by Shraddha NairMay 28, 2022
The Czech artist and sculptor Rony Plesl’s exhibition Trees Grow from the Sky is an official collateral event of the 59th Venice Biennale. For the exhibition, the site-specific four large-scale glass sculptural installations by Plesl are unveiled in the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione in the Dorsoduro district with views of the Giudecca Canal. The art exhibition, curated by Lucie Drdova, Prague-based art historian, gallerist, and author, rightly coincides with the proclamation by the United Nations of the year 2022 as the International Year of Glass. Pushing the technology of glassmaking to an unprecedented scale, the grand sculptures are a result of unique casting technology - Vitrum Vivum. To mention, now for past many decades Plesl has been on a continuous journey to experiment with the many possibilities the materiality of glass has to offer.
Given the inherent nature of glass, it has been popular among the artists of the Italian Renaissance and architects of the Baroque period. The affiliation of the Czech Republic with the centuries-old traditional crystal production is well known. Originating from the regions of Bohemia in the late 16th century, the glass has embellished the tall edifices of ateliers. Moreover, at the beginning of his journey as an artist, Plesl has spent a considerable amount of time on the island of Murano, Venice to study and learn the intricacies of glass from the Italian master glassmakers themselves. The ubiquitous presence of glass in the history of art has turned into an organic choice of material in the contemporary arts.
Epitomising similar tendencies, Plesl has successfully created his own body of work with glass. In an interview with STIR, he poignantly talks about his journey on learning about the glass practice, “Many fine and exceptional artists and craftsmen began to tell a personal story with their work in their era. Due to their individual originality in proportion to the length of human life and the future changes in the world, this story is still unfinished. I do not see the originality of creation as a momentary idea but as a kind of continuity. I respect creators who rather than destroying, built the new on solid foundations that they have studied profoundly in terms of statics and values. It is very exciting for me to discover the old masters who had not just mastery, but also faith and humility.”
Vitrum Vivum glassmaking technology is a ‘revolution’ in the words of the artist. For the first time, this ground-breaking full relief glass casting technology is put into the public eye with the display of grand sculptures in the exhibition. In the current times, it has undeniably given a new swirl to the art of glassmaking. The unique process involves casting glass on the lines of bronze. Such a treatment defies the definitions to open the space to create three-dimensional glass sculptures. “We have been casting sculptures in bronze for millennia,” mentions Plesl, “but if our ancestors had known Vitrum Vivum there would have been many sculptures in glass.”
Jiri Sin, a Czech glass master and inventor, developed the Vitrum Vivum technology over the period of 12 years to unravel the world of possibilities glass has to offer. “The enamel flows hot into an enclosed mould and renders and fills every detail in even the most intricate of forms. Everything depends only on the size of the kiln and the mastery of the maker. There is no longer any need to create objects with nonsensical divisions and assemble them from segments. But fortunately, it is still necessary for sculptures to have a soul, first and foremost, without which any technology in the art would be useless,” informs Plesl.
The concept around the large-scale installation was developed by Plesl, which takes into consideration the geometrical proportions of Renaissance architecture in terms of symmetry and perspective. As the four glass monoliths populate the nave of the early Cinquecento church, the viewer is encouraged to have a novel experience of the space. With the weight and dimension of the three pure crystal glass sculptures being 600 kg and 205 x 75 cm respectively, they carry the real imprint of an 80-year-old oak tree found in the woods of Northern Bohemia. Interestingly, the sculptures installed vertically at the centre are in sync with the columns of the church altars. Moreover, the haptic character of the material lends an organic touch to the bark. The luminous and translucent surface draws the attention of the viewer to take an exploratory journey on what lies inside the surface. The larger-than-life trunks made out of crystal hint at the symbolic constellation of the number three. It also serves as a reminder of the Franciscan thesis of complementarity of nature and man.
When Plesl metamorphoses the bark of the tree into a human figure, with the last tree placed near the altar, he indeed gives a visual representation of the spiritual idea of transformation. Made with uranium glass and covered with a bas-relief of the bodies of Jesus Christ, the art sculpture exudes a sense of revelation. The radioactive uranium technique discovered in Bohemia at the peak of the Baroque period offers the glass an incredible subterranean phosphorescent shimmer in a bright yellow-green colour.
As Trees Grow from the Sky tabs on the introspective nature harboured by the humans, it also acutely reflects the curatorial theme of The Milk of Dreams set by Cecilia Alemani, the curator of the 2022 edition of the biennale. Alemani borrows the title The Milk of Dreams from the eponymous book by Leonora Carrington. A British-born Mexican artist, surrealist painter, and novelist, Carrington through her work has constantly cajoled the reader-viewer to relook at the reality of the given world with a prism of the imagination. Plesl elaborates on the use of glass as a means to have a direct conversation between the sculptural installations and curatorial theme. “Due to the exceptional duality – glass is neither a liquid, nor a solid; its essence can be described as amorphous, existing between these two states – glass is an ideal medium for artist’s exploration of the topics of time and structure, as well as meaning, identity, and perception. The reflection and mirroring of the constantly changing daylight and, in the long term, natural cycles of the year on the glass surface literally call for insight, into the matter itself as well as into our perception of ourselves,” he says. Consequently, the glass turns into a metaphor of living material to anchor the presence of a reflective self.
The architecture of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione at Zattere, where the noble purity of the Early Renaissance space, the light quality and the reflection of the water surface merge with the majesty of the glass sculptures, is certainly a rare sight. Identifying the need to respond to the rare occasion of finding a pure moment of stillness with the exhibition, Plesl says, “Contemplation and introspection give us a genuine and courageous insight into ourselves.”
With the intention to guide the viewers toward “solitude with full mental freedom,” Plesl has initiated an experience to be savoured for many times to come.
The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice.
Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.