Meet the Artist: Luke Jerram

Corning Museum of Glass, October 15, 2010

Tina Oldknow: I ‘m Tina Oldknow. I’m the Curator of Modern Glass at the Museum and I was so pleased this morning to see how many new members are visiting Seminar. It’s really very exciting. And I thought maybe I should do a %%bit%% of an introduction to the Rakow Commission, which is what I am going to be talking to you about.

The Rakow Commission is an annual commission of the Museum, it was inaugurated in 1986 by The Corning Museum of Glass. The Rakow Commission supports new works of art in glass. It was made possible through the generosity of the late Dr. and Mrs. Leonard S. Rakow, the same people who our Rakow Library is named after. They were fellows, friends and great benefactors of the Museum.

Each commissioned work is added to the Museum’s collection and it is displayed publically for the first time during Seminar so you will be seeing it during the reception upstairs.

The Rakow Commission encourages artists working in glass to venture into new areas that they might otherwise be unable to explore because of financial limitations. And over the years the recipients have been ranging from emerging to established artists.

When I came here in 2000, I decided to give myself a few more parameters on the Rakow Commission because it was originally, it was inaugurated at a time when there were not that many people working in glass.  And artists working in glass have increased exponentially over the past 30 years, which is great, but I decided to make it a little harder for myself. The Rakow Commission would have to be an artist who was not yet represented in the collection, an up and coming artist, professional artist, who was not yet represented in the collection. This means that sometimes I have to go a little %%bit%% to the fringes, but we do have a very interesting group of people we have managed to put together.

I am very pleased to introduce you to the 2010 Rakow Commission artist, who is the British artist Luke Jerram. Although Luke is not with us physically tonight, he will be speaking to us. How, you say, can he be speaking to us? Well, we’re going to follow the news organizations, and he will be speaking to us via Skype. This is a test run of this technology for the museum and if it’s successful, it will create new opportunities to make connections with artists and scholars who would otherwise be unavailable to speak to us. After Luke’s presentation, there will be some time to ask him questions.

I nominated Luke Jerram for the 2010 Rakow Commission because I wanted to mark the Museum’s 25thCommission with an artwork that made reference to art history and to science. These two fields of inquiry have constituted the intellectual core of operations at the Museum since its opening in 1951.

Luke describes himself as a color-blind installation artist who fuses his artistic sculptural practice with scientific and perceptual studies. He creates sculptures, installations, soundscapes, and public art projects that investigate how the mind works, particularly in connection with perception and reality.

Luke’s approach to art making is multi-disciplinary and he uses whatever materials are most appropriate to realize his ideas. His work is inspired by his research in the fields of biology, acoustic science, music, sleep research, ecology, and neuroscience. His projects, which have garnered much media exposure, range from placing upright pianos in outdoor locations in cities around the world for the public to make music, entitled “Play Me, I’m Yours,” to studying the effect of sound on dreams, “Dream Director,” to the creation of a wind pavilion, “Aeolus.”

For the Rakow Commission, Luke created two flameworked and blown glass sculptures of the Smallpox Virus andHIV or Human Immunodeficiency Virus from his “Glass Microbiology” series. When you look at the case, when you see the art objects in the galleries, the smallpox virus is on the left and the HIV is on the right.

In this series, Luke explores the tension between the beauty of the sculptures, the deadly viruses that they represent, and the global impact caused by these diseases. He says, “the Smallpox Virus celebrates the 30th anniversary of the eradication of this major disease, and the HIV represents humanity’s current worldwide struggle.”

For the “Glass Microbiology” project, Luke worked with virologist Andrew Davidson to research the physical structures of the viruses, taking inspiration from high-resolution electron microscope images and scientific models. And with the help of scientific glassblowers, he created scientifically accurate depictions of notorious viruses and bacteria such as HIV, E-Coli, SARS, and recently H1N1.

“Scientists and artists start by asking similar questions about the natural world,” Luke says, “they just end up with completely different answers.”

