New Glass 2015: Archaeology, Excavation and the Arcane

Catalogue essay for the above exhibition at the Canberra Glassworks curated by Magdalene Keany


New Glass 2015: Archaeology, Excavation and the Arcane
By Ellis Hutch

Walking through the cool corridors of the old Kingston Powerhouse to see New Glass 2015: Archaeology, Excavation and the Arcane, curated by Magda Keaney I was struck by a memory. 

I remembered going on a bushwalk as a child and discovering the ruin of a burned building. In amongst the charred timbers and scorched metal remains were fragments of melted glass. I was fascinated by this material transformed in the intense heat of the fire, having lost its structure as windows or bottles and become fluid, before cooling into warped bottle-like shapes and solid puddles.

It is a false memory.

I’m pretty sure I never encountered the ruin. I’m guessing I heard a story in which the molten glass had been described, and I imagined the scene I can see so clearly in my minds eye. It is a strange fiction – a memory with clear details of a sensation of surface and texture – of a weight in my hand and smoothness against my skin that feels so real.

I also remember the delight I felt on discovering that glass is neither solid nor liquid. I love the description from the Corning Museum of Glass website – it tells us that ‘glass is a rigid material formed by heating a mixture of dry materials to a viscous state, then cooling the ingredients fast enough to prevent a regular crystalline structure. As the glass cools, the atoms become locked
in a disordered state like a liquid before they can form into the perfect crystal arrangement of a solid. Being neither a liquid nor a solid, but sharing the qualities of both, glass is its own state of matter.’ 

Neither solid nor liquid – glass is just glass – its own special kind of magic.

The artists included this exhibition use the materiality of glass to play with ideas about truth and fiction, about assumptions and expectations. They show us pasts that are eternally and forcefully present; they plant the seeds of imagined futures and ask us to question what we see. They remind us that we constantly reconstruct and represent history and that our sense of what is past shapes how we anticipate our possible futures. 

This in-between state of glass, its not-liquidness and not-solidness springs to mind as I gaze into and through Lucy Quinn’s Architect series of nest-like forms. Heavy, solid, fragile: they are small enough to be picked up and held, yet evoke monumental structures. They remind me of beehives and wasps nests, of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and the Giant’s Causeway on the coast of Ireland.

I want to lick them.

They remind me of toffee and my grand parents’ drinking glasses and of ancient amber and of fossils and of caves. They do this strange scale thing, making me think of microcosms and of entire landscapes. They seduce me, I want to go inside them and view the world from within their tempered architecture.

These, and her smaller collection of objects titled Components appear to be fragments, giving the sense that there are more of them somewhere. They’ve been assembled and ordered as if they are part of a collection. They make me think of how we do science, how we do history and how we do making knowledge. We build our understandings from fragments, putting together parts not always knowing if they belong to the same whole, or even if there is a whole to construct. We make knowledge without knowing what’s missing, making maps of a world that is beyond our ability to perceive in its entirety. 

One of the things that intrigues me about cast glass objects is their weight. They have heft, yet retain the fragility inherent in this material. I find the sense of weight fascinating in the work of Lea Douglas. Her skeletal forms remind me of boats and bodies, of bones and timbers. I think of seaweed and things hauled up from under the ocean. As I look at them I can imagine them as human-made artefacts, dug up in a state of decay or as fragments of some ossified organic structure. 

Where Lucy Quinn’s work leads me to imagine my miniature self inhabiting her hives like some kind of Alice or Gulliver, Douglas’ work feels like it could be appended directly onto my body, or have come from a body, or have been something that was handled and used. The scale of the work draws me to hold these objects, to attempt to wear them – why do I have the urge to put my body inside them?

A recurring theme in this exhibition is to challenge the viewers’ expectations of what glass is and can be. Douglas’s work is not immediately identifiable as glass, it is not beautiful in an obvious sense, but it has a compelling power. There is something of a push and pull between attraction and repulsion; a sense of something rotten in this work. In her artist statement Douglas uses a word I wish I’d invented – endarkenment – when talking about questioning ideas of rationality and what we consider to be progress. In researching ruins Douglas considers how they are evidence of the past while foreshadowing future decay and destruction.

Questions of progress, of how we measure our development as a species, as cultures and communities, come up throughout this exhibition. Is there such a thing as progress? As we design new technologies, create sophisticated modes of communication and more effective means of destroying our environment we use metaphors associated with movement and direction. We talk of moving forward, of leaving the past behind of going upwards and onwards. Yet these linear ways of thinking don’t allow for the complexity of our lives – as we move forwards also double back, go in circles and shift sideways. 

I contemplate Georgina Cockshott’s Frozen screens; utterly familiar forms transformed into something curious and precious. What are they: found objects dug from some frozen explorer’s grave? I imagine walking along a beach and picking up the shells of technologies lost – turning them over and inspecting the delicate markings, the signs of wear, the traces of precious metals. They remind me of the jar of honey at the back of the cupboard, crystalised but able to be revived in hot water. Could I scrape the surface and find a functional object underneath?

I was struck by the idea that the past is always the past no matter if it was five minutes ago or millennia – the past resides all in one place and yet it is also always present – in our actions, in our language, in the habits we re-enact. We forget the near-past efficiently as we constantly acquire and discard objects and experiences.

