Think of glass in a sculptural context and, well, it’s likely that the first (if not only) artist who comes to mind is Dale Chihuly.
Glass, it seems, has a bit of a perception problem. Either it’s showy sculptural installation of the Chihuly sort, or it’s the functional stuff of everyday, domestic use (within which I include the showier utilitarian stuff). Glass is a bit either/or that way, despite the best efforts of contemporary artists seeking to expand its presence, to bridge the fecund middle ground between the utile at one end of the spectrum and the ornamental at the other. So what’s an artist to do?
Well, here’s some work by contemporary Canadian artist Cédric Ginart. I first encountered him several years ago in a solo exhibition at the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery in Waterloo, Ontario, perhaps the premiere public gallery in Canada showing contemporary work in these two undervalued mediums. Ginart is a French-trained scientific glassblower, an expert in creating one-of-a-kind glass instruments designed for use in narrow, highly specific and specialized scientific and industrial endeavours. His creative work, outside of the laboratory, parallels the ultra-utilitarian nature of these instruments, and (not surprisingly) is rooted in it. One realm feeds the other, and the consequences tend to be work of meaning and substance.
Distilloscope speaks of and to this. It takes the sculptural form of a small, refracting telescope – the kind with a long tube through which one looks from an end – mounted on a simple wooden tripod. Resemblance is established through form, and then upended, subverted, for this telescope is not a device for seeing through, but one for looking at, for being regarded – for being a source of aesthetic marvel and thought. And, well, it actually really is for “seeing through,” for it is of course entirely transparent, a transcription of a form into the “throughness” that glass can proffer. Our Platonic ideal of this telescope would be comprised of an interior series of lenses aligned within a darkened tube so as to enable a seeing via this device. Ginart’s is no such thing. In places of the disks of lenses there are instead spheres and a long coil – both of glass. We’re dealing with an entirely different level of seeing, here.
And then there’s the title. And there’s the glass coil. Ginart of course is referencing the process of distillation as well – you know, the creation of alcohol – and that leads me to two notions: that Ginart may be making reference to cosmological issues (specifically, molecular clouds of alcohol that have been reportedly seen drifting about in our universe), or possibly to something much more mundane (ie. that alcohol has been humankind’s primary means of altering perception, something the telescope did much later in the course of human evolution and in a much more meaningful way).
And the transparency of glass. Ginart’s is a telescope as container, as a vessel. The astronomical telescope is a means to an end, an artefact through which something (light) passes through and is magnified, but Ginart’s is a kind of holder. Phenomena do no pass through relatively unscathed to be observed at the far end with Distilloscope. Rather, they emanate from it.
I’ve spent so much time talking about one work because I think it has some importance, especially in relation to what we conventionally expect of glass in terms of aesthetic experience. Ginart points it elsewhere, inextricably linking it back to science and industry, where it has always had an important place. His isn’t glass as a modernist experience, entire unto itself. His is glass as part of a fabric larger than the merely aesthetic.
Équilibre plays with many of the same generative conventions and tensions. We encounter another recognizable artefact, one which we more readily and commonly know of as our everyday experience with glass: the drinking glass. Well, more accurately, a variety of the sort of stemmed glasses we typically associate with the drinking of wine or even some spirits, that utensil evocative of some degree of elegance, of a slight bump or rise in the mundane everyday curve of the domestic realm.
And Ginart renders it all into something of a carnival, glasses enmeshed in the sculptural arc as a kind of frozen tumble, end over end, each linked to the other, falling. Équilibre is a kind of aesthetic apprehension of impending chaos, of a fall from grace of a number of elegant vessels that can only resolve in the solution of shards.
In a sense, isn’t this our possibly our primary relationship with glass, a substance we take for granted and give little heed to in its own right until we must deal with it as a broken entity, all dangerous bits and pieces that might do us some degree of harm?
And yet Équilibre does none of this. It is whole and entire, shardless. It’s all about expectation, what we bring to the piece based on past experience, and we bring it to an elegant tumble of transparency, all of which is stopped dead to allow us to see phenomena differently, as something “other”.
Glass can transcend the utile/ornamental duality that seems to tenaciously grip the medium. Cédric Ginart’s is one possible approach.