artikel – A Glass Key to open the Sky

neues glas Sommer 2009

In: Neues Glas / New Glass, nr.03/09, Ritterbachverlag

english version

Article: A Glass Key to open the Sky

This year, the Glass Department at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam celebrates its 40th birthday. As a consequence, Caroline Prisse, who is currently responsible for policy development at the department, has been named guest curator at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. She has prepared an anniversary exhibition together with Titus Eliëns, head of collections and Professor of Industrial Design in Leiden. The exhibition highlights the work of past and present students and lecturers at the Rietveld Academy and offers a vivid insight into the development of ‘Rietveld Glass’.

Glass and the Rietveld Academy enjoy a special history. The initial impulse was provided by Sybren Valkema, who established a glass studio in the new academy building in 1966. He set up the department and offered students the opportunity to realise their artistic aspirations. From 1980 onwards, his work was continued by Richard Meitner and Mieke Groot. Their influence was to be crucial: Not only due to their longevity (they led the department for more than 20 years), but also because they led the department jointly, as two very different artists and personalities. This led to an invaluable broadening of artistic content. Caroline Prisse took charge after a brief intermezzo. She has been at the helm for the past 6 years, and the exhibition provides an occasion to look back upon all that has taken place at the academy since then, especially as the course was in danger of being discontinued in 2003.

Tug-of-war or balancing act?

The exhibition presents divers objects, sculptures, murals and installations. These include objects by Sybren Valkema and the mysterious work of Esther Jiskoot; a veil of yellow drops of glass that descends from the ceiling. There is a large mural by Richard Meitner ‘Descending a Staircase’ (2009) which is an ode in glass to Duchamps’ ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’, and this hangs opposite ‘Shattered Glass’ (2008) by Jerome Harrington; a library full of books whose title contains metaphorical condensations of glass. The fascinating techno installation by Lida Krul, assembled from cathode ray tubes and radio tubes (2009) leads us into the exhibition’s period rooms. The manner in which Mieke Groot presents her African earthenware inspired vases ‘Djenné’ (2005) in the context of the ‘Japanese Room’ speaks volumes, as does Caroline Prisse’s installation in the ‘Goblin Room’; an illuminated greenhouse filled with objects made from laboratory glass (untitled, 2000). Prisse has made self-assured choices in her role as curator, and yet there is a sense of subdued tension to be felt. Individual works are predominant in her presentation, which slightly obscures the fact that there is a second track to the exhibition. The track that is followed by the visual art runs alongside a track that follows on from the brilliant antique glasswork that is on display in the museum’s collection and that fans out into the many different forms of modern design.

Industrial art and visual art are both part and parcel of the history of glass. The exhibition is something in between a tug-of-war and a balancing act due to the fact that Caroline Prisse has taken visual art as her point of departure. However, she is able to prove that this standpoint is not too lofty an aspiration. Visual art is essential to glass, and she has woven it into the curriculum of the course. I will first reflect on the past before addressing the content of the new programme.

An ongoing feast of freedoms

Sybren Valkema stood for ‘free glass’ (or studio glass), a worldwide movement that is still very influential today. This school emphasises freedom of technique, and mostly produces glass objects.

Richard Meitner and Mieke Groot offered their students a broader palette from which to work. They drew their inspiration from everything modern visual art has to offer, and combined a fascination for artistic content with a deliberate approach to design. This is termed ‘Free Design’ and it is probably true to say that the work of Mieke Groot falls within this category. The same cannot be said of Richard Meitner: He created objects and sculptures whereby visual art takes pride of place. If the Bauhaus adage ‘Form follows Function’ is to be applied to these two artists it must be given a very broad interpretation: as the pursuit of a form of efficiency that can enrich any artistic visual language. The history of the Bauhaus is itself inconsistent in this respect: this was determined both by the ‘intuitive’ approach of Johannes Itten as by the ‘modern’ approach of Mies van der Rohe some years later.