Luke earned his B.A. from the School of Art and Design at the University of Wales Institute, in Cardiff, in 1997, and he has participated in numerous international exhibitions since that time. He has received important grants and awards in the United Kingdom for his wide-ranging projects, including an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant in 2009; an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship in 2005–2006; and the prestigious, three-year National Endowment for Science Technology and Arts Fellowship, or NESTA, in 2002. In addition to his independent studio practice, he is currently a research fellow at the University of Southhampton.

Luke, are you there?

Luke: Hello! (applause) Great, the technology works.

Tina: Luke, go ahead and start your presentation.

Luke: Well, I just thank you very much. It’s amazing to be here. Thank you for the amazing award, this commission. It’s such a privilege to have, to be in a line of artists over the years is a real privilege. It’s really, really good. I’m really excited. And this is going to be an interesting way to give a presentation, isn’t it?  It’s the first time I’ve worked in this way, and how is my image looking? Am I a %%bit%% too pixilated, do I look a %%bit%% bright? (laughter)

Tina: No, you’re looking OK!

Luke:I’m looking OK, good, good, good. Well, I’m going to talk for about 20 minutes. And I just hope. . . Perhaps if you can’t hear me, then you’ll have to wave frantically, because actually what I can see, I can see everyone in the back of the auditorium. I can just see everybody’s heads. Maybe, if everyone could turn around and wave and I can wave back. Ah, there you are, there you go. Hey, it’s like a crowd; this is kind of a Mexican wave.

So, that wonderful technician Scott is able to, he’s got a slide show, basically my website, which we could start to think about showing. So, the first artwork I was going to talk about. . . I do a whole variety of projects, some are very large, and some are very small. I realized a long time ago that lots of my friends and relatives never really saw or appreciated the art that I was making, because I was always exhibiting it in a different city or a different country.

So, I started making artworks for the people I love and I made this first one. This is a “Talking Engagement Ring.” Let’s see if this slide show will work, here we go. There we go. So, this is my, this is the engagement ring I made for my wife, and it’s actually got my voice, my proposal, etched onto the outside of it. So, it’s my message of love, and I proposed to her in a hot air balloon over Bristol. And you can actually play the ring back on this miniature record player. So, to make this, I worked with a vinyl record manufacturer and I worked with a jeweler. I mean, this is generally what I do, I build teams of people to make projects happen. It’s very nice working with different specialists. It also means that anything is kind of possible.

Of course, once I had made this engagement ring, I couldn’t then just go out and buy a wedding ring. I had to then make a wedding ring as well. So, if we have the next slide. . . This is my wedding ring, this has got images of my family, my daughter, and us, and it actually projects portraits, so you hold up the ring to a candle or a little LED, and it projects pictures of us. The idea was that you could actually replace those slides, as we added more children to the family, to keep that up-to-date. It was made by working with a jeweler, but I took apart lots of old disposable cameras to find the right lens, the perfect lens that would be embedded into that. So, that was quite fun.

Oh, this was a nice one: I made something called a “Meteorite Catcher.” I made this for a friend who plays the lottery. I found out that, actually, you are more likely to be hit by a meteorite than you are to win the national lottery. So, I made this for them, so when they lose on a Wednesday, they could hold this, hold the meteorite catcher out of the window, and have another chance at winning something.

Oh, and finally, one more little fun project, this is a “Miracle Toaster.” So, you put your bread in your toaster and you get a picture of the Virgin Mary on every single piece. This was to kind of celebrate those objects, you know, around the world. I think that people might travel for a thousand miles to see a giant corn flake, though I think this is a bagel, actually. It’s a bagel in the shape of Mother Theresa.

Tina: Can you hear everyone clapping for you?

Luke: I can see that, yeah, yeah, yeah! There’s a lot of fun to be had, you know. And it’s nice to share my creativity in different ways, with different people.

