Master craftsmen at work © Oliver Haas, courtesy of Berengo Studio

Italian gallerist Adriano Berengo started 30 years ago with a mission of marrying contemporary art and design with glass. At that time, glass was a largely neglected material but with great potential. More than 300 artists and designers of all disciplines from sculptors to musicians have been invited to collaborate with the Berengo Studio’s Muranese glass masters on the innovative use of glass as a medium.

Tony Cragg (Right) and Ai WeiWei (Left) at Berengo Studio. ©Karolina Sobiel, courtesy of Berengo Studio

The exhibition goes back to its historical roots on the island of Murano. An old abandoned glass furnace is now an evocative exhibition space for new works and installations by returning artists Ai Weiwei, Tony Cragg and Thomas Schütte as well as first time participants Prune Nourry, Laure Prouvost and Valeska Soares, amongst others. A special project called ‘Constellation’ by Robert Wilson, commissioned by Jean Blanchaert, is featured as part of the exhibition. With little or no prior experience working with glass, these artists have embraced the challenge of creating extraordinary works in this very delicate medium.

Laure Prouvost (Left) and Prune Nourry (Right) © Oliver Haas, courtesy of Berengo Studio

Glass art is perhaps not DAMN°’s most covered discipline and one can doubt its sexiness but I was overwhelmed by the innovative visual language the artists used while utilising glass as an extremely expressive material and working with the world’s most famous craftsmen. Some of the works are truly breathtaking like ‘Silence’ by Jaume Plensa, ‘The Frozen Vanitas’ by Hans Op De Beeck and ‘Cardiac Arrest VIII’ by Kendell Geers; one can only imagine how the masters made these pieces of art. Glasstress is feast for craftsmanship, celebrating not only the artists’ creativity but very much the knowledge and know-how of the glassblowers. Everywhere in the world craftsmanship is under a lot of pressure, old traditions are getting lost but luckily people like Adriano Berengo are taking crafts back on the radar. Many young artists and designers are open to collaborations with traditional craftsmen, in this way they can pass on their knowledge to a younger generation and give crafts the necessary attention it so badly needs. As a publication on contemporary culture we see it as our duty to help spreading the word.  

Silence by Jaume Plensa (Left), The Frozen Vanitas by Hans Op De Beeck (Right). Images courtesy of Berengo Studio

 Koen Vanmechelen guided me through the exhibition. The exhibition starts with ‘Compression’ by César’s, he used waste cola bottles as a critic on the mass consumption. On the other side of the room there is a work of Oksana Mas, 'Quantum Prayer', a glass piece that looks like it fell onto a motor engine.

Quantum Prayer by Oksana Mas, Images courtesy of Berengo Studio

Vanmechelen explains that the glass masters hate this work, they find it ugly, not a piece of art. In the same room there is a beautiful piece of Tracey Emin ‘Docket’, looking at ‘Collage n. 2’ by Jean Arp, one of Vanmechelen's favourite works in the exhibition.

Compression by César (Left), Collage n.2 by Jean Arp, images courtesy of Berengo Studio 

The exhibition is all about conflict and discussions, the works are selected and shown in a way that they communicate with each other, the viewer feels a certain tension in each room.

Snakes are the first creatures that were used to make medicine and nowadays 90% of the substance of medication is coming from chickens. That is why Vanmechelen made a Medusa - the  mythical symbol for medecine - with snakes with chicken heads. In the same room Erwin Wurm changes the reality with a squeezed mirror ‘Venezian Narrow’; is it a fairy tale or is it reality.

A work that Vanmechelen explicitly wants to defend in the exhibition is ‘Nuvola’ by Lino Tagliapietra. He describes him as the founder of many contemporary glass techniques, maybe rather design then art but a true master to respect.

Nuvola by Lino Tagliapietra (Left), Venezian Narrow by Erwin Wurm (Right) images courtesy of Berengo Studio

Vanmechelen states that only good artists can work with glass, since it is a difficult material because of its complexity and fragility. A good example is the work ‘Hard Connections’ by Laure Provoost, Fiona Banner’s ‘Work 2’ and ‘Expanded access’ by Michael Joo. Utensils we know from daily life, like extension cords or scaffolding, made from glass become extremely fragile.

Hard Connections by Laure Prouvost, ©Francesco Allegretto, courtesy of Berengo Studio

At Glasstress Vanmechelen also presented his Human Rights Pavilion. The idea is to work with the Global Campus of Human Rights and start Cosmo cafés all over the world where artists, writers and scientists come together to talk about Art as a Human Right. In the declaration of Human Rights Art is missing, so Vanmechelen will assemble all the talks in an extra book to add to the declaration and then present this book at the Biennale in Venice.

Encyclopedia of Human Rights by Koen Venmechelen, Image courtesy of the artist

In the came corridor we see Vik Muniz’ selfportrait and a portrait of his daughter and also Thomas Schütte with a self portrait and the head of Adriano Berengo as a full stop after the exhibition.

Vik Muniz (Left), Mina (Right) by Vik Muniz © Alessio Buldrin