Glass, art and science

Glass, art and science

Aglass bowl that quivers on touch; a glass dress that shimmers in the reflected hues of the surroundings and the light of the time of the day; spaces that get a blast of spicy aroma following a specific movement by the viewer; a constellation that is part of the viewer’s space and changes with the viewer’s actions, mirror paintings with the Sheesh Mahal essence that drive home man’s insignificance before eternity; video installations and robotic devices that make looking at the stars analogous to looking into dew drops, digital prints on flat glass with multiple layers... This is art that interacts.

For Anjali Srinivasan, arguably India’s most exciting, emerging young artist, art is not something that stands high up on a pedestal. Her art interacts; with the viewer, and sometimes with other domains too.

Someone who constantly questions the notions of ‘art’ by using a mind-boggling mix of alternate media that includes glass, spices, electronics and what have you, Anjali’s art treads a moving trajectory.

Shattered notions  

“I seek to erode the notion of a self-contained object. My works, often humble artifacts, exhibit unusual behaviour or activate an environment unexpectedly. I make responsive entities: toys, tools, devices and installations, which are incomplete without human presence. They remain unfulfilled without human participation. To this end, my studio practice discovers, accesses and restructures information held in a material or situation — glass, spices, the internet, emergent technologies, human movement,” she states.

Anjali’s mind leaps across mind-space the same way a crack travels on a glass when shattered — in all directions, irreverent to demarcations of art, science or society. “Actually, I never evaluate or direct my work. It has just been fun to do,” she says. The world is now taking a serious note of this ‘fun’ though. Anjali’s works have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Research Gallery, University of Sydney, Australia; The National Museum, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Art Dubai and India Art Summit; Heller Gallery, New York; Visual Arts Center of New Jersey; Twelve Gates Gallery, Philadephia; Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo; and the History of the World Gallery, Washington, to name a few. Now, back in India, Anjali works from hometown Chennai.  

Where it all began

About 30 km from Delhi lies the dusty city of Firozabad, a city that has been glowing in the glint of glass for centuries. The artisans here don’t realise it, but it happens to be the glass capital of the country, and perhaps, of the world. With over five thousand glass factories in the vicinity, the city is lined with shops that sell glass — in wholesale and retail, in finished form and as glass rods you can melt to create your own glassware. For Anjali Srinivasan, who first set foot in this city in 1996, as a student of the National Institute of Fashion Design, this was a world that gave a déjà vu feeling. “I realised then that glass was the material I wanted to work with,” she murmurs.

 Several years down the line, Firozabad still holds that special charm for Anjali, and she can’t wait to get back there. “It is a crazy place, but oozes with energy… and glass,” she says. Musing on glass art in India, she goes on, “India has a great tradition in glass, though it is only silk and ivory that we identify the country with. For instance, nowhere else in the country is there a tradition of glass bangles.”

Working alongside the glass artisans was an idea she considered initially, but she decided that she would learn the entire glass making process first. “They are artisans, not skilled labourers. It would have been arrogant for a 20-something designer to mouth instructions to a glass artisan who has 20 years of glass-making experience behind him,” she says. “They have fantastic creativity, it only has to be harnessed,” she says. So Anjali set off to the US to acquire a BFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, and followed it up with graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2007 in glass and digital media.

Another of Anjali’s other interests is in using research and design initiatives for socio-economic empowerment. She is working to use entrepreneurship for grass-roots level empowerment of artisan communities in India, financed by the International Project Grant from The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.  

Tool and end

It is a good one hour’s drive from Chennai city to the SIDCO Women’s Industrial Park on a dusty track. “I tried working out of Chennai, but glass kilns require uninterrupted high voltage power that only an industrial park can provide,” Anjali says. Her studio space here looks more a factory than an art kiln, and the incongruence is just a primer.  

Art might be the label that reads loud on her forehead, but along the way, in one of her many experiments with material, Anjali invented what she has christened the ‘puffy glass’, a glassy entity that looks more like pumice stone. The puffy glass is made by baking glass material with all ingredients that go into baking a cake. A thrilling medium that lends itself spectacularly to colour and texture manipulation, Anjali created spectacular art works with the puffy glass. Curiously, the puffy glass is now the substratum used for researches by soil scientists and others at the University of Sydney in Australia on subjects ranging from how plants can be raised in arid areas (as the puffy glass has carbon and other organic content blended in and so is a perfect substitute for soil samples in a lab.)  

Unique patterns

Later, when Anjali started baking atta at 10,000 degree celsius in glass jars, she was intrigued by the exquisite patterns that emerge when the atta particles are deposited on the glass walls. “Amazingly, it is not a random design; the patterns are unique, like the myriad shapes of snowflakes,” she explains. She and scientists in Sydney are now researching on these patterns and the mathematical background to it. This glass artist is, in fact, a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Centre of Microscopy and Microanalysis, University of Sydney, Australia!

Earlier, when she wanted to make her glass sculpture interactive, Anjali built in sensors into the egg-shaped structures, which then could sense when a human comes near (by the small residual charge that runs in human nerves), and change shape and catch people by surprise! “I like that jolt. I like to provoke people into re-thinking. I also like to question the nature of identities, to make hints of what things can be, than just what they are,” she says. So it is that sometimes, science is a tool for her art, and at other times, her art is a tool for her science.

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