So, one of the projects that people may have heard of is an art project called “Play Me, I’m Yours,” and this art work has seemed to have taken over a good chunk of my life at the moment. I basically put pianos on the street for people to play. So, in New York recently, I put 60 across all five boroughs of New York, and then, we just, there’s the words on them: “Play Me, I’m Yours,” so that’s a sort of invitation for the public to engage with the project. But, I have put something like 300 pianos in 17 different cities over the last two years. It’s all got a %%bit%% out of hand, and now there is another 60, no 75, cities interested in the project. There’s a website where everyone uploads their films and photos and stories and comments, and it’s very, yeah, the public is having an amazing time. It’s quite something to behold. So, yeah, that takes up quite a lot of my time, but again, to deliver a project like this involves building teams, really, of piano tuners, piano technicians, project managers.

I put, that photograph there is a photograph of a piano in São Paulo, the piano is in São Paulo, where people there, lots of people there have never seen a real piano before, let alone have the opportunity to play one. I came across a mother and daughter in that train station, just there on that picture, and the mother had worked as a cleaner for four years to be able to send her daughter to piano lessons on the other side of the city. After four years of working as a cleaner, she had never actually heard her daughter play the piano, because a piano over there costs about a thousand dollars, a year’s wage for lots of people. And so, yeah, she had never actually heard her daughter play. And she sat down, the girl sat down, and played for the first time, a beautiful piano player, and her Mom, who burst out in tears. It was quite moving, quite a moving moment.

Two journalists met over a piano in Sydney, where I put one, and they fell in love and they invited me to their wedding last week. That was quite special. So, it’s the power of art, a fine thing.

But yes, I suppose I’m, I’ve got this natural interest in perception, and this is partly because I’m color blind, so the way in which I see the world is different to other people, I suppose. I’m red-green color blind, but it just makes me very skeptical and distrustful, I suppose, of the use of color in images, and I’m interested in imagery and how the eye works, and exploring the edges of perception.

So,the first project here is “Retinal Memory Volume,” and this is what kind of kickstarted my career back in 1997. So, I have been out of college 13 years now. Light passes through a stencil, and it goes through a stencil into your eye, and it makes an afterimage. You know, when you look at a bright light and you get this sort of patch of color in your eye, well, this installation, it works in the same way. I can actually build objects inside people’s heads using these retinal afterimages, these flashes of light come and build up images in your retina. So, I suppose I have been exploring this idea of perception for about 10 years now.

The next art project is called “Tide.” What I generally do is, when I’ve learned something from an art project, I would throw out everything, I would rebuild, think through the language again, and throw out everything I’ve learned and start again. I want artwork to challenge me, I want to challenge myself all the time. So, this is why a lot of the artworks I make look quite different to one another.

This is “Controlled by the Moon.” In Bristol, we’ve got the highest tidal range in Europe, there’s something like 14 meters between high tide and low tide, and I wanted an artwork controlled by the moon, so I used a gravity meter to pick up the pull of the moon, and then that controlled water levels in these glass bowls that you can see. The glass bowls are then spinning, and there’s a friction device on the top that makes then sing like a finger on a wine glass. So, they’re all singing away and the pitch changes with the water levels, the tidal levels, so it works like a giant astronomical clock, really. And that artwork has sort of toured all over the world, but it’s also, it made me realize that the idea of mixing electricity with water and moving parts, you’re asking for trouble. (laughter) It has a tendency, it does have a tendency to break down sometimes. So, this is why I moved to putting pianos on the street, which is far easier (laughter).

The next project is called “Sky Orchestra.” This idea came from visiting Tunisia. I was staying in the desert in Tunisia and at about 3:00 in the morning, minarets started calling around the city. And it just lifted me into the space on the edge of sleep. It was very beautiful moment. I was lying in my hotel room, it was dark, and then you could hear the minaret calling right on the edge of the city, and the dust and the heat in the air were absorbing the sound. And then a few minutes later, another minaret started on the other side of the city. And then a few minutes later, there was another, so after a while there was about 10 minarets calling right around the city. It was a very beautiful moment and the sound just lifted me into the space on the edge of sleep, and I could almost see the layers of sound building on top of one another. It was very beautiful. And a map of the town seemed to open up in my head. And the experience was quite powerful, and I came back to Bristol, and I wanted to sort of share that experience with other people.

