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Outside The Venice Biennale: Perspectives On Glass Art
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Outside The Venice Biennale: Perspectives On Glass Art

Picture of Costanza Beltrami
Updated: 27 January 2016
Glass is often undervalued as a medium in contemporary art, despite its deep roots in design and craft. Two exhibitions held on the periphery of the Venice Biennale 2013 put glass, and its potential as an art form, centre stage, as Costanza Beltrami reports.
Giuseppe Penone Barra d'Aria
Giuseppe Penone, Barra d’Aria, 1969-1996, Photo: Danilo Donzelli, Maurizio Morra Greco Collection, Naples | © Giuseppe Penone by SIAE 2013

As any tourist would know, glass is a staple ingredient in the mix that gives Venice its unique flavour. Traditional blown glass from the island of Murano is to be found in every shop, from cheap, multicoloured rosary souvenirs to luxury Pauly & C.’s chandeliers. Reflecting Venice’s overall feel, glass production is both exclusive — like that narrow, magic calle one finds when lost — and cheap to take home. The two exhibitions on glass to be seen in the summer of 2013 in Venice, Fragile and Glasstress, unintentionally embody the city’s contrasting aspects of glass production.

Michael Craig-Martin, An Oak Tree
Michael Craig-Martin, An Oak Tree, 1973, Artist Collection | © Michael Graig-Martin

Hosted by the research centre Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Fragile investigates glass as a concept within contemporary art. When does glass become art? How can this fragile art circulate? What impact does it have on the art-world? These questions may seem too academic-minded for the tangible reality of artworks within a gallery. Yet, the artworks on display are answers, in themselves and as a collaborative whole. Art production? See Michael Craig Martin’s An Oak Tree, where an ordinary glass of water resting on a bathroom shelf is ironically turned, ‘transubstantiated’, into an oak tree. Art circulation? Look at Walead Beshty’s Fedex Sculpture, a transparent, shatterproof glass cube whose cracked surface tells of several Fedex shippings. Art appreciation? Ponder Matias Faldbakken’s Liquor Sculpture, a nimble criticism on the vernissage, that quintessential event of the art-world.

The fact that visitors ‘read’ their way through the exhibition using a booklet matches the overall scholarly mood and allows for minimal wall panels. As a result, the gallery’s minimal architecture complements the sober transparency of the artworks on show. Even the colours of the sun-drenched lagoon outside are kept at bay, visible only through staged artificial openings. Such is Penone’s Barra d’Aria (air beam), where a transparent funnel substitutes the heavy-duty industrial object evoked in the title. Standing close to the funnel, one can hear the cicadas chirping outside; yet the glass contains and mutes the sound, investing the low humming with a spiritual significance.

Joseph Kosuth  Glass - One and Three
Joseph Kosuth Glass – One and Three,1965 MJS Collection (Paris), Gh. Mollet-Viéville | © Joseph Kosuth by SIAE 2013

For one senses a spirit — without necessarily a soul. Rather than exploring the possibilities of glass as a ‘thing’ to be moulded and modified, the exhibition explores what ‘glass’ means. The question finds no better phrasing than Joseph Kosuth’s Glass (one and three), which contrasts the materiality of a real glass pane with the descriptive efficacy of its dictionary definition.

Kosuth features in both exhibitions. In Glasstress he displays No Number #19. Spelling ‘How words are understood is not told by words alone,’ this piece seems a direct response to Fragile’s concerns. Yet, other works on show give a completely different taste to this second exhibition.

Joana Vasconcelos, Babylon
Joana Vasconcelos, Babylon, 2013, vetro di Murano, lana lavorata all’uncinetto, ornamenti e poliestere

Spread over three venues, Glasstress is playful, as advertised by John Isaacs’ Let the Golden Age Begin. His wooden gig overfilled with coloured glass balloons opens the display at Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti. Playfulness and colour are leitmotifs throughout the exhibition, even in a minimalist work like Francesco Gennari’s Tre colori per presentarmi al mondo la mattina (Three colours to meet the world in the morning). And if colour is forsaken, it is to stage the Snow White’s evil queen, as in Matt Collishaw’s East of Eden, or to play with a child’s Chemistry Set in Paul Frier’s Nebula.

Regardless of the playroom atmosphere, the works in Glasstress are not sheltered or secluded from the city outside. Thus, Jaume Plensa’s Blake in Venice engages with the landscape by hanging chains of poems to the windows overlooking the canal. Joana Vasconcelos instead engages with the city’s history by turning an acclaimed Rezzonico chandelier into a baroque concoction of exotic spices. It’s a Decoy, justlike Cornelia Parker’s drum, a souvenir shop trinket blown up to its real size in a game of double illusions. This was my least favourite piece, but also the most exemplary: exploring the illusionistic possibilities of coloured glass, the pieces in Glasstress mimic the flea market’s aesthetics.

Evidently, the curators of Fragile and Glasstress saw different things when looking back at the city’s hallowed glass-blowing tradition. And yet, that tradition is but one, and Venice embraces both the 1,500 euro per night Hotel Cipriani suite and the chatter of a fixed-price pizzeria under a sweltering afternoon heat. It is of no surprise then that my favourite piece, Ron Arad’s autobiographical exploration of vandalising inscriptions on train windows, would sit perfectly in both exhibition frames and, in turn, add new perspectives.