These frozen screens speak of a particular historical moment, that brief period where phones shrunk from brick size and became smaller and smaller as well as more accessible. We revelled in the wonder of their tiny size until they became so small they were irritating to use, and began to grow again, and grow larger screens and many more functions: artefacts from the near distant past. Georgina Cockshott describes her work as a tribute – these artefacts become precious, the transformation into glass asks us to look and see them afresh – to wonder at them.

I heard someone talking recently about how people are becoming more dexterous with their thumbs, as large swathes of the world’s population become habituated to using mobile phones and texting. Our devices are part of us and our use of them shapes us – how we move is how we are in the world. 

Alex Valero’s weapon-like objects evoke other kinds of relationships with bodies and movements. These curious hollow forms could be clubs and are described in the accompanying text as functional drinking vessels. Presenting the objects with text draws attention to the interplay between how we respond to them on a physical level and how we ascribe meaning. I create a story about the objects as I look at them, imagining how they might function and what it would feel like to handle them. My own story is then layered with Valero’s fiction which speculates that these are ‘late Holocene’ objects collected and displayed as artefacts from an extinct species. I am asked to consider the relationship between form and function as I read ‘It is postulated that if humanity had managed to keep beauty and utility separate they may have avoided their crisis.’

Holocene is the geological period since the last ice age – it is also the title of a Bon Iver song that contains the line ‘…and at once I knew I was not magnificent’. Looking at Valero’s beautiful and complex objects leads me to contemplate some of the wonderful contradictions of being human, of how we are all magnificent and not magnificent.

There are a number of ways Valero plays with appearance and expectations through the works included in this exhibition. A seductive tumbler and bottle look like they could be made from steel; on another plinth a deceptively simple white cube is accompanied by a surprisingly complex description of its construction. As I ponder the cube I am reminded of the objects existing in the virtual world described in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, appearing solid and melting away to reveal the internal structures of corporations with the right access keys. This is interesting given Valero suggests that craft and materiality have been separated in the making of his object. What are we left with? Is this the antithesis of the minimalist dictum ‘truth to materials,’ or is it in fact, the epitome of this? Valero pushes the material and the construction methods to show us another truth, that how we understand materials on the surface often belies their complexity and capacity for transformation.

Nick Adams also plays with simplicity and complexity in the making of his works. He references the history of glass making in the construction of his pieces by using a glass mosaic technique that dates back to the first century. In both the construction method and the imagery used, he investigates ideas of how we value history and how we manufacture preciousness.

The tiny tiles are fused to form shallow vessels depicting 8 bit icons from old computer games. These simple images are fantastic symbols, in a few pixels they can communicate so much – they carry personalities and are touchstones for cultural moments, they are part of childhoods and associated with nostalgic connections to the past – they are low-culture and disposable and simultaneously loved, cherished as reminders of significant moments in peoples’ histories.
I remember playing my first hand-held Donkey Kong game long before I owned a mobile phone. I remember lying on the living-room floor playing Pac Man on the Atari wrestling with my brother and sister for a turn. It is bewildering how quickly those expensive luxuries became obsolete junk, cluttering up cupboards. Later they became sought-after collectables, just old enough to loose their junk status and become curiosities. 

Like the crystalised mobile phones, Adams’ forms have resulted from re-casting images and objects; drawing cultural, material and historical associations together. The objects become thought catalysts – a form of culture jamming – as art has done across the centuries; providing a means of looking at ourselves and our world. 

Truth be told, I want to touch all of the objects in this exhibition, to run my hands over them, to bring them close to my face, against my cheek. Glass creates a barrier – it provides a window to look through but it remains alien – it contains a threat, it can shatter, cut, become embedded in our flesh; seductive and dangerous.

There is one work that simply can’t be touched in this way – though it can certainly be felt. Ngaio Fitzpatrick has created a site-specific video installation in the round room at the end of the gallery. She has taken glass panels originally part of the commission made by Warren Langley, a glass column that towers above the round room, and filmed them smashing to create a compelling and evocative video work. The glass from Langley’s sculpture was replaced as the original sheets were subject to an internal chemical reaction that caused them to shatter unexpectedly.

Fitzpatrick’s projection is the only work in the round brick gallery space, and it fills the room with a feeling of immanent threat. As I enter the gallery I see footage of details of the building around me, the camera pans across brick surfaces, window ledges and old industrial fixtures. The image shifts from a close inspection of surface to a more open view of the architectural space. I am struck by the glorious quality of light coming through the windows and ponder a comment Fitzpatrick makes in her artist statement about glass being a shield. 
In this work, the building itself is the subject. I am taken on a journey where I am led to focus on texture, light and space. I ponder the industrial history of the building as a site of the production of energy. I am reminded of its scale, its harshness and its beauty. At certain times the footage cuts to an image of a stairwell – briefly I see a flash of a reflection and recognize a sheet of glass moving through space – another cut and I am left wondering. Later I see the glass breaking, shattering over the stairs, small fragments flying towards the camera like a spray of water droplets.

Glass – not-liquid – not-solid – explosive.

In New Glass 2015: Archaeology, Excavation and the Arcane the material has been lovingly hand-worked, analytically constructed and joyfully shattered by the artists in this exhibition. They have each used glass as a metaphor for time in one way or another, exploring the ways time can be compressed, stretched, lost and re-imagined.

This is an exhibition of glass; it is also a collection of stories that remind us that the past is not just behind us; but above, in front, below and inside of us. The past is interwoven into our present and gives shape to our future.