A Matter of Motion: Glass as a Material in Flux

Abstract: As a supercooled liquid, glass is characterised by its constant state of flux that is not perceivable to human senses, yet a concrete material phenomenon. Analysing two contemporary artworks, a video series by David Schnuckel and a monumental glass sculpture by Pae White, this article explores different means of artistically addressing the motion of matter.

Glass is a material that has accompanied mankind for many millennia. The use of natural glass such as obsidian as a tool or weapon has been proven by archaeologists as early as around 11,000 BC. The oldest recipe for making glass was found in the library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (7th century BC). It names the essential raw materials that a glassmaker needs to make the so-called frit, a crystalline intermediary product fired at low temperature: sand, ash from marine plants, and chalk. Sand forms the base for glass and is therefore called a network former. The ash contains sodium-rich salts that serve as a flux agent to reduce the melting temperature of the sand. Finally, chalk contains calcium carbonate which is mainly added to stabilise the glass.

Despite industrially processed raw materials, this basic recipe for glass production remains valid today. Packed and stored until needed, the pre-produced frit is used in workshops to make different objects. At this point, melting once more plays an important role in the production process. The frit is reheated at higher temperatures, molten, and, if necessary, varied by colours or other components to be processed into an object such as a chalice.

David Schnuckel, a glass artist from the United States, pondered the intricacies of melting. This idea became a focal point in various glass/video works. While working in his hot shop, Schnuckel wondered how to embrace traditional Venetian techniques and their processes, to honour them and be ironic in his art at the same time, as he stated in an interview I conducted in spring 2022. This thought gave rise to the video Poise (2018) which started as an observation process. Schnuckel was interested in the invisible material life inside a kiln. Thus, Poise shows how a puddle of molten glass inflates itself and forms independently into a goblet visualising an intersection between phenomenology and fiction.

The video is realised by a long take (3:04 min) with an unchanged setting which has been reversed. Showing us a chalice in making without a maker, Schnuckel emphasises one particular quality of glass, namely its state of flux. Glass can be described as an internally formless solid that is created by the solidification of a supercooled liquid. In other words: glass lacks the periodicity of crystals but behaves mechanically like solids. Neither liquid nor truly solid1, it, therefore, is essentially characterised by its amorphous state.2 At room temperature, it is hard, but being a supercooled liquid, glass is in a constant state of particle movement, namely flux, which is so slow that it can be detected neither by the human senses nor during a human lifetime. This was shown by a mathematical model of the material engineer Edgar Dutra Zanotto in 1997.3 He proved that, at room temperature, it would take more time than the universe exists to observe a change in the glass object due to the movement of the molecules toward a crystalline (solid) form.

Imperceivable to the human senses, glass flux is nonetheless a concrete material phenomenon that becomes visible in Schnuckel’s video experiments. He developed the idea of Poise by creating Palindromes in 2019-2020. Instead of presenting a single reversed shot, Schnuckel introduces more complex editing in three videos of the series. Each 15:51 min long, Pant, Pivot, and Pulse show, as before, chalices inserted into a kiln. The footage has been edited in a sequence of normal and reversed shots being constantly repeated throughout the whole video that ends with a blurred moving picture suggesting an endless continuation of the loop. The term ‘palindromes’ refers to the series’ visual legibility both forwards and backward. The editing coincides with the transformation of the aggregate states of glass – the normal shot shows the melting process and thus the liquefaction, while the reversed shot represents the solidification.

In Poise, the motion of the filmic medium made matter transformation perceivable going from fluid to malleable to hard. Knowing that a puddle of molten glass cannot become a chalice on its own, the viewer identifies the reversed shot as a special effect inherent to the film. The making of that video points to the process of melting shown by the unedited footage, thus addressing the solidification of glass as reversible. Being a rather implicit idea in Poise, this material capacity is explicitly visualised in Palindromes by the loop of matter transitions shown in each video. The visible fluidity lost due to solidification is revealed by the motion of the chalice, which only exists as a non-moving object outside of the film.

Having identified motion in the filmic medium as an essential quality through which glass flow can be experienced, it is worth looking at another contemporary artwork that visualises glass flux through different kinds of motion. Qwalala, a temporary sculpture by Pae White, was created for the Venice Art Biennale in 2017. The monumental wall consisted of over 1,700 glass blocks hand-made by Poesia Glass Studio, Ltd. and was installed on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Here visitors were confronted with the 75 m long meander (Fig. 1) that illustrated the flow of a river named ‘Qh awála-li’ in a language of Californian natives. Not only did Qwalala address glass fluidity on a metaphorical level by using the shape of a river. It also consisted of partly colourless, partly coloured glass blocks that picked up on the optical qualities of water which, like glass, can be colourless and transparent, but also take up a colour of another substance and become not only coloured, but opaque, losing some of its translucency.

There were a total of 26 different colour types and shades for the blocks. For this purpose, individual colour pigments were added to the melt of transparent glass and stirred in. The mass was then poured into steel moulds (Fig. 2). As soon as the material had cooled down and was dimensionally stable, the moulds were removed. This technique created bands of colour enclosed in the blocks that appear to be in motion (Fig. 3). They recall colour drops that, poured into water, slowly dissolve in the otherwise colourless and transparent liquid. The height of up to 2.40 m and the enormous length of the artwork forced the viewer to perceive the sculpture in motion. This mode of perception was favoured by two passageways that allowed both walking around and walking through. The visitors moving along and through Qwalala thus brought their bodies ‘into flux’. Doing so, they also observed the glass blocks, while light penetrated the material, enhancing the impression of a fluid in motion. Thus, viewers were confronted with the properties of two fluid materials, glass, and water, one physically present, the other metaphorically and materially represented.

Fig. 1: View from above on Qwalala (Bild: Enrico Fiorese).
Glass blocks for Qwalala in the making (Bild: Enrico Fiorese).
Fig. 3: Detailed view of Qwalala glass blocks (Bild: Christoph Paech).

As the two examples from contemporary art have shown, motion can be an efficient tool for artistically addressing flux and the fact that glass objects are in a constant state of transition. A concrete material phenomenon imperceptible to humans, fluidity thus becomes part of a glass artwork’s materiality. At the same time, this research once again clearly reveals the ambivalent nature of glass: its flux and malleability cannot be separated from its hardness and rigidity.

Text: Karina Pawlow

Empfohlene Zitation / Suggested citation: Karina Pawlow, A Matter of Motion: Glass as a Material in Flux, in: Spotlight, hrsg./ed. by Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten, https://techne.hypotheses.org/?p=3180, 07.04.2023 [Abrufdatum / Date of Access].




Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Luisa Feiersinger (2023, 7. April). A Matter of Motion: Glass as a Material in Flux. Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten. Abgerufen am 26. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/uo8a

  1. To distinguish linguistically between the physical properties and perceived quality of glass (at room temperature), I use ‘solid’ to address the first, and ‘hard’ for the latter. []
  2. For further information see Pablo Debenedetti/Frank Stillinger: “Supercooled liquids and the glass transition”, in: Nature, Nr. 410, 2001, pp. 259–267. []
  3. Edgar Dutra Zanotta: “Do cathedral glasses flow?”, in: American Journal of Physics, Nr. 66, 1997, pp. 392-395. []
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