Throughout history, glass art has been very popular, dating back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Assyria. This noble craft had an important role since the glass masters used to produce both decorative and utilitarian objects spanning from monumental stained glass works and wall hangings, to jewelry and tableware, to everyday objects such as glass vessels (glasses, vases, or decorative jars). The glassworks that earned enormous fame come from the island of Murano in the Lagoon of Venice where this material has been used thoroughly explored and refined for hundreds of years.
When it comes to contemporary visual art, glass is rarely used as a sole material, although there are artists who experiment with it. To empower different visions and approaches to glass-making, in 2009 Venetian entrepreneur, Adriano Berengo, known as the man behind the Berengo Studio (devoted to modern-day production of Murano glass), launched a collateral exhibition titled Glasstress as part of the Venice Biennale. For the occasion, he has summoned artists coming from different disciplines to work with the leading artisans in creating glass artworks.
Currently, an exhibition featuring the latest Glasstress production is presented at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida.
For this edition of the Glasstress project, 34 artists were invited by Adriano Berengo to produce new artworks in collaboration with his glass artisans at the Berengo Studio on the Venetian island of Murano. Led by the idea to reestablish the former glory of Murano glass, the Studio made enormous efforts to generate a new paradigm of the medium of glass in a close dialog with some of the leading contemporary artists.
To achieve that, the artists were encouraged not to produce decorative objects with glass, but to instead develop conceptually rounded works that encapsulate their own artistic practices.
Most of them never used glass as material; they have nevertheless released astounding results by uniting their creative visions with the technical expertise of the skillful artisans. Some works were produced during the pandemic lockdowns, as the artists worked with their glass artisan partners remotely via Zoom after the initial work took place at the studio in Venice.
Jimmie Durham, Renate Bertlmann, Ai Weiwei, Ugo Rondinone, Fred Wilson, Joyce J. Scott, Monica Bonvicini, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Fiona Banner, Laure Prouvost, Thomas Schütte, and Erwin Wurm are just some of the names among the selected artists.
Irvin Lippman, the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s Executive Director, commented briefly on the last year’s circumstances following the production of the exhibition:
There is every reason this year to have a world view. Three years in the making, with 2020 being such a challenging year to coordinate an international exhibition of this size and scope, the effort serves as an important reassurance that art is an essential and enduring part of humanity. This is also a tribute to the resilience of Venice’s surviving the floods and continuing to make art through the pandemic.
The Glasstress exhibition includes works that cover a range of contemporary topics including climate crisis, racial justice, gender issues, politics, and human rights in general. The installation which opens the installment is Sala Longhi by Fred Wilson centered on the white chandelier with 29 glass panels that mirror the paintings of 18th- century Venetian artist Pietro Longhi.
On display is also the Museum’s latest acquisition produced in the Berengo Studio – a sculpture by Song Dong titled Glass Big Brother. This fascinating chandelier decorated with thirty surveillance cameras is 11 feet long and covers the entire room from ceiling to floor.
Renate Bertlmann’s installation Rosemarie’s Divorce is the work that merges two of her earlier works into one; it features a grand pacifier, an object the artist has been using since the mid- 1970s to explore sexuality and motherhood, as well as two knife-roses made of deep black glass.
The work Bonded of Italian artist Monica Bonvicini that explores themes of sexuality, power, and relationships in male-oriented domains was inspired by time spent in gay male nightclubs, while Nancy Burson’s DNA HAS NO COLOR deals with the illegitimacy of racism, and is a continuation of the project commissioned by Zaha Hadid for the London Millennium Dome.
The installment also includes the work of Tim Tate, the artist known for exploring loss, memory, recovery, and hope through the lens of an HIV-positive person who through the AIDS crisis during the 1980s and 1990s. In the context of the exhibition, it is mandatory to note that Tate is the co-founder of the Washington Glass Studio in Washington, DC.
The cold hard glassworks of Erwin Wurm produced at the Berengo Studio are on display, along with series of eight giant cougar heads suspended on metal armatures by Jimmie Durham who felt inspired by the most sacred animal in Native American Cherokee mythology; and the twelve glass horses casts by Ugo Rondinone, the artist who represented his home country in the Swiss Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale.
The project was presented across the globe, and the latest edition featured with the current exhibition is a true success having in mind the difficulties the world has experienced with the current pandemic. Related to that is the following statement of Adriano Berengo:
We have brought Glasstress to countries around the world for ten years, seeking to expand and enliven international awareness of the variety and richness of contemporary artists using glass in their creative practices. In the past, its place in the art world might have seemed uncertain. But now in this latest edition of Glasstress, the first after a global pandemic, one thing we know for certain: glass endures. Life is fragile, just as glass is fragile, yet in this fragility, there is also strength.
The project was made possible by the Fondazione Berengo and The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. This exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog.
Glasstress will be on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida until 5 September 2021.
Featured image: Ai Weiwei and his artwork for Glasstress 2021. Photo by Karolina Sobel; The Glasstress furnace in Venice blazes behind the artist Monica Bonvicini as she works on her glass sculpture Bonded (2017); Renate Bertlmann - Rosemarie's Divorce, 2019 - 2020. Two Black Roses + Tranquilizer 63 x 63 x 86.6 inches. Photo credit: Francesco Allegretto. All images courtesy Boca Raton Museum of Art.