And so I had this idea: well, why don’t we play music to affect people’s dreams and to lift them into that space on the edge of sleep? And then to deliver that music, well, we’ll strap speakers onto hot air balloons, so that’s kind of what we do. We put speakers on hot air balloons, and each balloon plays a different part of the musical score. And it would take off about 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, when everyone is sleeping at home, and the idea is we fly over a city to affect people’s dreams and to just lift them into that space on the edge of sleep, and deliver music in surround sound.  And it’s a very beautiful, beautiful experience for people.  I had a few death threats (laughter), but only from people in Texas (laughter). This was from a flight we did in England, and the press kind of got hold of these things and they seemed to go with it.  

I’m wondering if you scroll down a little %%bit%% on the web page, there is a film there that you might think about playing. I don’t know whether there is audio on that, whether that will work or not, who knows.  There is definitely audio on the film. (Plays film).

OK, I think that’s probably enough of that.

Tina:  That’s amazing. (Audience applauds)

Luke:  Well, that’s that particular art project, and curiously. . . We tried to fly in 2007 in Birmingham, and we wanted live musicians in the balloons with their violins. And we had the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and they all turned up to play in Birmingham, and the Met Office had got their weather predictions wrong, and it was a complete nightmare. We couldn’t fly because it was too windy, and we had to pay all the musicians because they were on music union rates. We had to pay all the pilots for turning up, so we spent maybe $20,000 on an artwork that hadn’t sort of performed and it was a complete disaster. And we also promised the City Council in Birmingham that we’d reach 100,000 people with an artwork in three weeks, so I had to quickly think of a new artwork that would reach 100,000 people in three weeks.  And the street pianos project was that artwork. So, actually from the complete despair and concern came a new artwork that has actually been far more successful than the “Sky Orchestra” anyway.

The next project, before I start talking about glass, is my “Aeolus Acoustic Wind Pavilion.” So this is, again this was an experience inspired by a trip to Iran. I went to Iran, and I spoke with a desert well digger. These are the people who dig wells out of sand.  He talked about how the wells would sometimes sing and howl in the wind.  So, I decided to try and make a building that would sing in the wind, and I’ve been working on it for about three years now and it’s turned into this artwork. So, it’s like an arch that you walk underneath. The tubes are mirrored on the inside, so at different times of day the light gets drawn through these tubes and you get a different experience. Strings are attached to the tubes, as well, which you probably can’t see on those photographs. So, the whole building sings: it’s a giant Aeolian wind harp. We’ve got money to do this and we’re building it in the next couple of months, and it’s going to tour the UK next year and may end up at the Olympics, in 2012 in London. So, it hasn’t yet been built: these are little Photoshop markups.  But it’s quite exciting times. This is the first time I‘ll have made something this big, with a really big budget, it should be a lot of fun.

So, going on finally to my glass work. .  . This has been quite an interesting journey. Again, this artwork came about through my interest in perception. I was interested in thinking about global academics. I think the first artwork I made was HIV, a small glass sculpture, and I made it, really, just to sort of think about it. Do you want to open up the web page? There we go.

So, I made this glass sculpture, one sculpture, just to sort of think about it, really, and contemplate and it made me realize, actually, that there’s lots and lots of images that you see in magazines and journals. You know, when you see an image of a virus in a newspaper, often it is brightly colored, whereas actually viruses are too small to hold any color at all. They are actually smaller than the wavelength of light. So, that was another reason why I made these things. So, in newspapers they seem to be brightly colored, toxic or very pretty. There’s an emotional content: you add color to images, emotional content gets added to it. This is why I made these three-dimensional versions of the glass, as a kind of response to that, I suppose.

