Laura Gascoigne

Exquisite and deranged: two glass exhibitions reviewed

What really astonishes about this contemporary glass is how little progress has been made since the Romans

Exquisite and deranged: two glass exhibitions reviewed
As exquisitely intricate as Blaschka sea creatures: ‘Malaria’, 2012, by Luke Jerram. Credit: Luke Jerram
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Glass Exchange

Durham Cathedral and locations across the north-east, until 11 September

A State of Matter: Modern and Contemporary Glass Sculpture

Henry Moore Institute, until 5 June

A ‘Ghost Shop’ has appeared between Domino’s Pizza and Shoe Zone on Sunderland High Street. Look through the laminated window glass and you’ll see more glass: glass shop fittings, a glass cheese plant, a glass pedal bin spilling disposable glass cups, glass chocolate wrappers and glass betting slips littering the floor. Ryan Gander likes the fact that there’s no explanation of his see-through betting shop: ‘If you tell everyone it’s a contemporary art project, they’d run away.’

Gander is one of four artists commissioned by Sunderland’s National Glass Centre to make works inspired by the history of the north-east. Two artists, Katie Paterson and Monster Chetwynd, have chosen themes relating to St Bede, marking the thousandth anniversary of the relocation of his relics from Jarrow to Durham. Paterson’s ‘The Moment’, a 15-minute hourglass filled with cosmic sand, has been installed in a niche in the south aisle of Durham Cathedral inviting reflection on Bede’s creation of the western calendar, and Chetwynd’s gaily coloured glass dioramas illustrating episodes from the lives of Bede and Cuthbert are on display in the cathedral’s Galilee Chapel next to Bede’s tomb. Pascal Marthine Tayou’s ‘Colonial Ghost’, an installation of glass crucifixes configured from recreations of African colonial statues, runs the length of the Balcony Gallery at the National Glass Centre.

Glass raises ghosts in Sunderland. St Peter’s Church, just up the road from the centre, boasted the first stained-glass windows in England, installed by Gaulish glassmakers brought over by St Benedict Biscop, abbot of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory, in 674 AD. ‘They came,’ says Bede, ‘and they not only finished the work required, but from this caused the English to know and learn their handicraft.’ Shipping links and easy access to sand and coal made Sunderland a centre of glassmaking: in the mid-19th century 20 companies provided work for more than 1,000 craftsmen. Windows in Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament contain stained glass manufactured on Wearside by Hartley Wood & Co. The firm shut up shop in 1998, the year the National Glass Centre opened on the site of the last working shipyard on the banks of the Wear.

Glass lends itself to poetic metaphor, but this peculiar material classified as an ‘amorphous solid’ is more durable than it looks. A memorable exhibition 30 years ago at the British Museum, Glass of the Caesars, brought together more than 160 fragile examples of Roman glass, many of them miraculously intact. It was in Rome around the middle of the 1st century BC that some bright spark had the idea of blowing down a pipe into a lump of molten glass, and within a generation Roman glassmakers – mainly Syrian immigrants – had developed nearly all the inflation techniques in use today.

The decorative associations of glass, more than its fragility, have stopped it being taken seriously as a medium for art. But in the 1950s the Venetian master glassmaker Ettore Costantini opened his studio to Picasso, Arp, Fontana and Calder, and more recently Berengo Studio on Murano has commissioned work from contemporary artists for a series of Glasstress exhibitions at the Venice Biennale. It was Berengo Studio that fabricated ‘Mummy’s Little Soldier’ (2013), Hew Locke’s unsettling monument to the African child soldier in A State of Matter, the Henry Moore Institute’s current show of modern and contemporary glass sculpture marking the United Nations International Year of Glass.

Most of the 16 artists represented make their own glass using a variety of techniques. Elliot Walker’s ‘SPILLAGE’ (2019), a sleekly modernist bottle and accompanying pool of red wine, is hot-sculpted and cold-carved; Erwin Eisch’s ‘Tele Komm Komm 027-418’ (1998), a deranged vintage phone, ringing off the hook, is free-blown and hot-carved. Alena Matejka cast her prohibitively heavy ‘Magic Carpets’ (2004) using pre-Roman methods – weighing in at 30kg, they’d never get off the ground – and Claire Falkenstein created her 1960s nests of molten glass and copper piping – the most satisfyingly sculptural objects in the show – by her own ingenious method. Luke Jerram, though, had to call on the services of scientific glass-maker Brian Jones to realise his ongoing ‘Glass Microbiology’ series – as exquisitely intricate as Blaschka sea creatures, the three killer bugs on show here are ‘HIV’, ‘Malaria’ and ‘EV17 Hand, Foot & Mouth’. (The offer of Coronavirus was turned down.)

The most experimental work is Alexandra Engelfriet’s film ‘Glassporen’ (2015), featuring the National Glass Centre’s master glassmaker James Maskrey pouring molten silicate lava from a red-hot ladle onto a bed of damp clay where it slithers, bubbles and cracks before drying into a pile of frosted tortilla chips. But what really astonishes about contemporary glass is how little progress has been made since the Romans. Bruce McLean’s glass ‘Head’ (2013) makes no advance on the 3rd-century ‘Head Flask’ in Glass of the Caesars. No wonder the Roman head is smirking.