The art and science of glassblowing

Glassblowing is pretty neat.  There is something amazing about watching somebody start with a blob of cold glass and turn it to something colorful, delicate and shapely.  That said, glass blowing is typically thought of more as a craft than a fine art.  Glass blowers make extremely ornate vases; they make jewelry; they make figurines; they even make scientific equipment.  But it’s all about context– blown glass needn’t be solely decorative or functional. It can be used to communicate, to touch; it can be placed into a greater artistic context, and has been used to particular effect (in my opinion) in the realm of Sci- Art.

This post was inspired by a recent trip to the Natural History Museum in London, where I saw some figurines made by the father and son duo, Rudolf (1822-1895) and Leopold (1857-1939) Blaschka.  Below is a ?diagram ?model ?sculpture of a radiolarian; other creatures included jellyfish, octopus, sea anenomes and squid.

A glass model of a radiolarian, Dorataspis diodon

The Blaschkas are best known for their glass flowers, but also made a number of sea creatures, such as the radiolarian that I saw at the NHM’s The Deep exhibition.  These stunning, delicate creations drew inspiration from scientific illustrations of sea creatures, the work of scientists such as Haeckel, as well as animals in their own aquarium.  Many of these sea creatures were commissioned by the South Kensington Museum (now the Natural History museum).  These intricate objects objects transcend beyond the mere model of the <insert name of cool sea creature> that you typically see in science museum displays.  Rather, they capture something intimate, sparkling…. that sideways glance that you might have through the window of an early submersible.  They aren’t presented in the context of illustration; rather they create a sense of wonder in the natural universe (whilst one completely forgets that this is a very close model of an actual creature)….

I was first alerted to the potential of glassblowing in Sci-art when I attended a talk at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio where Josiah McElheny and David Weinberg (an OSU physicist) spoke about their collaborative project, “Island Universe.”  Inspired by the galactic properties of the chandeliers in New York’s Metropolitan Opera, McElheny contacted Weinberg with an interest in making a glass sculpture of the Big Bang.

Island Universe at the White Cube Gallery, London

The result of computer models that Weinberg wrote are presented in these brilliant sculptures in which the length of the rods corresponds to time and the lights that illuminate them represent quasars; the glass spheres and discs are galaxies.  The “island universes” present different possible universes that could have resulted from different initial conditions.  Lowbrow art this is not; in addition to dancing the edge of science, art, and design, McElheny also questions ideas of modernity (an ongoing theme in his art) as the Big Bang was first postulated in 1965 when Modernity was just starting to disintegrate.  For a fantastic video about this piece, please check out the phenomenal  Art21, who profiled Josiah McElheny a few years ago.

The final artist I will be mentioning I learned of only a few days ago, thanks to a piece that showed up in The Guardian as I was beginning to gather my thoughts for this post.  Luke Jerram has collaborated with virologists at the University and Bristol, as well as a number of glass blowers to bring a series of objects ?representing ?expressing viruses including Swine Flu, HIV, and E-Coli, amongst others.

Ecoli sculpture (Luke Jerram)

Jerram’s sculptures touch on ideas of the sublime, while actually representing diseases that afflict millions around the world.  He is interested in our perception of the disease; the sculptures are intentionally transparent, questioning how scientific visualisations affect our perception of phenomena (such as disease).

You might have noticed, there are a lot of question marks in this piece– I am willing to put the work of the Blaschkas tentatively into fine art; that of McElheny and Jerram fits there solidly as it speaks to contemporary art dialogue.  But these are subjective categories…  What I find fascinating about sci art is its ability to turn our perception of what we think of as tangible phenomena and turn them on their heads.  Time as a three dimensional object? A stunning oversized glass virus that is out to get you (but being transparent you can’t really see…)  And amazing 19th century glass sea creatures that better recall outer space than inner space… I’m willing to put all of these artists’ work into the realm of fine art Rendering objects in glass takes a great deal of skill to be sure (in fact, Jerram commissioned this part of his work)… but it has the ability to take something familiar and turn it into something otherworldly and transcendent.


About sciartsci

I would like to consider myself both scientist and artist and am profoundly interested in the overlap, intermingling, and interface between these two worlds. I had an academic position (in science) at a university in the USA, which I left (in part) to spend a year in London doing art in a Foundation programme at Byam Shaw/Central St Martins. I now find myself back working in science but maintaining a high level of involvement in art (sculpture, painting, drawing, photography). I have a pretty cool job and this blog reflects only my opinions and not those of the fantastic institution I happen to be lucky enough to work for.
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3 Responses to The art and science of glassblowing

  1. Colin Rennie says:

    I commented on an earlier post, as I am similarly interested in your field. I am a glass artist, and like McElheny my skills are in hot glass, But I have done other projects involving sciart. Have a look here:
    I too have seen many of the Blashkas works in various exhibitions and museums worldwide, many of which still defy investigation as to how they were made.
    I watched the Jerram pieces being made by Brian Jones and Norman Veitch (wearside glass sculptures) here at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland where the Ecoli peice is currently on display, and where I run the University of Sunderland BA in Glass and Ceramics. So your post was particularly exciting for me.
    There has been a long affinity between glass and science. This affinity is multifaceted: partly in the science and history of its manufacture, as one of the oldest synthetic materials, partly in its functionality and chemical durability (experimental vessels) and its clarity (optics). Metaphorically these qualities of glass can be used to refer to scientific thought and discovery. Preserving, revealing, growing and culturing, magnifying and in McElhenys case, reflecting, are used as modulators and extensions to our vision, both spatially and temporarily; they change the way we see things.
    Thanks for the great post

  2. Many thanks for bringing together these works in your post. I have seen a cabinet of Blaschka models at the wonderful Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL and been astonished at the technique and the intricacy. Knowing that a person disposed each molecule exactly where it should be to give the flawless impression of a real sea slug or whatever commands one’s fullest attention, even redirects one’s fullest attention to the inspection of the next REAL slug one comes across.

  3. Fantastic post. Glasblowing is something that i hadn’t been introduced to yet in the sci-art field. Thank you very much for sharing. I’ll have to go and educate myself on the finer points now :).

    Great work. Keep it up!

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