What I discovered was that, often with an electron microscope, a scientist might take an image of a virus with an electron microscope, and they would then give those images to an organization like the Science Photo Library, in London, who would then Photoshop them up. They would add color to them, because their job, as a library, would be to sell them to journalists. And a journalist would phone up and he’d say, “OK, I want some healthy looking bacteria, please, for my article on healthy bacteria,” and the library would say, “Oh, you need the green and white images. They look healthy.” They reduce those for the newspaper. Or the journalist would say, “OK, we want some dangerous looking bacteria, please” and “Oh well, you need the purple and yellow one.” So this sort of emotional content is added, and yet when you look in a newspaper, there’s a sense that what you are looking at is truthful. There’s a sense that there’s a scientific objectivity about it. 

And so, these sculptures are meant to add another voice, to add another interpretation, I suppose, of the same data.  And they’re made through looking at images of viruses in an electron microscope, but also looking at diagrams and models. And I work with a virologist at the University at Bristol. I also work with a  team of glassblowers. For me to make these sculptures would take about 20 years to learn to do that, so by working with a team of glass sculptors, glass specialists, we’ve been working on these since 2004.  It’s been a wonderful journey, actually. We started off making incredibly, you know, quite small, quite simple art works, and gradually over the years we’ve been able to make more and more complicated sculptures. Sometimes, I’m coming up with diagrams and they say, “Look, we just can’t build this, this isn’t going to hold together with the forces of gravity. It’s far too fragile.”

Interesting about the colored image that you see there, that. . . I sold one of these sculptures to the Wellcome Trust, in London, and their photographer took it, took an image of it, and added lots of color, which is really annoying. He was then given a photographic award from the Institute of Medical Imaging for the best image of a virus, or something, and it just goes to show the power of color. So yeah, it’s slightly annoying (laughter). Not much I can do about it.

So, I’ve got a basic understanding of glassblowing, but I don’t make these glass sculptures myself.  The sculptures are signed, they’re signed by me, but I also make sure that the glassblowers also sign them as well, and that’s really important as well. They get a credit, and also they get to see, they can send their grandkids down to the museum and show their grandkids the artwork they made. That’s quite nice as well. The glass team, it was interesting. . . Certainly in England, at one point every university would have a chemistry department that would also have a glass department attached to it. So, the glassblowers would be making distilleries and test tubes and all the scientific glassware you need.  And what’s happened is that over the last 30 years or so, all these glass departments of chemistry have just closed down.  They now, well, they don’t use as much glassware, but they also just import glassware from China, and you might have one glass technician whose job would be to literally glue the bits together that were pre-made. So, there’s a lot of glassblowers going out of work, and it’s a kind of dying art form really, certainly in the UK, so it’s quite nice to work with these guys.  And they spend their time making dodgy glass boats in bottles, for the Hong Kong tourist industry, and they’re actually quite glad to make sort of sculptures for me as well.  So, that’s kind of how it works, it’s a curious one.

But, it’s actually very common in the art work, that generally often what happens is you get established at something, or you think about Andy Warhol and his factory, or Damien Hirst, it’s actually happened since the beginning of the art era. You would have Poussin: I know Poussin would’ve had one artist who specialized in clouds, an artist would come and do clouds, and you would have another artist to come and do the leaves and trees, and another artist would do the people, and Poussin would have a studio that would, of all these artists working on his paintings. And it’s quite nice to work in teams, in fact I’ve got one sculpture here (shows piece).

This is a sculpture of swine flu that was made recently. You can see it better against a black background.  It’s got all the RNA and the proteins on the outside.  It’s got all the proteins on the outside and the proteins act as kind of keys to open up the cell. When this virus meets a cell wall, the proteins act as keys to unlock that cell. Then, all the genetic material inside opens up and replicates within the cell and they carry on there. So, this sculpture has just come back from the Mori Museum in Tokyo, and I was exhibiting it along with art works by Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, and Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. That’s quite cool, isn’t it? (laughter)

That’s kind of where we are, I’ve just finished a malaria sculpture, which you can see on this slide show. That’s going to be auctioned for “Malaria No More,” which is a charity based in New York. So occasionally, yeah, we auction these glass sculptures and raise some money for charity, so that’s a good thing as well.

