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Hearts Of Glass: Contemporary Art Gets Vitreous
Will Jennings , April 2nd, 2022 08:40

A cathedral, a church, a museum, and a former tanning salon host new works made of glass by Ryan Gander, Monster Chetwynd, Katie Paterson, and Pascal Marthine Tayou

Ryan Gander, Glass Betting Shop, Inside the artwork on High Street West. Ghost Shop, 2022 © Ryan Gander_ Courtesy of the artist and the National Glass Centre, Sunderland. Photography by George Darrell

When the Lord’s Prayer finished it took quite some time to stop its echo around the cavernous space of Durham Cathedral. Once it appeared to have finished its sonic journey around the stonework, the space descending to quietness, the cathedral’s Exhibition’s Officer Marie-Therese Mayne approached the aumbry, a small niche in the wall, and flipped a perfectly formed hourglass upside down. A gravity timer was set in motion.

It wasn’t sand passing through the glass though, but a fine compound of lunar rock and space dust. Within this near-900 year old building, nestled into thick walls of 400 million-plus years old stone, was this device measuring a precise fifteen minutes using ground particulates of cosmic matter existing over four-and-a-half billion years.

The work, so discretely placed within the cathedral that it could easily be missed, is by Katie Paterson. Long interested in scientific process, geological time, and material change, here she worked with the National Glass Centre as one of four artists taking part in Glass Exchange, a project with no other defining brief than inviting artists to use glass as the prime medium of a new work.

Paterson’s measuring device, The Moment, is part of a wider project called Requiem, which also features a glass funerary urn containing strata of fine cosmic material spanning aeons of time, from the before the birth of our sun to our own time (currently on exhibition in Edinburgh). But the present work appears misleadingly simple. Master glassblower James Maskrey, who spent the last year creating the projects, explains it was one of the most complex pieces, requiring detailed volumetrics and immaculate precision in the blowing of the glass so that the dust would take precisely fifteen minutes to pass from one bulb to the next.

Other works in the project wear their craftsmanship more visibly. Also in Durham Cathedral, within the Galilee Chapel, four vitrines stand in proximity to the bones of the Venerable Bede. They contain four dioramas by Monster Chetwynd, illuminating two moments of Bede’s life and two from the life of a hermit monk also interred in the cathedral: Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Patron Saint of Northumbria.

Pascale Marthine Tayou, Colonial Ghost, artwork at National Glass Centre. Images courtesy of artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, © ADAGP, Paris. Photographer credit: David Wood for Sunderland Culture

Bede was a prolific ecumenical writer, and amongst his output were deep studies (one in prose, one in verse) on the Life of St. Cuthbert. Through glass cartoons Chetwynd illustrates the tales behind two of his miracles. One tells of Cuthbert going into the sea for a nocturnal aquatic prayer. In the morning, he returned to shore followed by two otters who lovingly dried him with their breath and fur. Chetwynd depicts him amongst a plethora of brightly coloured glass sea creatures. Another finds Cuthbert exorcising the devil, with the sinful creature here manifested within a glass bubble, surrounded by an urban landscape crafted from glass of various finishes.

While the four artists headline Glass Exchange, there is a welcome acknowledgment to deeper artistic processes than the artist. We know that Damon Hirst doesn’t pickle his own sharks, Jeff Koons doesn’t inflate those balloons, and that artists draw on crafts and skills from a wide range of disciplines to bring their creative ambitions to fruition. Rarely are those makers acknowledged in the same way as, for example, a film credits all those involved in its creation. Here, however, everybody is very upfront. These works were made by, and would not exist were it not for, the expert craftspeople at the National Glass Centre, and alumni of the Glass and Ceramics Course at the University of Sunderland.

Alongside Maskrey, the glassblower, were practitioners who studied PhDs in specific glass processes, and graduates who continue to work at the Centre’s facilities. This combined skillset makes this not only a place of material and equipment, but also deeply embedded knowledge and a network so critical to material practice. “These works could not be made anywhere else in the country,” Maskrey states.

One of the key nodes in the network behind Glass Exchange is artist Erin Dickson, who used her skills in glass water-cutting and glass screenprinting to powerful effect in Ryan Gander’s installation Ghost Shop. A unit on the city’s high street, left dormant since the departure of a tanning salon, is transformed into an uncannily translucent rendering of a betting shop, every element recreated in clear glass: flooring tiles, fixed-odds terminal, containers of pencils, fire escape sign and extinguisher. Again, there is an apparent simplicity disguising processes which are anything but. The crumpled betting slips thrown on the floor are water cut panels with screen printed faces, scrunched up by Maskrey with gloved hands as if he were the despairing gambler himself.

“He was really expressive,” Gander says about Maskrey’s transformation of the glass into apparent paper, “almost like he was prototyping the experience … like he was some kind of theatre practitioner getting in the role with motion memory.” The craft is not only in the making, but the fitting. With barely any visible fixings on display, the work is custom-made for the space, intricately fitted to the architecture so each element interlocks, the shelves penetrating the wall to avoid the need for extraneous support. This means it can’t be relocated. Instead, most parts – except perhaps the cheese plant and some betting slips – will be smashed and recycled at the end. This is a work just for Sunderland, just for now.

Gander doesn’t consider his work overtly political, though recognises that it can be read politically just as it can be read “romantically, manipulatively, filmically.” He says that capital-P politics should be kept well away from art, insisting that “political change happens through agency and people's freedom to choose” rather than through creative persuasion. Whether passers-by primarily consider it as a political statement or not, betting shops are one of the most politicised of high street uses at a time of economic precarity, and here with one forged of such fragility in a street of many other empty units, the politics seems unavoidable.

Photography by David Wood for Sunderland Culture

The final work of Glass Exchange is, however, overtly political. In the National Glass Centre, Cameroonian artist Pascal Marthine Tayou’s Colonial Ghost is a vast installation comprising 160 unique figures, each in a uniform employed in the colonial expansion into Africa. Modelled on his own collection of wooden figurines portraying professional positions: doctors, photographers, administrators, police. Maskrey and his team painstakingly copied them in glass. Each one took hours to create but succeeds in embodying personality, history, and meaning within.

Displayed in a series of crucifix forms, they first read as playful doll-like characters. However, that colonial legacy, and how it dresses itself up and is embodied comes to the surface. Originally displayed in Sunderland Minster, it also raises thoughts around the role of Christianity in the migration of modernist imperial improvements.

Glass Exchange is a unique exploration into a medium. The projects barely intersect in any conceptual or physical way, other than their shared use of material and the craft of working the glass in such expert ways. Glassmaking is historically rooted in the Sunderland region, and these projects keep it visible as an ongoing, progressive practice. Gander, Chetwynd, Marthine Tayou, and Paterson may be the headline artists, but through the materiality of glass itself an opportunity is afforded for an equal transparency into the artistic process, allowing light to pass through object and illuminate a wider ecosystem at play. An acknowledgement that could be replicated more widely across the sector.

Glass Exchange , various venues in Durham & Sunderland, until 11 September