by Roderick Conway Morris

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Contemporary Reflections in Glass

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 8 August 2009
Francesco Ferruzzi
'Submerged Crystal no. 46' by Yoichi Ohira



Glass has unique illusionistic possibilities, making it, in theory, an ideal medium for artistic expression. Yet modern artists have experimented with it only intermittently. However, as two exhibitions in Venice reveal, glass is now being taken up by an increasingly wide spectrum of contemporary artists.

In 1972, glass ceased to have its own section at the Venice Biennale, when the inclusion of what were considered 'decorative arts' was abandoned. But at this year's event, glass has made a comeback in two separate shows: 'Glasstress,' an official parallel exhibition at Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti on the Grand Canal, and 'Fa come natura face in foco,' which borrows a line from Dante's Divine Comedy ('Do as nature does in the flame') to evoke the fiery glass furnaces of Murano, at the Padiglione Venezia in the Biennale's Castello Gardens (both until Nov. 22).

'Glasstress,' curated by the glass expert Rosa Barovier Mentasti and the art historian Laura Mattioli Rossi, shows pieces by 45 artists, from Josef Albers and Anton Pevsner, both born in the 1880s, to living artists born in the 1960s, like Anne Peabody and Hye Rim Lee. Nearly a dozen new works have been created for the exhibition, made at the Berengo Studio on the Venetian island of Murano, which for 20 years has collaborated with artists from all over the world in realizing projects in glass. 'Fa come natura face in foco' showcases nine Venetian-born and foreign glass artists with strong ties to Murano.

Glass was an essential element in 'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even,' also known as 'The Large Glass,' by the father of Conceptualism, Marcel Duchamp, which he worked on from 1915-23. (It is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) The components of this piece are encased in two sheets of glass, so that it can be observed from two sides. In 1971, Duchamp's cones, an element in 'Large Glass,' inspired Richard Hamilton's 'Sieves (with Marcel Duchamp),' in which the artist creates the appearance of conical objects arching freely through the air by painting them on a plate of glass barely visible from a distance.

Hamilton's piece is one of a number of works in 'Glasstress' that use glass to play with our perceptions of reality, posing some entertaining and thought-provoking conceptual conundrums.

Silvano Rubino's 'Subtractive Addition' (2009) consists of a long plate-glass table with the outline shapes of plates and cutlery cut out of the glass at either end - so that we can see them, although they are not really there. In a darkened room, on a plinth in the corner, Federica Marangoni's 'The Thread' (2002) is composed of a drum of opaque glass with a luminous cable of white neon wound around it that spills on to the floor and gathers, pool-like, in a pile of crystal glass rocks. In contrast, Fred Wilson's baroque 'Iago's Mirror' is jet black, yet we can still see ourselves reflected in it.

Robert Rauschenberg's 'Untitled' (1971), a pair of clear blown-glass car tires, represents an amusing departure from his usual modus operandi. Rauschenberg's sculptures were typically constructed out of scrap metal and found objects from junkyards (of the kind featured in the current 'Gluts' show at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the other side of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti). But these tires have an almost ghostly, dreamlike unreality.

Ms. Peabody's 'My Sidewalk' (2009), a mysterious, occluded narrative installation, is composed of paving stones made of mirrors on which she has engraved images of childhood objects and memories - a comb, a teddy bear, a manhole cover. But the last paving stone is shattered to fragments, suggesting perhaps dissolution and broken hopes. Mona Hatoum in her 'Nature Morte aux Grenades' (2006-7) has covered a table with what from a distance look like rather cheerful colored-glass ornaments, but which on closer inspection turn out to be hand grenades.

Bizarre, esoteric, but curiously engaging: that describes the South Korean artist Hye Rim Lee's 'Crystal City Spun,' a 3-D video animation, where glass objects and their reflections are perfectly digitally crafted, but entirely illusory. The balletic performance they put on, to pulsing music, features Toki, a pirouetting dancer in vertiginous stiletto heels with an impossibly pneumatic figure; and a friendly dragon, backed by a spinning chorus of bouncing pink glass rabbits, vibrators and other phallic sex aids.

Toki, as Francesca Giubilei explains in her essay on 'Women's Glass' in the catalog, is 'part woman, part child, part animal, part machine; she is the result of a cyberspace mistake, an imaginary figure that incarnates male sexual desires and the aspirations of feminine beauty. The dragon Yong, her traveling companion, is the symbol of Asian identity and culture. Unlike in the West, where the dragon is associated with negative values, in the East, it is a symbol of courage, loyalty and strength.' Despite the presence of reliable old Yong, the dystopia of Crystal City, while evoking nostalgia for childhood, is also 'filled with obsessions and insanity.'

Visitors to 'Fa come natura face in foco' at the Padiglione Venezia are greeted by Dale Chihuly's flamboyantly colorful 'Mille Fiori Venezia,' an open-air installation of weird and wonderful forms, made up of around 500 individual pieces of glass. In a side room off the main gallery is a display of groundbreaking historic objects by some of the most innovative glass artists of the first half of the 20th century, notably Vittorio Zecchin, Napoleone Martinuzzi, Carlo Scarpa and Ercole Barovier.

Outstanding among the new exhibits in the main pavilion show are those by Yoichi Ohira. The Japanese artist has been in Venice since 1973, constantly coming up with surprises. He has often been inspired by the forms of traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean vessels - such as sake flasks, vases, bowls and baskets - but in the process of realizing them in glass reinterprets and transforms them into artworks that bridge East and West. In his 'Submerged Crystal' series here, which he describes as 'sunk vases in thick clear crystal,' he creates intriguing impressions of one vessel suspended in another, an ethereal illusion of precarious equilibrium that could only be created in glass.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024