Marek Cecula
The Porcelain Carpet Project

The Porcelain Carpet Project 2002
In 1979, visiting his Polish homeland for the first time in 25 years, Marek Cecula was strolling with his sister along a Baltic beach when he spotted a small white object half-buried in the sand. He picked it up and saw that it was the piece of a ceramic plate that bears the factory's back stamp, or “maker's mark.” The mark in this case was a swastika. Cecula, a self-exiled Polish Jew who has made ceramics his life's work, and whose father was interned in Dachau, held in his hand the identifying fragment of a piece of dinnerware manufactured for the Nazi party. For his 2000 exhibition Violations, he formed a white plaster “ghost plate” around the stamped piece and mounted it in a plain birch box with a glass face.

In London after Princess Diana's death, he bought one of the ubiquitous, cheap, quickly manufactured commemorative plates. “This is the 'memorabilia response',” he recalls thinking at the time, “feeding off the tragedy.” What was missing from the saccharine tribute, of course, was any reference to the brutal particulars. Cecula opted to make the commemoration more realistic by inducing a web-like break pattern. Again, he simply mounted the shattered plate in a modest vitrine.

The porcelain-and-stainless-steel multiples that comprised his 1993 Scatology Series and 1996 Hygiene Series alluded to the public-health consequences of careless hygiene, e.g., the AIDS epidemic and the recent E. coli scare. While these works' pristine surfaces and serial presentation would ordinarily reference industrial anonymity, their metaphoric content suggests quite the opposite: that in order for humans to survive, our personal habits must be marched out of the realm of privacy – out of the water closet, so to speak – and into the public domain.

In these latest works for Grand Arts – The Stand and The Porcelain Carpet – Cecula maintains his signature blend of exquisite craftsmanship and unnerving conceptual content. Though the works seem disparate – one an oriental carpet printed on arrays of plates, the other an interpretation of the multi-level platform Olympic athletes stand on to receive their medals – both invoke a similar viewer response: This is a carpet on which I cannot walk. This is a platform on which I cannot stand.

The Stand is a full-size Olympic award podium made from glossy-white porcelain slabs balanced like a house of cards. It is as perilous as many Serra works except the potential for collapse threatens the material and the metaphor, not bystanders.

“It's a spontaneous image,” Cecula says, “a symbol of a hierarchy – 1, 2, 3 – that can't support itself.” Though The Stand addresses the myth of status in general, it is strong commentary on the myth of status in the art world, where the dilemma of the pedestal is age-old. Does the pedestal contextualize the artwork and so allow for a better aesthetic experience, or is it a heroic device to elevate the art and isolate it from the people? Or both, and if so, is the latter device, like a picture frame, necessary to distinguish art from non-art?

Expanding upon his earlier use of ready-made elements, The Porcelain Carpet presents three stages in the process of printing a full-size image of an oriental carpet on a 12' x 16' array of 10 1/4”-diameter white plates. The first array is unadorned, the second bears the image in black and white, and the third array bears the image in full-color. The wool's fuzzy texture and the individual sheared strands are distinctly rendered by the 300-dpi digital-printing process.

This installation is not about clay as artistic medium. Rather, the clay is presented as multiples of an industrial, standardized product – in this case, the dinner plate – onto which the “art” is literally overlaid. To make this point clear, Cecula appropriates the art from another craft altogether.

The instruction to viewers to remain in narrow perimeter zones comes from the material itself. When we see porcelain we know it is fragile. It's not an issue that these works are presented in the no-touch atmosphere of an art gallery; we wouldn't think to tread or stand on them under any circumstances. The carpet message – walk – doesn't override the material's message – don't walk. Our bodies recoil instinctively from the prospect of shattering these other bodies. This is the sense of touch experienced not via a stimulus to our skin, but as a direct signal from the optic nerve to the brain stem. It's as if the character of the porcelain's own skin – its glossiness, its paleness, its degree of opacity – functions like an remote control and triggers, from across the room, an involuntary response in our brains' touch receptors. If this installation was about nothing else, it would effectively demonstrate the power of a specific artistic medium – in this case, porcelain – on the human psyche. (And from this awareness, one can extrapolate long theses about the messages carried by charcoal, oil paint, marble, steel, etc.)

Even the breaks in the image that occur because the plates are round rather than square communicate a message about the power of another human sensory phenomena. Like the Gestalt exercise that demonstrates how our imaginations instinctively complete an almost-completed circle (e.g., a 330-degree arc), so we recognize the overall rhythm of the carpet pattern and automatically fill-in the gaps.

But the impact of The Porcelain Carpet extends beyond the visceral. What began as the artist's desire to pay homage via one ancient craft (ceramics) to another (carpet making), now runs rampant with interconnection and metaphor. Carpets and ceramics are both hand and mechanically produced, both require skilled craftsmanship, and both are simultaneously decorative and utilitarian. In Cecula's words, “They are noble domestic objects with Eastern origins that have come to confer status upon their wealthy owners.”

Innovations in the two crafts' technologies have had equally far-reaching effects: ceramic heat-shielding tiles clad the exterior of the space shuttle; the perforated cards that control the Jacquard loom's weaving pattern are the direct predecessors to the key-punched cards that fed data into early computers. The crafts' evolutionary paths intersect in The Porcelain Carpet, where the circle of the pixels composing the carpet pattern is echoed in the circle of the carpet threads' cross-section and both are further echoed in the circles of the plates.

The two installations – one described by Cecula as “systematic, perfect in execution, and visually and physically intense,” the other, “singular, chaotic, and structurally defective” – embody the paradox inherent in any contemporary discussion of form vs. function, ornament vs. utility, art vs. craft, art vs. non-art.

A photograph of the artist as a young man hangs above Cecula's desk in the small living area of his Sullivan Street studio in New York. When I remark on the blissful facial expression, he says, “Yes, that is Marek touching clay for the first time.” Cecula's devotion to his medium has never wavered. He deeply appreciates the myth of the self-sufficient artist, alone in his studio, producing beautiful objects with his own hands. He appreciates the myth, but he doesn't live it.

“The fine arts are no longer bound to specific media. They are not hermetically limited to the painters who are using brush and oil and the sculptors who are using steel. It's not any more about craftsmanship; it's about what you are actually sending forth.”

“The advancement of art calls for everybody to participate in the present.”

Roberta Lord
Lenox, Massachusetts
December 2001

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