See-through S/M lingerie, illustrations of sexual organs, curtains in the shape of oversized DNA codes, and a series of other works that address the human body and gender: The exhibition Bodytalk at Glasmuseet Ebeltoft, Denmark shows original interpretations and personal statements by fifty-two artists. The golden thread running through the eighty exhibits is the stipulated subject and the material glass.
The body and its sexuality are generally a part of humanity and being human and, at the same time, unique in their individual expression. Our experiences with and in the outside world are always connected with the body, as are reflections on gender. The body and our perception of the body are the only common reference we are sure is shared by all. It is not surprising, therefore, that the body has been an unceasing source of inspiration in the fine arts for Millennia.
A few of the artists represented in the exhibition say that they were inspired by the art of antiquity, where the depiction of the ideal and harmonious body predominated. Others refer to their study of the renaissance, which perceived the human being as a likeness of divine perfection. Today, the perception and depiction of the human body have changed, the individual concept of beauty replacing the idealized canon. In the majority of the exhibited works, the body stops being a purely aesthetic object; it becomes a social factor and a communication tool to interpret our times. The human body becomes a carrier of meaning.
Many of the exhibiting artists document conflicts in the relationship between the natural and the real on the one hand, and the idealized and manipulated on the other. They ironize the fetish of the often commercially tinted illusion: The longing for the perfect body, the dream of eternal youth in confrontation with the inevitable reality of aging and transience. Works such as those by Charlotte Morrison or Jeff Ballard monitor the changes connected with medical procedures. Others investigate non-visible body parts (Lydia Boss) or place these in new contexts (Louise Lagoni).
Sources of inspiration for the narrative messages are often personal feelings and experiences, including feminist-motivated interpretation (Ina Mathiasen), or the experience of one’s own sexuality (Martina Matoušková). In other instances artists choose more general, universally valid themes. They analyze, for example, stereotypes in the perception and depiction of gender within various historical (Hélène Uffren) and cultural contexts (Michal Motyčka), or are interested in the overlapping boundaries of male and female elements (Nabo Gass).
The artist talks and performances during the opening weekend clearly demonstrated the various processes in working with glass. At the same time they represented the significant movements in today’s glassmaking: A broad range of objects, from those originating in vessel forms and closely linked to traditional artisan techniques to experimental and multimedia conceptual processes. The first group is represented, for instance, by Lisbeth Sterling who, similar to Nancy Sutcliffe, engraves figurative motifs in glass, while Libor Doležal uses the optical qualities of cut glass.
David Reekie has a sculptural approach to glass. This is true for his creative interpretation as well as the lost-wax casting technique he employs. In his presentation, he introduces a new series of asexual figures, Marionettes, which are held upright only with the help of a stick—alluding to today’s social manipulation. An outstanding sculptural stylization also distinguishes the sculptures by Václav Cígler and Nadege Desgenetez. Both artists depict parts of the human body.
While the above-named artists utilize the unique quality of glass and its soft transparency, Emma Woffenden chooses another approach in which glass plays the role of contrasting accent. In her artist talk she described how she puts together her sculptures using common materials such as papier-mâché or plastic, but also those that she simply found on the beach. In terms of contents, she is interested in analyzing today’s sexuality, often linked to violence in combination with faith, war, and social conflicts. Similarly, Silvia Levenson addresses themes of domestic violence against women in her large eye-catching object.
Barbara Idzikowska showed in her presentation and video how she created her multipart installation Sleeping Beauty. She works with casts of a live body. Her surreal composition depicts the transience and relativity of beauty, which today is associated only with trivial attributes. Rui Sasaki also works with imprints of her own body, pressed in a corner of her studio. She supplemented the installation of cast glass elements with photographs and notes that document her feelings during the action.
The exhibition presents many interdisciplinary works and other media from the visual arts such as photography and video. A video may be the final creative product that documents a performance (Maria Bang Espersen, Boris Shpeizman) or an aesthetically interesting documentation of a work process. Similarly, photography can have a documentary character or is a part of the work. We might mention here, for instance, the reliefs by Palo Macho, which integrate Jana Hojstričová’s photographs, the final art work consisting of the dialog between the two artists.
Alexander Rosenberg introduced himself in his artist talk above all as a concept artist who expresses himself in various media. In a humorous installation he arranged various glass objects so that they form the silhouette of his own body, with a “forgotten” pencil on the overhead projector turning into an erect penis. Rosenberg here linked a reminiscence of his childhood with a tribute to Marino Marini’s sculpture L’Angelo della Città.
Many viewers during the opening weekend were fascinated by Maria Bang Espersen’s performance in the glass workshop of the museum, in which she addressed the relationships between the body and its environment as well as between human breath and glassblowing. An audio recording of breathing and music accompanied the performance of the multimember Team.
This performance also occasioned a lively discussion about the exhibition in the Danish media. It was not the works’ contents that provoked; it was primarily the position of glass within the disciplines of fine art around which the debate revolved. This makes the shift from traditional glassmaking to the multimedia approach obvious. The question arose whether the existence of a museum specialized in glass—where visitors can also get to know the traditional techniques and prerequisites—may not be counterproductive when glass is to be viewed as a medium of artistic expression equal to others. The exhibition Bodytalk shows that this is not the case.
Pavla Rossini, free curator and art journalist in Copenhagen, Denmark and Prague, Czech Republic.
Translated from German by Claudia Lupri
Silvia Levenson: Until Death Do Us Part, 2013, kiln formed glass, metal, 110 x 120 cm, photo Jana Hojstričová