I have often been asked why I created Glasstress, what compelled me to take on the monumental task of putting on an exhibition of contemporary art and glass in the Venice Biennale of Art.
The answer may be in my Venetian heritage and my career in glass. In 1989, I founded Berengo Studio, a glass furnace on the island of Murano with the goal of bringing together contemporary artists and glassblowers to produce works of art in glass.
I was inspired to take this journey by Peggy Guggenheim’s experimentations in the 60’s with Egidio Costantini. As a Venetian, I knew her and her importance in the art world. She and Costantini worked with artists like Picasso and Ernst and incorporated their contemporary ideas to the world of glass. Together they broke the barriers that had limited glass to its traditional decorative role.
Over the past 30 years, we have followed in Peggy Guggenheim’s footsteps and collaborated with acclaimed artists from all over the world. One of the first was Martin Bradley, a painter and intellectual, and then Kiki Kogelnik, considered the foremost pop artist in Austria, followed by Koen Vanmechelen, a young artist from Belgium. Vanmechelen’s first project was the Walking Egg, a work representing the fragility of human beings who venture into the world. Its success led Vanmechelen to develop the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, the chicken as a metaphor for his ideas on biocultural diversity.
During this time, we have invited over 300 artists from around the world and from every discipline to collaborate with our maestros. At first we just invited those from the visual arts, primarily sculptors and painters, but then I realized that creativity has no discipline, so we included architects, designers, fashion designers and even musicians including Pharrell Williams in our roster. Most were not glass artists. In fact, most had never used glass as a medium and many had never stepped foot in a glass furnace before coming to Murano. It was an amazing experience to watch these artists in the furnace exploring the possibilities of this amazing material. It was the combination of their conceptual approach with the great ability of the glass blowers at Berengo Studio that created the art. I wanted to show these amazing works to the art world.
In a strange way a historic 16th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, the Palazzo Franchetti, provided the impetus for the first Glasstress. In early 2009, I was given the opportunity to mount an exhibition in this magnificent palazzo during the 53rd Venice Biennale of Art, the international art exhibition in Venice, ongoing for over 100 years but where glass had not been seen since 1972. It was the opportunity to bring glass back to the biennale in the city of glass after being absent for almost 50 years. And so Glasstress was born.
With the cocurator Laura Mattioli, we borrowed extraordinary works from collectors and museums worldwide to present a historical perspective of glass from the last century to the present. It was surprising to our visitors because the works were by famous artists: Albers, Kounellis, Man Ray, César, Bourgeois, Dan Graham, Fontana, Buren, Penone and Rauschenberg, names not associated with glass. But I wanted the art world to see not just the past but my vision of the future. So new works, most realized in our furnace just for this exhibition, were included. Anne Peabody, Marya Kazoun, Kiki Smith, Jan Fabre, Tony Cragg, JeanMichel Othoniel, Joseph Kosuth, and Fred Wilson were the new face of glass. Glasstress 2009 was a rich and satisfying experiment for me but a total shock to the art world as it shifted attention from the material itself to the ideas expressed in glass. People marveled at the works, the concepts, and the art. Glass had made its surprising debut into the art world.
In the next biennale, Glasstress 2011 was curated by a roster of well known curators: Lidewij Edelkoort, Peter Noever, and Demetrio Paparoni, with the contribution of Bonnie Clearwater. Glasstress 2011 gave birth to the wonderful and now famous work by Javier Perez entitled Carroña. In our furnace on Murano, Perez’s blood red Murano chandelier was hoisted to the ceiling and crashed to the floor where black ravens feed on its scattered shards. This very special work has been featured in other exhibitions and is now in the collection of the Corning Museum.
In 2011, I opened a second Glasstress venue on Murano in a furnace that has not been used for decades but the glory holes, the smokestained walls and windows and workers’ graffiti give witness to its past. It has become home to our permanent collection.
In 2013, Glasstress, subtitled White Light/White Heat, was presented in partnership with the London College of Fashion and the prestigious Wallace Collection in London. The show included major established visual artists, designers, and fashion designers, including Ron Arad, Alice Anderson, Rina Banerjee, Hussein Chalayan, Matt Collishaw, Tim Noble and Sue Webster.
The year 2015 saw another exciting partnership with The State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg to create Glasstress Gotika. Its cocurator, Dr. Dimitri Ozerkov, combined historical works from the Hermitage’s collection of medieval glass and objects with newly commissioned artworks in glass, all with a Gothic theme. One of the stars was Wael Shawky, an Egyptian artist, who realized 350 marionettes in glass in our furnace. The marionettes were characters in the final film of Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades trilogy presenting the ransacking of Constantinople during the Crusades. Cabaret Crusades was first shown at MoMA PS1 and then at Mathaf (Arab Museum of Modern Art) in Qatar, the Louvre in Paris and soon at Castello di Rivoli in Turin.
After these successes, Glasstress became a traveling exhibition hosted by institutions around the world: the Makslas Muzejs “Rigas Birža” in Riga; the Millesgården Museum in Stockholm; the Beirut Exhibition Center; the London College of Fashion; the Wallace Collection; and the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York. The MAD show prompted Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to remark in introducing Glasstress to the audience of NYCARTS Primetime:
“For hundreds of years, glass has been viewed by some as simply a decorative or functional medium, Glasstress New York on view at the Museum of Arts and Design shatters those notions. Here you will see dynamic new glass works from both established and emerging artists, architects and designers from around the world.”
Glasstress had become more than an exhibition but a kind of cultural movement in the world of glass.
In recognition of this, in 2014, I founded Fondazione Berengo as a cultural institution to preserve the glass community’s efforts and artworks and also to collaborate with other art institutions to present exhibitions. In 2016, Fondazione Berengo sponsored a solo show by the renowned British sculptor Tony Cragg at The State Hermitage Museum and Glassfever at the Dordrechts Museum in Holland featuring over 80 works of art and glass created in our studio over the past 30 years. And we had the honor to sponsor and present a tribute retrospective of the world famous architect, the late Dame Zaha Hadid, at the Palazzo Franchetti during the Venice Biennale of Architecture.
So, the question remains why Glasstress?
Because Glasstress shows that contemporary ideas have a place beside the traditions of glassmaking.
Because Glasstress provides new approachmaking artists, curators and critics “thinking” in glass, not seeing it as a limitation but as an exciting new medium.
Because Glasstress offers artists limitless possibilities for experimentation.
Because Glasstress offers glassmasters a new potential and way to use their skills in this new era of glass.
Because Glasstress is my tribute and thank you to the island of Murano and the city of Venice.
Finally, because Glasstress gives us all in the glass world the chance to write new chapters inthe histories of both glass and art.