Glass, Art, and the Poetry of Purpose
A Conversation with Jana Šindelová
"Glass has the character and fate of a person."
Václav, do you remember your childhood much, and how do those memories enter into your work?
Yes, I still do recall experiences from my childhood, and not only deeply human experiences but also experiences of places, experiences of nature related to the specific landscape of Vestín, its shape and composition, and the constant variability of light and color. I’m still working with those impressions today, especially in my designs for natural environments, whether in the form of walking paths or water and light channels and walls. I’m always thinking about the viewer and how I can evoke those feelings that go back to the free atmosphere of my youth.
Is there a personal encounter that significantly influenced your life and art?
There have been – and still are – many people in my life that are close to me in both their feelings and views and who, to a certain extent, have formed me. From my university days, the person who stands out most is my professor, Josef Kaplický, whom I still hold in the highest regard not only as a teacher and artist but also for his values. To this day, he’s the standard I strive for. In the school studio, I also got to know several artist friends: Adriena Šimotová, Jiří John, and Zdena Strobachová, who later became my wife. Together we were able to avoid compromising our ideals during times that weren’t so favorable in either a professional or a social regard.
That must have been difficult during the 1950s in post-war Communist Czechoslovakia.
Well, I want to say that thanks to Kaplický, who created a studio atmosphere in which we felt as free as possible to do creative work, and thanks to his personal courage, we survived all the social tension. The fact that glass, which we studied at the school, wasn’t officially considered an ideologically unsound artistic medium (in contrast to painting and sculpture) helped. Which is why even as students we could take part in competitions and exhibitions.
Were there any foreign artists who influenced your work?
During my school years, I was mostly interested in 19th century French painting, though there were a few others as well. So, for example, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, as well as Paul Cézanne, who discovered new means of artistic expression. Also Henri Matisse, in the 20th century… And Pierre Bonnard, who in my view is underappreciated. To me he’s the greatest figure in the painting of his period because of his Proustian quality of relishing sensual things, the richness in his work of food and wine. Then there are Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, Moore and Jean Arp, whose Dada tendencies grasped reality in a way freed from the clichés and conventions of his times. He freely elevated play to the level of art. Among later artists, I’d have to include Mark Rothko for his moral need to set forth the testimony of his life.
Why did you choose glass as your primary material?
I was fascinated by the light and color properties of glass. Once I got into the glassmaking environment, I quickly realized that the material inspired me so much that I wanted to work with it for a long time.
But it isn’t glass alone that’s interested you. Since 1958 you’ve also created landscape projects.
From the beginning, I’ve been interested in the relationship between the landscape and the human presence in it. Using drawing, I’ve captured my ideas in the form of intimate architectural boxes, paths, connecting lines, water or light channels. I’ve always thought about the viewer, of preparing the most varied spatial and lighting situations to enhance his or her thoughts. I created designs for spaces where you can listen to texts or music, and just be yourself, be quiet and meditate. For instance, the areas envisioned in Meeting Places in the Landscape are defined by light. I think of them as specifically demarcated places, which are also experienced in this way from above, looking down and over the landscape, the surroundings, the sky.
It’s always difficult to comment on what first stimulates my ideas, the trains of thought leading to a work. I react to my movement through the landscape, to the stimuli that nature offers me. Nature in some ways forms a partnership with human beings, and plenty of drawings come from feelings of mutual urgency in that partnership. While we perceive the landscape through our movement, through our entire body, we can express ourselves through other means in an intimate space. To me, nature is partially secret, everyone experiences it in his or her own way. The element for which you’re unprepared can be an adventure. That’s what I was getting at when I made an image of an island in the form of a thumbprint within the great curve of the Earth. Or a cut in the landscape in the form of lips. Another project featured a landscape devastated by mining, and the same landscape transformed into a green area after the mining was finished. My recent New York Project from 2008 was conceived of as a place in the immediate vicinity of the city. It suggests a water landscape, with nature symbolized by the color green. The value of the place – the way life must honor Earth’s attributes and its sanctity – is expressed by the color gold. Earth is unique. Earth is sacred. We have to handle it with care.
Planning parks and large gardens is particularly interesting to me. One of the largest projects I did was the exterior rampart of the North Bohemia Gallery of Fine Arts in Litoměřice, in the Czech Republic. I designed it with the architect Michal Motyčka, whom I’ve been working with since 1999. There are interconnected tiled paths lined by trees and water. It’s roughly one hundred meters long, with a panoramic view of the landscape and various sculptures they’ve installed there.