One more thing: if you slide down, go down the page on the web site, and go to the “Sense Of Scale” slide bar animation, hopefully that should work. You can then kind of click on that, yes, that “Sense of Scale.” Did you manage to find it? Oh, OK, it’s up there somewhere, I’ll see if I can find it.  It just gives you a sense of scale about how small these viruses really are.

Tina:  We’ve got it, Luke.

Luke:  So, you can kind of zoom in. What’s that, a cocoa bean, I think.  (Screen shows the “Sense of Scale” animation). . . So, I think that that’s probably me, really. I think I’m done. It’s been fun working this way.

Tina:  Thank you, Luke, it’s been great hearing you.

Luke:  I think, I am happy to answer any questions. This could be the tricky thing.

Tina:  Absolutely, Luke, we just have time for, really, a couple of questions. Does anyone have any questions for Luke? What I’ll do is repeat the questions so he can hear me.

Luke:  Good idea.

Tina:  What music did you play for “Sky Orchestra”?

Luke:  Oh yeah, well, I was working with a composer and also working with a  sleep psychologist, so he also had this idea that sounds could be incorporated into people’s dreams. So, if you say you play the sound of a seagull calling, you may end up dreaming about being by the sea.  So, we had a whole range of ambient sounds, and recorded sounds were played. You know, we didn’t really want to upset people or anything like that, so the music was very sort of respectful of the fact that people were in a very fragile state at that time in the morning, and so it was very ambient, very beautiful, and quite serene.

Tina:  How long have you been working on the “Glass Microbiology” series? How long did it take you to develop those?

Luke:  The first artwork was made in 2004, and I have just been sort of making occasional ones ever since that time, really. Each one takes probably about four or five months to make from the inception, through the research, through the prototyping, and then the creation of the final artwork.

Tina:  Was there one thing about that project that you found the most challenging?

Luke:  I’m still challenging myself all the time, and challenging the glassblowers all the time as well. It also challenges me a lot in terms of my understanding of biology, you know, I’m forced to know how viruses work. Biology is. . . I’m more of a physicist really, I’m interested in physics and engineering, so it’s quite tricky sometimes for me to get my head round all the different apparatus of a bacteria and what each part does. It’s a lot of fun, but what’s interesting is all the, there’s lots of. . . scientists have got quite excited by the imagery, so I’m on lots of front covers of books and journals and things like that.  This one is from Korea, and this was just printed a few days ago.  So, it’s a curious world, and it’s been a lot of fun but I, I suppose what I’ve done is by taking out the color from viruses that we see in newspapers, I’ve presented myself with another problem.  The problem now is the art is so incredibly beautiful, so there’s this tension now that arises between the beauty of the object and then what it represents.  But, I suppose that makes, it gives the artwork some interest. It makes it quite potent and powerful.  The art works, you’re kind of drawn into the art works because they’re very beautiful and then when you realize they’re HIV, or something, you’re kind of repelled from it slightly.  There was someone who asked me, who got quite scared, she’s saying, “Well, is there actual HIV in there?”  They thought if they touched it, they’d be infected. Quite funny.

Tina:  Well, we have it safely under glass, so I don’t think we have to worry about that. Luke, thank you very much, we wish you were with us to have a glass of wine. We will toast you later.  But thank you very much. (Applause)

Luke:  Thank you very much.

Tina:  I think everyone should wave, wave at him!

Luke:  I could pick you up. Actually, I was thinking, there you are, I could probably pick you up, Tina. That’s a lot of fun.

Tina:  Thank you.

Luke:  Well, it’s been lovely, thanks very much. Are we done, are there any other questions?

Tina:  No, I think we have to move on, now, so we’ll say good bye.

Luke:  Have a lovely day.

Tina:  And thank you again. Bye, bye Luke.