Collaboration between artists Michaela Nettell and Robert Worley to make and studio test a collection of hinged glass pyramids inspired by Cedric Price’s visionary design for the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo. The objects are envisaged both as props for a series of moving image experiments and as sculptural pieces in their own right. Project supported by an a-n New collaborations bursary.
“ARCHITEKTUR DER BERGE 7: THE CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN: The rock above the treeline is hewn away and smoothed into many-faceted crystalline forms…”
A perfect Christmas present! copies of Scheerbart’s Glass Architecture and Taut’s Alpine Architecture, published with English translations in 1972. Taut’s illustrations are fantastical, ecstatic – cities growing like crystals between mountain ranges, summits chiseled to geometric cut-glass forms.
Sinta Werner’s 2010 collage series Zwischen Lenggries und Schwarz are a lot like Taut’s drawings – hallucinatory visions of snow-topped Swiss mountains. Folds in the paper echo forms in the rock strata sculpting actual peaks and troughs (“sharp, faceted excrescences”) in the flat photographic images.
Broken bits of Pieces, Werner’s assemblages of colour slides and mirrors create intricate tectonic collages from simple architectural photographs. Domestic interiors – radiator panels, herringbone floor tiles – are doubled, mirrored in the glass, fracturing and exploding everyday spaces. The panels are like precarious stage flats for miniature theatre sets. If Werner made a 16mm film, what might it look like..?
Last week Rob and I photographed the pyramids again, this time with images of the aviary in their panels. Just inkjet prints on acetate for the purposes of these tests but it gave an idea of how the objects might be actuated – either by video/film projections or by reflections on a location shoot. The new, taller pyramid begins to suggest a landscape, a range. Unfolding the hinged panels opens up seemingly infinite compositional (topographical) possibilities.
Update February 2016: This post marked the end of one phase of research, and of my and Robert’s a-n supported collaboration. Posts on michaelanettell.blogspot.co.uk document Part II, in which I have used the glass pyramids to create a series of paper collages, animated GIFs and a modular sculpture ‘Model for a crystal geometry’. Last summer Robert and I expanded the sculpture with two new pyramids – one of these a remodelling of the third, ‘tall’ tetrahedron which I had originally designed with its mirrored panel in a different part of the net, making the piece too heavy and opaque. The body of work is ongoing and plans for this year include studio shoots of the sculpture in preparation for 8 or 16mm filming and photo/film shoots at Frei Otto’s aviary at the Hellabrunn Zoo, Munich.
“Each framework supports the reflections of a concatenated interior. The interior structure of the room surrounding the work is instantaneously undermined … “Space” is permuted into a multiplicity of directions. One becomes conscious of space attenuated in the form of elusive flat planes. The space is both crystalline and collapsible…” robertsmithson.com
Robert Smithson describes his Mirrored Crystal Structures – which I understand to be his steel and mirrored plastic sculptures of 1963-4, inspired by Donald Judd’s pink plexiglass box. To me the pieces are at once garish hall of mirrors and ominous science fiction emblems, fragmenting, fracturing space around them.
[I think of Laura Buckley’s contemporary mirrored-crystal-structures: walk-in digital mobiles of coloured perspex and video…]
Rob has now glued two 20x20x20cm pyramids. The panels unfold smoothly, elegantly (some independently! when set gently in motion). Looking around and through their variously shiny-clear, translucent and mirrored panels, the shapes appear to coalesce into one complex, crystalline structure.
On Sunday we made a paper maquette for a new, taller tetrahedron, one that echoes more closely those of the aviary frame. We talked about possibilities for suspending the objects (again, a mobile architecture) also of fusing two pyramids base-to-base to create an even more crystal-like form.
For now, we’ve decided to work towards a ‘landscape’ of three pyramids, a triad, each slightly differently proportioned. Imagining this landscape, I keep returning to the silhouette of Wassily Luckhardt’s futuristic Cinema, which reminded Rob of this Norman Akroyd etching of the archipelago of St Kilda.
On crystals and post #2
“an infinite pyramid with a mirrored interior and a granite exterior”
Robert Smithson, Jack D. Flam (1996) Ultramoderne, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings.
Reading the essay Michaela gave me by Rosemarie Haag Bletter made me think of other writing and imagery relating to crystal structures. Robert Smithson’s quote above describes the Manhattan skyline of the 1930s as a decadence of ‘tarnished reflections’. Smithson describes the city with imagery of solidity, transience and the eternal.