Václav, that makes me think about the fact that water, like light, is present in a lot of your works and plans. You talk about it as a form of energy – after all, it’s a basic element of life – and as an element that frames and mediates other natural elements. You’ve done this a lot: fountains, water surfaces, water temples, mirrored footbridges crossing over water… Yes, I’ve done a lot of works like this, but the most intensely and systematically focused water project was the one I proposed as part of the Louisiana World Exposition, for the First International Water Sculpture Competition, in 1984. What I wanted to do was create “purifying systems,” such as glass boxes in the river that were meant to create a confrontation between the river’s water and water of the greatest purity. I had models for sculptures in the form of flowers floating on the water, water gates, glass footbridges, and water conduits. I did sketches, drawings, models, and photomontages. Four-hundred and seventy-two artists from 32 countries entered the competition. The jury selected 30 semi-finalists based on photo documentation. Then 10 finalists were chosen – Robert Morris, Jean Tigueley, Marta Pan, Anne and Patrick Poirier...
My work won, and it would have given me broad exposure in the West, but complications with the government ultimately prevented me from going and doing this. In a calm inlet of the Mississippi River, I was going to install Fountain, which was designed in the form of a metal ring created from metal pipes with a high-gloss surface. It had jets built into it that created mist all around it. The mist caught the sunlight, creating colors and artificial rainbows. You could walk through the rainbow on metal grates.
Many of my ideas for works in the landscape and with water build on the thinking I’d done prior to that piece and for that piece, and they have since evolved. I open a landscape to a viewer or merely provide bits of it through narrow cracks, bringing the landscape into a space where I perceive nature’s shapes, colors, substances, smells, sounds, shimmering light... Outside, I plan paths and glass footbridges on the water; they may be secluded and concealed, or offer refuge in the form of a pergola with climbing plants. In other places, I telescopically shift the viewpoint to the treetops, to the benign silence of the sky.
In 1968, Minimalism was first presented in Europe at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. When did you first encounter the work of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd or Sol LeWitt? And when did you first come to know the work of the American Land Art artists, like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer?
In my work, minimalist expression never stemmed from an aesthetic or creative attempt to fit in with American Minimalism. What’s more, I didn’t even know these artists when I began creating these works, since our political climate in the 1950s and 1960s prevented the exposure of their art at home. But even if I’d had this information, my inner conviction to be concise in form and content was my own; the conviction to say just what is essential. In that, there’s no need for instruction or illumination from others.
I respond in the same way to questions about whether I knew the American Land artists. I exhibited my designs for the landscape in 1970, at my first solo exhibition in Prague’s Vacláv Špála Gallery. When a program about one of these artists appeared on our television in the late 1970s, my wife called me to come watch it. I was happy to see that someone was thinking like I was, even though we didn’t know each other’s work. What’s more, I created my landscapes based on an inner need and in a considerably different way. When I showed my landscape designs from the 1950s to Jindřich Chalupecký, our leading art theoretician (who worked with Mrs. Duchamp on the monograph of Marcel Duchamp after his death), he said that I was working with the subject before the term “Land Art” even came into being.
So does this inner conviction mean, at least in a personal sense, that you think there is truth in art?
Truth is an impetus, a creative impetus. Truth is the process of understanding. Philosophical truth is a search for the core. The truth of art is the core and the outer layers. The space for searching and finding is infinite. Art is a state of change caused by perception. A person can’t perceive reality in a way that isn’t distorted. We don’t use aesthetic standards to measure the moral aspect of an act. A civic society has to be tolerant enough for people to have sufficient space to reveal their positive traits. If we assign meaning to human society, then we also have to assign meaning to the individual; and individuals are bearers of unrepeatable content, their own content, and consequently of unrepeatable manners of communicating this content. A person’s uniqueness is legitimized by his social contribution. Reality is intoxicating. The truth makes things unique.
And for you that would include making things in glass. In what ways would you say that working with glass is unique?
I’d say that there’s glass that defines architectural space and glass that completes architectural space. Or another way of saying this is that we can speak of functional glass and artistic glass. The aesthetics of functional glass is rationalist: the maximum performance required with the minimum of material. It is the aesthetic of an exact thought. It is characterized by objectivity, by working through the process and by its implementation. By contrast, the aesthetics of artistic glass is based on its uniqueness, and on the subjectivity of the mediator and the consumer. The work is a document of personal feelings and states, "corrected" at most by the material and the place in which it is set. It shares the fate of painting and sculpture, the fate of what I’ll call the "free arts." The subjectivity of "free art" and the objectivity of functional art define the position of the maker. Exact thinking has to be accompanied by exact knowledge, while a subjectively established talent remains in the position of self-scrutiny. Of course, besides these extreme positions there are disciplines that defy absolute divisions. And in glass, there’s the authenticity of the material, the discovery that it has uncommon optical and material properties, such as malleability. Glass by itself is a sufficient source of inspiration.
