Thoughts about the Silicates and their Future in Art
Janos Probstner

In the last century, sciences and scientific research, proclaimed as sacred and infallible, proved that the silicates including clay and porcelain were the most frequently occurring solid materials on earth constituting the decisive part of the body of Mother Earth, Gaia.

It logically follows that occurring in as wide a form and place as they do, they must have an abundance of usage.

Bear with me if I use the simile to say that silicates are as rich and varied as is our mother's love.

Just as a lifetime is too short to explore and exhaust maternal love, so thousands of years of the known human cultures were not long enough to fully know and discover all the potentialities of the silicates.

Those who understand the changing of tea cups, chamber pots and knick-knacks, that is, the utensils of kitchens, bathrooms and parlours by the history of the silicates might rightly think that the traditional fine ceramics and glass industry will also be losers in our rapidly changing world, on the antihuman front of consumer society, in the cultural battle against its flagship, the "disposable plastic utensils", where the packaging material is also the container and service set.

They say the need for old-type glass, ceramics and porcelain objects in the century of the advance of virtual realities is dwindling, they are going out of fashion. That is partly true. The production of traditional ceramic, porcelain and glass objects needs manual work and is energy-intensive, hence it is expensive. It is hard to see a promising future for them in their rivalry with traditional mass-produced goods.

True, man pampered by machines throws away rather than washes or repairs his otherwise still usable objects. He squanders because he still has resources to squander, he doesn't care about the future generation, he heaps up pile upon pile of garbage with his culture built on the success of the moment, he pollutes the seas with his consuming mania. And he doesn't even hesitate, because he hears senseless consumption as the model advocated everywhere in the profit-oriented mass media and the press.

All the materialist world view assuming predominance in the 20th century takes for the value of human life is the production, possession and squandering of material goods. People's intention is not to enrich themselves in intellectual and spiritual goods worthy of man, their demand is not for the possession of lasting, useful and esthetic commodities required by a soberly determined standard and manner of living. Besides, since man has received everything from nature on loan, it would be appropriate to make his utensils and artifacts from durable matter and use them until the end of their period of limitation with due respect for the materials. When they are withdrawn from use, the best items would have to be preserved as esthetic values at home or in museums, as proof of the development of man's mind and knowledge and as examples. In this way, man would fit into the whole of nature in his true, real place, without senseless waste and destruction. That is perhaps more a question of philosophy or ethic, yet being an artist myself, I think it has relevance here.

It is a fact that world famous ceramic, porcelain and glass factories producing peak quality go bankrupt and close down because of the scramble for immediate and extraordinary profits. Since the late 20th century, the production of traditional ceramic, porcelain and glass utensils has gradually shifted to the Far East, to China and India where wages are low and there is still demand for lasting commodities because of poverty. That, however, will not last long there, either, and before long the durable, exacting, fine but fragile products will be replaced by disposable, changeable plastic goods growing ugly after little use. In the long run therefore the production of commodities made of traditional silicates is dated there, too.

Where is the future of the silicates, then?

It is highly likely that consumer society and the globalized market discovered and developed in America in the second half of the 20th century and spread all over the world will relegate the fragile ancient materials to museums and abolish the majority of their industrial production, because, for one thing, the majority of these substances need complicated and energy-intensive producing technologies. Ceramic, porcelain and even glass will be squeezed out of the greatest part of their traditional use. Though it is tragic for lots of people, it is part of a natural economic process. Nor is it unique in the history of mankind.

Parallel with that, however, there is a positive process taking place in the use of silicates. There are especially two areas where the value of the use of silicates will be promoted: the direct experience of human creativity: the hobbies, and the production of small-series, fine handmade goods: craft, and the field of eternal revival and high-level artistic creation: art.

Thus one of the spectacular, real and surviving, even expanding parts of the silicates is in the hands of artists, in our hands, who are committed to creating artistic objects with responsibility. I include in this group, in addition to decorative arts, fine arts, painting and sculpture, even restoration with the reconstructions and architecture as users of these materials.

Allow me to make a personal remark: we believe that the International Ceramics Studio devoted to the above goals in Kecskemet, Hungary, is one form and creative repository of the survival of these fragile arts. That's why the first triennial of the silicate arts was initiated and organized here. It is also important for the durability of human culture to create international forums for the artistic application, new forms and experiments of the silicates, the most resistent materials to time.

Clays have been used for millennia, porcelain and glass for over a thousand years, and concrete has also been used for more than two hundred years as raw materials of art. The essential feature of sculpture is inherent in these wonderful materials: they are figurable and when fired, durable. The glazes, melts capture the colours and brushstrokes of painting on the surface for ever after solidification.

The marvellous cave paintings with earth colours at Altamira, or emperor Huan Ti's thousand-year-old army as the miracle of clay sculpture, or again, Gaudi's buildings constructed of concrete are but a few of the innumerable examples from the area of art.

There is, however, another field of application for the use of silicates to replace the possibilities of use lost with the development or change of mankind. It is a new scientifically based perspective with unpredictable potentialities for the artists of the future as well: "high tech" technologies, today mostly restricted to engineering.

With the intellectual and technological revolution caused by the immediate transmission and application of information via computers, a new form of ceramics was born in non-traditional areas: that of "high tech" silicates.

Several usages of oxide ceramics include chips because they have special electrical qualities, transport vehicle parts because they resist to wear better, bio-tech and prostheses because they are organism-friendly and cannot be magnetized, jewels because they don't irritate the skin, blades and choppers because they are highly stable and don't blunt. The non-traditional ceramic materials have already innumerable use and just as many await discovery. Thus, the future of ceramics and silicates is also in the hands of scientists and engineers.

The new ceramic materials depend on an utterly different production technology. The isostatically pressed powder ceramic with 3% water content and adhesives can immediately go to the kiln after hidraulic working. By quick firing, procelain objects can now be produced at 1420Co in 90-120 minutes. Traditional silicate industry condemned to perishing is being resuscitated at a higher level as the Arabian bird in "high tech" in Europe and in the advanced industrialized countries.

How does that affect artists? I am sure the importance of silicates, ceramic, porcelain and glass will be retained in art, in the desired experience of creativity, in the drive to embellish our material environment. What is more, the spectrum of their use will even expand thanks the scientific research results. Artists, the most creative members of society, will quickly learn the new forms and possibilities of using "high tech" silicates from the engineers and scientists. Our fragile lives will be protected in the space shuttles heading for the conquest of the galaxies by industrially designed ceramic-silicate heat shields made of the body of our Mother Eath, Gaia, and maybe soon public sculpture will also be made of materials that resist vandalist destruction by their hardness and also withstand graffiti.

Certainly in the early 21st century, which will hopefully mark the long-awaited peaceful, responsible and tolerant adulthood of mankind, we'll have the same attitude towards the use of ceramic materials as to the inexhaustible love of our mothers. We change, draw away from her under the spell of new materials but we always long back to the miracle of the touch of our mother's body in the area of the arts that use the substances constituting our mother earth's body.

János Probstner
Balázspuszta, 31 July 2004


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