Glass and Mimesis

In his theory of Mimesis, Plato says that all art is mimetic by nature; art is an imitation of life. Aristotle added that mimesis refers to both form and material. 
Material plays a fundamental role in mimetic practices. Since antiquity, craftspersons and artisans have skilfully transformed paper into gilded leather, clay into metal, wood into marble. However, since its inception as a material, glass has possessed the unique ability to naturally imitate other materials, such as stone, ceramic, ice or metal. 

Glass mosaic jar, 2nd–early 1st century BCE, Greek, probably Eastern Mediterranean. Made in imitation of vessels carved in semiprecious stone, such as onyx and banded agate, it gives an idea of the opulent tastes of the age. Image and Caption courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The creative possibilities of creating glass that imitates other materials such as ceramic, paper, metal, wood, stone, plastic and semi-precious stones are vast. This cross-pollination with other disciplines has enabled contemporary studio glass to flourish by refreshing and recreating itself. Indeed, glass is the perfect artistic medium for material imitation.

Portrait Inlay of Pharaoh Akhenaten, about 1353-1336 BCE, Egypt. Some Mesopotamian texts describe blue glass as “lapis lazuli from the kiln,” as opposed to the stone lapis lazuli, which was “from the mountain.” Image and caption courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass.

The imitation of precious stones has always been a major goal of glassmaking. Several alchemists wrote manuscripts about transforming lead to rubies, the first of which was an alchemist in Persia in the 10th Century. By the 17th Century, demand for ruby red crystal was at an all-time high, and in Germany, glassmakers had perfected the recipe for creating the same using a recipe consisting of lead and gold. There are several surviving examples of vessels that look as if they are carved from colossal rubies.

Covered Goblet, Brandenburg (Germany), Potsdam, about 1725–1735. Formerly in the collection of Jerome Strauss. Image courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass

The knowledge of alchemical recipes of new kinds of glass, as well as the trend of imitation extended across Europe into the 18th and 19th century. Extravagant vessels were created using blown translucent white glass that was ornately enamelled. This translucent white glass, also known as “milk glass”, served primarily to imitate Chinese porcelain.

Rose water sprinkler with cap, and two beakers, blown, enameled. Italy, Venice, Miotti glasshouse, about 1730 (sprinkler) and 1725-1750 (beakers). Image courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass.

Alchemy extended a wide influence on the development of glass production established the foundation for several material innovations in the field today. Contemporary artists have continued to develop their own theories and artistic goals relating to historical examples of mimetic glass. Amber Cowan is an artist whose sculptural glasswork is based around the use of recycled American pressed glass. Her work often employs the use of milk glass to create large-scale sculptures that overwhelm the viewer with ornate abstraction.

Amber Cowan, Whole Milk Wash Basin in Colony Harvest, 2013. Image Courtesy of the RISD Museum

The industrial revolution and resulting material innovations created many new opportunities for mimesis across materials. The invention of plastics, which can be transformed into anything imaginable, often renders moot the materiality of an object. A viewer may or may not question the exact nature and composition of materials that comprise an object. However, artists continue to subvert the semiotics of the objects that we interact with. Chris Taylor, a contemporary glass artist uses glass to imitate and actively remediate materials such as bubble wrap, Styrofoam, and rubber bands.

Chris Taylor, Untitled, Blown Glass, 2015, Image Courtesy of the artist. From “Explode Every Day: An Enquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder” at Mass MoCA

By changing the material’s appearance and borrowing qualities from other media, artists subvert the object’s meaning to create a new visual language for the discipline. As a glass artist, I am constantly excited by the potential of glass to harness qualities of other materials, drawing from the history of mimicry as a vital creative act.