The department of glass in architecture was founded under your leadership at the Fine Arts Academy in Bratislava. The Cigler School, as it came to be called during your years there, from 1965–1979, had a philosophical and artistic scope and had a major impact on at least two generations of Slovak artists...
When I took the teaching position in 1965 in Bratislava, I already knew that art can’t be taught, and consequently a teacher can only be an advisor for his students, a person who understands their individual talents and can maybe steer them in that direction. A teacher can also create an environment that allows for focused work. An environment where a student can work in the context of a collective made of colleagues and teachers, and where various views, positions and experiences elucidate and refine his own views. A school ought to have well-equipped libraries, laboratories, and workshops where a student can not only consult with specialists and experienced people but also materially test problems and ideas and carry them out. But above all, a school is a place that should enable students to find their true orientation, and then help them find adequate means of expression.
In your own creative life you've worked with glass from the start, first as a student and then in your studio. How has its potential as an expressive medium been transformed over time?
Optical glass, which I’ve worked with since the 1950s, is a material through which one can peer into the mystery of the universe on both a macro and a micro level, discovering things that had been hidden up to that point. For me, it reveals a world made unique with new shapes, light, and colors. Glass is a magic material, and in a certain sense a spiritual one. Glass is at once tangible and intangible. Like man, it is both material and spiritual. It has mass and yet it defies mass. Pure like water, transparent like air, it is thought and reality bringing into doubt our sensorial experience and at the same time enriching it with a new understanding. Glass is a box, an envelope, a tool, a mediator, a memory... Glass is the most imaginative material that man has ever created. The presence of glass in a human space conditions not only the space itself but also an as the user. Glass is for me a pretext for expressing a different spatial and emotional perception of the world. A perception made unique by the optical means offered by this material, as well as by the new possibilities for using it in space.
My first work was made from blocks of optical glass featuring convex and concave lenses; I processed it into three-sided prisms, with the intention of making the greatest possible use of the distribution of light in the colors of the spectrum. Another aspect of my work consisted of objects whose organic shapes were derived from nature. There were also architectural works, using glass sheets to create walls or divides that defined a given space. For most of these plans, I used smaller-format models that suggested greenhouses, pavilions, religious spaces or bridges and footbridges on the water’s surface. My intent is always to work with a person, with his or her physical and emotional characteristics and needs. I became aware of these feelings through my own experiences of a landscape or a city, and it was mostly these experiences that inspired my work. They are not related only to art and architecture, but also to my daily monitoring of everything going on in science and technology. I try to confront my thoughts and ideas with the views and needs of the society in which I live. This is the society that formed me, and for which I want to be useful – especially in the field of glass, which is always new, exciting and inexhaustible in terms of its technological possibilities.
Louis C. Tiffany created a “new nature.” With the emotional extremes you see in his work, he filled in a vacuum caused by a rational century. Today’s American glass art fulfils a similar function. It’s inspired by the city, as well as by mediated or untouched nature. It has many forms and yet it has its own distinct character. The Americans have rid themselves of European aestheticism, which they often identified with in the past. The work has its own expressive means, conditioned by the material itself and by its technological possibilities. It can be intimate, and it fits the intimacy of galleries and carefully chosen interiors. Then there’s the other side of American glass making. This is the glass of external architecture – of Manhattan and the Hudson – with its poetry of purpose. In America, technique came first. In Europe, ideas and plans took precedence. The European avant-garde is proof of this.
Of course, you’ve done major projects of your own that are characterized by this "poetry of purpose." And your projects in public spaces are often created on an unusually large
architectural scale, and involve complex technical preparations.
For instance, the objects for the Prague metro in the 1980s... In the vestibule of the Náměstí Republiky metro station, I created a trio of double columns of layered glass. The primary elements of the columns were interwoven with white, red, and blue foil, so that they work as a kinetic object. As the viewer comes closer or moves away, the layering of the transparent glass and the foil makes it look like the color in each column is becoming more intense or fading away. At the Náměstí Republiky metro station, I also created the glass wall beyond the tracks. Its internal, rear surface is mirrored, and as you ride into the tunnel you see this system of luminous displays in metal frames. Another design solution for the tunnel’s underground space was a wall with a double glass coating filled with luminous gas. The gas not only lights up the space of the train platform, but also indicates approaching trains by increasing the intensity of the light. Among the other projects that were implemented but were somehow removed over the years was the computer-operated luminous object created for the vestibule of the Náměstí Míru station, which was programmed to grow brighter and dimmer, as well as two luminous glass objects in the vestibule of the Křižíkova station.