In the Louvre on a visit in 2012 I came across the lid to the sarcophagus of Dioscorides which captures some of the spirit of what Smithson was writing about. Dioscorides was a Greek civil servant buried in the Egyptian style during the 2nd century BC. The inside of the half-ton graywacke stone lid is delicately carved with the figure of the sky goddess Nut against a starlit sky. It’s a beautiful metaphor of weight and transience. The sensuous and protective image of Nut would have pressed against the mummified body of Dioscorides and his spirit would need to pass through the body of Nut to reach the afterlife. The art of the tomb looks inward – the focus is on the body entombed. There is a parallel with Smithson’s infinite pyramid, which holds and refracts light inward.
‘Then, God’s great Heavenly Space city will descend from above and God Himself will dwell with us right here on Earth. The Great Space City is 1,500 miles long by 1,500 miles wide and 1,500 miles high. The greatest space vehicle ever created, the most wonderful Spaceship ever conceived, Built by the Lord on its way down to earth now. The entire city is pure gold, like unto clear glass, so that you’ll be a able to see out of the City through those transparent walls out onto a beautiful recreated New Earth,’
Richard Grayson’s film ‘The Golden Space City of God’ is a choral piece sung by a Texas choir and based on the visionary writings of a 1960s US Evangelical sect known as ‘The Children of God’. I saw Grayson’s film at Matt’s Gallery in London in 2009. The sung narrative describes a shining crystal vision of heaven, and the apocalypse. It returns to the Old Testament writing about Solomon’s Temple referred to in Bletter’s essay and gives it a contemporary twist: an ancient science fiction.
The National Gallery in London has a painting by the artist Bartolome Bermejo entitled ‘Saint Michael triumphs over the devil’ 1468. A reflection in St Michael’s breastplate of the kingdom of heaven is depicted as a series of golden crystal spires over water, rather like the heavenly spaceship in Grayson’s film.
The painting plays a type of tromp l’oeil game by suggesting that the kingdom of heaven is just behind the viewer. While standing in front of the painting I feel that if I turn around fast enough I might catch a glimpse of this crystalline heaven. This game with reflection is balanced by St Michael’s shield, which faces down towards the devil. The shield is the most mysterious object in the picture. It appears to be made from a crystal ball and unlike the shining breastplate it is ominously opaque with just a hint of dim light. Perhaps there are no reflections in hell.
The whole painting is a playful game of shadows and reflections, crystals and lenses, and the many hallucinatory eyes of the devil are echoed in the opening of a poppy flower.
Not of transparency exactly
I web-stumbled this week upon Michael Fried’s 1967 essay on Anthony Caro, in particular his painted steel work Carriage. Fried writes of the overlapping mesh establishing ‘a plane of variation, not of transparency exactly, but of visual density’, a layer that is simultaneously looked at and through. Though I imagine this reference is problematic for all sorts of reasons (I intend to read more around flatness / opticality, objecthood etc.) there seems to be something that chimes with my thoughts on the aviary – which similarly is ‘not transparent exactly’, its netting ‘seen as cross-hatching’ such that birds and people appear both inside and outside at once – also on optics, lenses, view-finding:
During our second studio meeting I photographed Rob’s latest glass tests (which are looking and feeling beautiful – visually complex, so solid after my acetate maquettes! and with a fragility and sharp-edged-ness that I’m not yet sure how to handle…) Set to auto-focus but unable to settle, my camera whirred between the pyramids’ layers of shadows and reflections in wonderful ocular mimicry. They were a pleasure to photograph and even in these quick snaps the difference/distance between the objects in space and their flattened screen-images is significant.
[“The glass-world citizen then abandons his old house and moves into the conservatory, which is aesthetically linked to the garden by glass walls and screens that extend its structure into its surroundings…”
: In his 1959 essay The Glass Paradise, Reyner Banham recasts Paul Scheerbart as an important, visionary player in the history of modern glass architecture.]
“As words rhyme, narratives and forms can rhyme in space and time.”
Robert and I met last weekend to watch a screening of Jessica Warboys’ short films. Poetical performances, painterly theatrics, I’m particularly interested in the ways she works with objects in space – both real space and film space. In her introduction Warboys spoke of a mirroring between her paintings and her props, between the gestures she makes on canvas and those made in performances – this extends to her film language as well, her camera spiralling, sweeping as bodies and objects do, exploring, re-framing the environment. Props are both found objects and fabricated (sculptural) pieces, which echo shapes, patterns, rhythms in the landscapes – material, tonal as well as formal conversations.
Robert has been testing methods and materials for fusing the pyramids’ glass panels – steel hinges and clasps, glues, magnets… Joining them magnetically would be exciting as it would allow for repositioning (“a flexible, mobile architecture”). Probably not strong enough for joins within the pyramids themselves but perhaps when we come to work with several together…
The role of location in Warboys’ films also made me wonder about photographing the pyramids inside the aviary (/ the aviary inside the pyramids)…