 Shifts during the 1980s and 1990s

Considerable changes took place during the period that Meitner and Groot lectured at the Rietveld Academy. The interest in glass increased, as did the number of glass galleries. There were a number of reasons for these developments. For example, there was a shift in artistic content. A flourishing interest in historical styles such as Baroque led to a change in the appreciation of glass, also influenced by ‘Camp’. The scope for individual artistic voices became much greater. This was directly reflected in the work of the students. Additionally, there was a sea change in the position of artists who worked with glass.

After the War, design became more specialised and became known as ‘Industrial Design’, which to an extent, widened the gulf between glass as art and the glass industry. At the same time, the potential for working with glass increased significantly. Meitner and Groot entered the international forum and turned their gaze towards Venice, for example, where new workshops were arising from the old factories. That fluctuations within the glass industry can periodically create new opportunities for artists is well known. However, this served to increase the contrast between ‘independent’ artists and artists who chose for Design, or who were deployed as part of a marketing strategy. This last category included a number of world famous artists. Swarovski, in Austria, is a good example of a company that aspires to create a balance between collaborations with celebrated artists and mass production. Although the question of whether you are a designer, a free designer or an artist may well be irrelevant, nevertheless, these developments provided an invitation to nail one’s colours to the mast. Groot and Meitner were amply suited to give structure to this ambition. The department produced personalities who dared to make a choice: One of these was Caroline Prisse.

A fresh start

Caroline Prisse had to make a fresh start on taking up her post. While her predecessors had clearly endeavoured to provide high quality in an international arena, the enormous growth of internationalisation during the 1990s could not have been foreseen. Theorists working from the perspective of cultural relativism stimulated interest for minorities and other cultures. This coincided with the birth of the Internet. These factors, fuelled by worldwide economic growth, triggered globalisation. This led, irrespective of the question of whether it was a positive or a negative development, to a structural change within the academy as an institution. Not only were the floodgates of information thrown open, but there was also an international inflow of students. This was, at least in the Netherlands, actively encouraged by the institutions themselves.

The general opinion was that conceptualisation and knowledge were the primary tools for visual artists, with technique taking second place. In this respect, it seemed logical to create a division between the workshop (technique) and instruction (knowledge). The department was faced with closure as a result of this battle of wills. Fortunately, the very reasons for contemplating closure proved to be the reasons for the salvation of the department. If one can attract students from around the globe, there is a healthy basis for providing a course of the highest standard. This necessitates specialisation, and Prisse chose, in the finest tradition of the Rietveld Academy, to further improve and expand the content of the course.

A glass key to open the sky

Although Meitner and Groot had already established content, depth and meaning as primary values, glass was always the starting-point. Prisse inverts the equation: She begins with visual art. A curriculum of post-academic level places artistry, art history, theory and philosophy at its heart. Being an artist is taken as read, which requires of the students that they possess a degree of basic knowledge. Consequently, glass is examined from every possible aspect: its history, its uses, its metaphorical meanings as well as the techniques involved in its making. Ultimately, even the medium itself is thrown open to debate, which has led to Saara Vallineva graduating in 2008 with a work made from cardboard. Incidentally, the supposition that such a starting point must necessarily lead to conceptual work or installations is incorrect. These are but the outward appearances of a discourse that concerns itself with meaning and with openness.

Mia Lerssi’s work is a good example of the result that a broad outlook can accomplish. She is represented in the exhibition in The Hague by the text ‘Cinderella is a Slut’ that has been cast into treacly glass letters, and accompanied by a discarded metal shoe stand (2008). Her ‘Lovemachine’ in 2006 was a cross between a performance, a sculpture and an installation. She constructed a pink helicopter with glitter and Vaseline. Sweet-looking girls gave out lollipops, which Lerssi had, in another context, also fashioned from glass. The content of the curriculum is, therefore, intended to encourage openness and experiment. It is, of itself, not an experiment at all, but a necessity. The fact that kindred spirits can come together as a result of a globalised community can help to stimulate openness, but can also lead to a self-congratulatory and narrow-minded mentality. The department is therefore based on cooperation and exchange of knowledge; in search of space; in search of, to quote Yoko Ono: ‘A glass key to open the sky’.

Saskia Monshouwer

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