosa” is a “document-monument”, as the artist defines it, a collective work that reflects on the meaning of photography in an area which, thanks to the example of Luigi Ghirri and the Fotografia Europea festival, has a long history of constant investigation of the use of this medium in all its thousand forms.

The peacock has been created in digital high definition on large slimline slabs, one-off pieces in porcelain stoneware, which build up an image of 16 x 6 metres. The production process involved the Marazzi laboratory and factory, which also welcomed Joan Fontcuberta to their facilities during the preparatory and printing phases. In addition, the ventilated wall on which the work is mounted was constructed on a “turnkey” basis by Marazzi Engineering.

We discussed the creation and construction of “Curiosa Meravigliosa” with the Spanish artist, who also told us about his increasing fascination with printing on ceramics.

In the work “Curiosa Meravigliosa” the 12,000 photographs collected are reassembled in a single large image, that of the peacock conserved in the Vallisneri collection. Why did you choose that work? What is its meaning for you?

JF: The peacock appears in many mythologies and is a figure rich in symbolic meanings. It is associated with wisdom, curiosity and beauty, intrinsic values for a museum which embraces both the natural sciences and art. For the ancient Greeks, the peacock was the sacred bird of Hera, wife of Zeus. The goddess assigned Argus to keep an eye on her straying husband, but the God of Olympus killed him. Therefore, the myth has it, Hera placed Argus’s hundred eyes on the tail of her favourite bird, to commemorate him. In this artistic and photographic project, the inclusion of these eyes highlights the role of sight as a source of experience.

“Curiosa Meravigliosa” is an installation which establishes a dialogue between all the elements involved (the piazza, the green wall and the ceramic wall). It has a profound social and urban significance. How much does the scale of the work affect its meaning?

JF: This work plays on scale and perspective. It is a mosaic made up of thousands of photographs sent in by the people of Reggio. These photographs are small in size, like the ones we keep in family albums. They are images which we normally look at individually; there is an intimate relationship between the contents of the photograph and the person looking at it. The mural format, on the other hand, allows them to be viewed collectively; the meaning shifts from the private to the public dimension. In fact, the project is a way of sharing experiences, given material form in the images, and thus building up a sense of community, of belonging to a time and place.I like to consider a work of this kind as a “document-monument”. “Document” because it is a sort of X-ray of a society and a culture; “monument” because it bears witness to the passage of time. Within a few generations, “Curiosa Meravigliosa” will be viewed as a collective memory capsule.

Is this your first experience of digital printing on ceramics? What surprised and interested you about this production process?

JF: It’s not my first time but my second: I’ve already used the technique on a photo-mosaic mural for the facade of the Town Hall at Gibellina, in Sicily. For that work, I chose three eyes of inhabitants of the Sicilian town: of a child, a young mother and an old person. Their three gazes, belonging to different eras, welcome us and encourage us to look to the future. The new factor in Reggio Emilia was the design of a vertical work, which fitted into the architecture of the Musei Civici building.

This technical challenge required inputs from architects, engineers and specialists: it took a great deal of work and an unusual amount of effort due to the health emergency, but I am very happy with the result.

Visiting the Marazzi factory during the production and printing of the porcelain stoneware slabs gave me ideas for more ambitious projects in the future.

You have profound knowledge of the culture of images and their meanings: how do you relate to matter, to tactile properties?

JF: We are now immersed in what I call a post-photographic phase, characterised by the abundance and absolute availability of images, which we must strive to use with the right critical approach. Like the other elements in our environment, these images are tending to dematerialise. Some thinkers, such as Byung-Chul talk about the proliferation of non-things. Digital life, algorithms and the metaverse prepare us for a disembodied world, without substance, tangibility, solidity or weight. Faced with this prospect, we must offer a strategy of resistance which considers the intrinsic qualities of matter. In the case of photography, for example, many of its functions are based on its status as an image-object, derived from the medium on which the image appears. This is why I view a return to the procedure of printing photographs on ceramics, a technique which dates from the Nineteenth Century, although now updated with modern technologies, as having an exemplary value.