Then there was the glass piece in the entrance space of the Digital building in Prague – a free-hanging object that is 21 meters long. It is made of clear and blue sheet glass, and resembles a pendulum in its own way. For the Česká Spořitelna Bank in Hradec Králové, I created a piece from clear and colored layered glass, which connects several floors of the building’s internal space.
Another big project was the Nationale Nederlanden building in Rotterdam. I created a monumental work that connects the main space of the foyer with the spaces above. There are three three-sided prisms, the longest of which is twenty-five meters. They rise from a single point on the ground floor, and intersect at various angles with the ceiling of the galleries and the central space. This isn’t a sculpture in the traditional sense of the word; it's an object whose form and function are similar to that of an architectural component, which completes the space in the most natural way. I chose the color purple for the three prisms so that they would be sufficiently legible in an environment that ranges between shades of black and silver-gray. At their bases, I inserted optical glass prisms that are six meters long to diffuse the light and increase the creative effect.
By the way, none of these works would have come into being without the technical assistance of Miroslav Špaček and the great work done by Jan Frydrych, with whom I collaborate on the ground-glass objects. And again, since 1999 I’ve been creating exhibitions and spatial projects with the architect Michal Motyčka, whom I mentioned before. The most valuable and professionally important aspect of our partnership is our shared approach, both in the sense of finding spatial solutions and of choosing the specific means to create the most convincing artistic and aesthetic tone for the work. We first started working together on the reconstruction of a dilapidated historic building, the Sovové Mlýny. It has been transformed into a museum of contemporary art – the Museum Kampa – which houses the exceptional collection of Mrs. Meda Mládek. One of its features is an eight-meter-long footbridge, an architectural element that juts out over the Vltava River, passes through the entire terrace, and lights up the lower exhibition space. We also created an installation on the museum’s terrace last year, in 2009, called Meeting Place. This is a space shaped like a glass funnel, with a reflecting surface that’s about 15 by 15 meters.
Last year we also created Mirroring Wings, which was installed on the surface of the water at Fraeylemaborg Castle in the Netherlands. I think of it as an imaginary gate, with its colorful mirrored surfaces gradually moving across the water. For me there’s the sense here of a confrontation with the space; we’re partially defined by it as it closes us in and surrounds us, but it also opens up to us. And then last year at Prague’s Kramářova villa, which is where the prime minister of the Czech Republic lives, we installed a piece called Double Vertical, two slender metal columns that are more than ten meters high, with layered plate glass at the top. A vertical is a basic but significant marker – an invisible axis connecting sky and earth, or a line overlapping the definitions of place, time, and event. Now, for the new show at the Litvak Gallery in Tel Aviv, we’re creating a stylized Star of David for the gallery’s front window, and it’s indisputably the largest optical glass object in the world in terms of its dimensions. The technology involved in making it is extremely difficult and complex.
Technology enters into quite a number of your works, even though, of course, the optical glass pieces take advantage of natural light. I’m thinking, for example, of the light field pieces that are digitally programmed.
Yes, we presented the light field last year at the Kampa Museum, and then there are the neon-lit walls I've been working with for an extended period of time. One of these pieces, called Gate, is in the exhibition at Litvak Gallery. This exhibition also includes the biggest light field piece yet; it covers fours walls of a freestanding structure, and the light is programmed to pulse like a human body. But I’ve worked this way in the past as well. Between 1967 and 1972, for the auditorium of the Slovak National Theater, I created a luminous sphere with a two-meter diameter that was covered with light bulbs, which we programmed to display up to a thousand different patterns. Other spaces in which I had the opportunity to work with programmed lighting were the Knights Lounge at Bratislava Castle, the building of the presidency of the government, and the metro stations that I mentioned earlier, among other public spaces. These programmed works create special viewing conditions, and alter the viewers' relationship to the space.
In 1993, you wrote the following about space: “What is space for me? A condition? A pretext?” Maybe this is a good way to end. Do you mind if I quote exactly what you wrote?
No, go right ahead.
What is space for me?
This and that
Mainly a means of communication
Physical... emotional... psychological
Space is an area of strong fields and points of reference
Space is a place of action
Apparently random meaning... actually involves logical relations
Its sacred emptiness is not for filling... but for fulfilment
Means corresponding to both the intended effect
and the nature of the environment
A space is closed within itself or is the radiant content
Even a person is the content
And a person is the space... a space in a space
And art is what humanizes them.”