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Triennale Milano
Unurgent Argilla, Bee Awards 2022

Vocabulary Earth. Nina Salsotto Cassina’s Research

December 10 2022
An international jury awarded Bee Awards to the three most outstanding international contributions part of the 23rd International Exhibition Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries, Designer Nina Salsotto – Unurgent Argilla created the three awards using materials from the Triennale garden.
Unurgent Argilla, Bee Awards 2022, Triennale Milano
“The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth.” Thus said Chief Seattle (1780-1886) in 1854, responding to the then U.S. President Franklin Pierce’s request to purchase some of the land on which the Chief’s Native American tribe lived. This quote offers an ideal link to the research of Nina Salsotto Cassina, an Italian ceramist based in Milan, whose process starts specifically with a political view of the land (which we could just as well write using a capital “L”).
Nina Salsotto Cassina began taking an interest in clay after studying economics in Milan and politics in London, working in the art market shuttling between Los Angeles, Shanghai and Mumbai, and then for a spell working with non-profit organizations and the UN in Geneva and Kinshasa. Her interest in clay ultimately put an end to her constant shuttling from Land to Land on this Earth. In 2019, she started up Unurgent Argilla in London to build a vocabulary of natural materials, which she uses to shape always-spherical vases as media for spatial and geological narratives. Every vessel is made “of” and for a specific place, using hand-harvested soil and rocks whose characteristics immediately refer back to the geographical origins of the materials of which it was composed.
Nina Salsotto Cassina seeks to expose the soul of place, to transform the genius loci into an object. Every Unurgent Argilla creation is a multifaceted work of geological research into our planet’s composition, a remembrance of a “here and now,” a spatial signpost, and an autobiographical archive of lands, travel and exploration.
Nina Salsotto Cassina – Unurgent Argilla, Bee Awards 2022, Triennale Milano, © Gianluca Di Ioia
Your work has been featured in a number of publications devoted to contemporary ceramicists, and been exhibited in international museums and galleries. Where did your interest in ceramics and, particularly, in hand-harvested clays come from?
Ceramics is a study of relationships between different elements. One of the reasons why we find ceramics everywhere, during every historical period is because its elements occur everywhere on our planet in large quantities. Looking for natural clays is by no means a new practice. Nor is it for me driven by a desire to experiment with innovative eco-sustainable solutions. It is an instinctual thing: I search, process and turn earth the same way generations of potters have done before me, and will continue to do across the globe.
Personally speaking, I have developed a particular interest in hand-picked clays. It has become part of a personal aesthetic quest and, shall we say, from a political stance, a form of anti-globalism by avoiding the reduction and aesthetic flattening of the world down to a single global image, rejecting the tendency toward emancipation and estrangement from the material reality around us.
Nina Salsotto Cassina – Unurgent Argilla, Bee Awards 2022, Triennale Milano, © Gianluca Di Ioia
You are undertaking a study or rather a mapping of the natural environment which, broadening out our gaze, will become a survey of the Earth’s crust, its composition and characteristics. What qualities do natural clays have? What differentiates them from clays available on the market?
Regardless of where you buy them, commercial clays are often similar to one another, designed using formulations that contain qualities perfect for their intended use. They are processed from pure, selected ingredients that only retain distant, opaque traces of their geographical origin. As a result, they are totally alienated from labour and the cost to ecosystems and communities at the extraction stage. Clay of this kind is abundant, inexpensive, and, in a globalized world, belongs to no specific place. When you harvest earth by hand, however, it’s an invitation to physically relate to it, setting off a different sensibility.
Nina Salotto Cassina – Unurgent Argilla, Bee Awards 2022
So your works do not start from a blueprint or a technical drawing, they are the result of a direct and particularly physical relationship with the specific place you’re in.
My creative process starts with a direct relationship with the earth. I study maps and take long walks, find a spot and then personally collect the clays I use to make pots at the potter’s wheel.
The whole practice is about experimenting with different materials, all of which are accessible and naturally available. Regardless of my focus on studying the material, my work is rigid in form: I make only spherical vessels – they seem almost mass-produced – so that in each repetition the unique expression of the material and, therefore, the place where I collected it shines through.
Each piece is a co-creation with the earth from which it is made. Each clay sample has its own very personal attitude, tending to take a certain curve, move in a certain way on the potter’s wheel, drying and fusing uniquely during firing.
What I aspire to is that the final piece contains a trace, a correspondence between the creative gesture that shaped the vessel and the geological “gesture” that formed the material. I’m interested in placing land and crafts within a complex ecosystem that embraces people, territories, natural resources, transformative processes and objects, all in relation with one another.
Nina Salotto Cassina – Unurgent Argilla, Bee Awards 2022, fasi di lavorazione
Your research method is based on direct observation, proceeding through empirical experimentation. As a method, it’s somewhat akin to being in a kitchen or a science laboratory. Tell us how you came up with the Bee Awards 2022 the Triennale commissioned from you for the 23rd International Exhibition.
The 23rd International Exhibition Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries explores the possibility of opening up viewpoints in which the unknown becomes an opportunity for wonder. I tried to apply a different gaze to what lies beneath our feet. I created the 2022 Bee Awards after observing and studying elements collected from the Triennale di Milano Garden.
After a series of trials and preliminary digs, as well as soil from the garden I collected glass shards and a branch from a big, century-old cedar tree felled by a windstorm in early 2022. The earth turned out to be gray, sandy and silty. To shape the body of the vase, I blended the thickest portion of it with white stoneware. I obtained the glazes by combining ash from burning the branch with the finest portion of earth and pulverized glass fragments.
For the final glaze, I made a sampler by mixing these three ingredients together in various proportions, using a method known in ceramics as a triaxial study. Changes to the mixture’s melting point lead to changes in the colour, gloss, and crystallization of the glaze, increasing or decreasing with the slightest alteration in one ingredient, whether it be the ash, earth, or glass. This phenomenon is due to the fact that amalgamated with each other, the elements behave as a eutectic, that is, a mixture of substances that melt at a lower temperature than the individual components. It’s something we find in metal alloys, volcanic lava and ice and salt mixtures. The hand-turned shape was inspired by the overall theme of the 23rd International Exhibition, designed to enhance all of the materials’ characteristics. The wide, flat surface allows the glaze to reveal all its nuances, while the round, closed body, which only allows a glimpse of the inside of the vase, enhances the qualities of the stoneware mixed with earth.
Each version of the award is unique. Each one has its own combination of collected materials. Each of them tells the story of the Triennial Garden in an unexpected way, revealing aspects that were previously invisible yet inherent to that place.
Nina Salotto Cassina – Unurgent Argilla, Bee Awards 2022, fasi di lavorazione