Radical Israeli Artists Shatter Another Glass Ceiling

At the Israeli Glass 2015 exhibition, artists blur the line between applied and conceptual art.

Ran Arda

“A combination of extreme sports and art” is how artist Boris Shpeizman describes his affinity for sculpting in glass. He has been at it for 15 years, after he quit his job as a dentist.

Shpeizman is one of 61 artists exhibiting at the Israeli Glass 2015 exhibition, to be shown at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv until June 20.

The curator of the exhibition, Henrietta Eliezer Brunner, strives every few years to show what’s happening in the field in Israel. She notices a significant change from the exhibitions she curated in 2011 and 2007.

In the United States, artists began using glass in studios in the 1960s, when they severed their dependence on factories. But the phenomenon hit Israel much later, notes Eliezer Brunner. The only department in Israel for studying the use of glass opened at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem in 2001.

Glass had been associated with decorative and applied arts, architecture and design; only recently has it become art.

In the 1960s in the United States, the international studio glass movement began, following the technological change that let glass artists work independently in their studios. They could produce whatever they wanted.

"Only now is the department at Bezalel bearing fruit," Eliezer Brunner says. "It's a field that requires constant in-service courses and study, because it’s an art that emerges from a craft, and control of the material is challenging and requires many years of experience.”

In the exhibition, the boundaries between design and art are blurred. On display are sculptures and installations including video, alongside jewelry and tools. More than in most fields, glass invites a blurring between applied and conceptual art.

Eliezer Brunner says that unlike the situation in previous exhibitions, even artists who weren't trained to work in glass are discovering its qualities and using it in installations, even in video works.

The spirit's the thing

Shpeizman has always worked in glass but says he was never engaged in design or decorative art. He's a graduate of the Department of Ceramics and Glass Design at  Bezalel. He's now teaching at that department.

“The practical things don’t interest me. The object interests me less, the spirit more,” he says. “It interests me to create something out of glass that's not supposed to be made out of glass, to bring the material to a situation that's not natural for it. Only in such a situation will we get unexpected results.”

At the exhibition his sculptures are knights’ armor made out of glass. The twist is that these knights appear to be having sex with each other.

The work is called “The Sacred Band” – Shpeizman says it was inspired by the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite unit in ancient Greece made up of 150 pairs of gay men. The idea was that the love between them would make them fight for each other, not just for the homeland.

“The armor is the shell, and I created it in a way that resembles the lace of underwear," he says. "For me that addresses the armor we wear, which is fragile. It addresses masculine vulnerability. I try to take the material as far as possible.”

Artist Hila Amram, whose display at that exhibition resembles a Japanese Zen garden, studied graphic design at Bezalel. She has never done glass blowing. In a recent effort, she left her works of art inside a beehive, on which the bees built structures from wax.

She encountered glass via her work with Eliezer Brunner in the exhibition “Curators Inc.” at the Petah Tikva Museum three years ago. Eliezer Brunner invited her to see the archaeological collection at the Eretz Israel Museum, and Amram empolyed items from the collection.

“I have no specific skill in my art; I insist on working with materials that already exist in the world. In the latest exhibition I took ancient rocks that belong to the Israel Antiquities Authority and created the Japanese Zen garden," Amram says.

"The rocks came from Apollonia, where there was a glass factory. Some of them were apparently used as the wall for a glass furnace, so vestiges of glass remained on them. This reminded me of precious stones or crystals. It’s not really clear whether it’s natural or artificial; that’s something I address in my work.”

'Glass is cool'

Amram has been invited to Venice for an exhibition on the link between contemporary art and glass, being organized by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

“There is a movement that wants to revive glass and say it’s the material that should be rediscovered, to claim that ‘glass is cool.' The exhibition has a very contemporary perception of glass. I worked in Murano glass workshops that have existed since the 16th century," she says, referring to the Venetian island. At the workshops, she drew sketches and others created what she requested.

“Historical glass has a very profound value; these are tools that carry memories and habits. They carry a great deal of emotional baggage," Amram says.

"In this exhibition I’m using tear bottles from the Roman period, delicate narrow delicate bottles in which tears were collected at funerals. The moment the tears in the bottle had evaporated, the mourning period ended."

In the exhibition she's featuring a glass eye that looks exactly like a real human eye. "Glass has fragility and delicacy, and working with historical glass, with a previous life, is a very sensitive thing for me," she says.

According to Eliezer Brunner, you can sense a change in glass artists' attitude toward the material.

“Glass artists learn the language of glass and then can combine it with other disciplines like media, sound and video," she says. "Each artist forges a language in which his fields of interest are expressed. For me it’s enough that glass has a central and significant role, that it makes a statement.”