Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Let's All Go To London!

The Brits know how to be civil. And the whole world should take note of their singular aplomb. Where others are reduced to arguing like five year olds, the British manage to pull through with nary a scratch from some quite wooly subjects.
Here is the review of a show of contemporary glass artists in Birmingham, UK, which both showed the work of traditionalists and innovators in the glass arts side by side at their recent festival. There was nary a mention of "is it art?" and the ensuing endless controversy. Could it be that if you do not have a better idea of your own, my dear, just keep your winging to yourself?

From the BirminghamPost.net Terry Grimley's article: "British Glass Biennale, a selected exhibition reflecting the best of glassmaking in the UK today, included work by 81 established artists as well as, for the first time, a student representation. It is worth noting that the 81 UK-resident artists include three Americans, two Japanese, two Danes and artists from Belgium, South Korea, Germany, Sweden, Slovenia, Norway, Holland and France – reflecting the cosmopolitan reality of the arts in Britain these days.

Added to the fact that glassmaking in recent times has taken off in all sorts of directions unbounded by its nominal identity as a craft, this unsurprisingly makes for a hugely diverse show – perhaps confusingly so for those who haven’t been paying attention recently.

Still, straightforward vessel-making still has its adherents, among them Bob Crooks, with a spectacular giant vase with trailed colour decoration.

The main prize, however, was awarded to Tracy Nicholls for her triptych Optica I, II and III, three wall panels in which organic blue forms glow seductively out of a dark nocturnal background. It’s beautiful and elegant, but you are unlikely to have any idea of its irony unless you refer to the artist’s notes: the images are inspired by cancer cells seen through a microscope.

Will Farmer, chair of the exhibition jury, said: “There’s something very mysterious about the piece, which as a triptych has amazing impact. It’s strong technically, shows real quality craftsmanship and is beautifully manufactured. We all loved it.”

Looking through the biographical notes on the artists, who were invited to fill in a questionnaire, it is striking that those who have chosen to name an influential contemporary artist tend to turn to the field of fine art rather than glass-making, with Anish Kapoor, Rachael Whiteread and Richard Serra each getting more than one nod.

The Norwegian Margareth Troli nominates Damien Hirst, and it’s particularly easy to imagine her work crossing over into the fine art arena. Her Prohibited Objects presents a representative selection of items which you would not be welcome to take on to an aircraft, ranging from pairs of scissors to automatic rifles but concentrating on the more extreme end of the range.

These template-like representations, waterjet-cut from grey sheet glass, are suspended in space to form a kind of screen. It has an impressive if somewhat dour presence.

If this piece can be regarded as politically-inspired, it is by no means alone. Peter Layton shows three beautifully crafted pieces reflecting on current world tensions, one of them simply a rack of identical clear glass jars, each with the name of a different nationality etched on to it.

More pointedly, another related piece has two similar, but much larger, jars marked “Jew” and “Arab” which despite being empty show traces of what might be blood having overflown from them.

Most elaborate, though, is a large mechanical contraption in which it appears that the blood of various nationalities is being distilled.

Candice-Elena Greer

One element which runs through much of the work is the presentation of glass in a way which deliberately undermines preconceptions about the material, or even actively mimics others. A particularly ambitious (and fragile) example is Robyn Smith’s Seeing through the Ages, a giant pair of billowing net curtains. One of the most un-glasslike pieces is one of the student works, by Grietje Beyaert, which looks like a fragment of some diaphanous material casually placed on a large stone.

In a selection which ranges from large-scale chandeliers through big installations like Carrie Fertig’s family of glass sheep contentedly watching a re-run of Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote on TV (its actual title is Contentment) to June Kingsbury’s small sculptural pieces incorporating the mummified remains of various small creatures, the exhibition honours the old cliché by providing something for everyone.

While some glassmakers aspire to fine art, Abigail Stradling, a successful recent graduate of Birmingham School of Jewellery, moves into glass from jewellery-making, with her rings and necklace made of light bulbs containing an eclectic mix of materials.

My own taste inclines towards the chunky sculptural tradition represented here by Bruno Romanelli, Charlie Macpherson and Hannah Kippax, the biennale’s first prizewinner in 2004. Some of the more adventurous exhibits do incline towards the flippant and sometimes the wildly impractical, given the notorious fragility of the medium.

Traditional skills like engraving and stained glass are strongly represented by artists like Nancy Sutcliffe and Frans Wesselman, though they seem somewhat pushed to the margins in this sometimes no holds-barred exploration of the medium.

Over the festival weekend the Ruskin Glass Centre was also host to an international sculpture garden featuring work by artists from France, Austria, Rumania and elsewhere. The fact that artists had travelled so far to bring works on a grand scale was perhaps more impressive than the show itself. The size of the exhibits and their international breadth seemed oddly out of scale with the brevity of the installation.

The garden, like several other events in this year’s festival, took its theme from The Tempest. Another example, this time running into late September alongside the Biennale, is a beautifully presented exhibition of beads by a wide range of artists including some distinguished names. There are some beautiful things here but, as it is displayed in the restaurant, avoid busy mealtimes to get the best viewing opportunity.

The next Biennale, in 2010, is going to be homeless because at that time the Ruskin Glass Centre will be in the midst of an ambitious £20 million development. It is an opportunity to take the event on tour, perhaps to London, which may help lend a growth spurt to its already broadening national profile."

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