Life Stories Embodied in Glass
Belen Uriel’s sculptures are puzzling constructions. Made from organic materials such as paper pulp, glass, and bronze, the Madrid-born artist crafts awkward fragmented replicas of daily objects—such as baskets, small inflatable mattresses, or backpacks that bear the various marks of human interaction. The shapes she creates retain some of the characteristics of the original models, but they are also greatly transformed by her hands during their making. “They are very basic objects of consumption to start with. I don’t have that much imagination,” smiles Uriel. “I use things that exist and that we use in society. Then the transformation step is very important for me”, she explains about her process.
In her latest exhibition at Madragoa, Antes, despues, ayer, mientras, ahora (titled after a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, the show runs until October 31, 2020), she presents a series of pieces made of painted metal, bronze, and glass that crystallises moments in the relationship between the body, our bodies, and the modern life backpacks we often carry during the day. Departing from her usual pastel palette (her colour-related decisions are always very specific for each work), this new series comes in nearly black glass, giving the material an unusual quality of opacity and heaviness. During the making process, she manipulated the objects-to-be with a very high emphasis on how backpacks are used, and how their shapes morph once their heavy weight and our bodies press against each other.
She researched proportions with reference guides for designing objects and environments according to human dimensions, and considered the way a backpack is passed from shoulder to shoulder, or rests on our backs while walking. She created fragments, study moulds of the side of her body, to envision the way a mass rests over the shoulders and the sides. This is particularly notable in the fragments that are part of S, M, L, a bronze and acrylic resin sculpture where thick strips of dark material hang from a coat-stand of sorts. She wanted the works to look heavy, metallic. About what the backpack represents, Uriel notes that “it is part of a routine, it is heavy, we carry it around, but it is also a form of armour”, underlying the great but discreet interference that common objects have on our lives. “You don’t notice backpacks, yet they are universal”, says Uriel.
In QUECHUAS (titled after modifying the name of one of sport brand Decathlon’s collections, a name that was itself taken from the name of a mountainous tribe in Peru), she presents five masses, hybrids between cushion and shell, hanging from a black metallic stand at different heights. Cloudy, the material seems to be muting surrounding sounds. Small touches of colours are sprinkled here and there on the masses, and act as visual reminders of zips and pockets. The work, intended as a group of objects, hints at the different heights a backpack could take around the body that carries it. Although static, as an ensemble the fragmented shapes evoke movement because of the accolades their relative positions draw in space. More pieces are also included in the show, including BACKWARD, a rectangular sculpture made of glass, referring to the inside of the back of a backpack. Its shape hanging on the wall is reminiscent of the back of the body, with expressive lumps and recesses showing the weight-bearing marks of a worn-out body. The strengths of the pieces didn’t seem to be at ease in the space, which I wish was displayed differently. The creases born from the backpacks’ structures, created in a relationship with an imagined body and suspended in the air, deserve a more caring spatial consideration of the negative space they produce. There is a delicate balance between weight and invisibility. Uriel’s works have the ability to leverage the space around them, but this grace comes with a sometimes debilitating dependency on its environment. Nevertheless, the power of absorption of these dark intriguing shapes is ultimately their own, and it leaves the viewer with the haunting but conflicting feeling of looking at something at once familiar and staged.
“I am interested in the ambiguity: you think that you are looking at something, but really you are seeing something else. It happens through the building of layers, and depends on how you manipulate the object through the sculptural process”,
says Uriel from her high-ceiling studio in Lisbon, where books, models, unfinished works, and scraps of images and notes pegged on the wall bear witness to her ongoing process. Although she doesn’t aim for her work to claim any particular reference, she has many books on sculpture, on the relationship between design and object, and on architecture. Uriel seems driven by ideas.
“We moved to Lisbon in 2008, but we were always going back and forth between London and here”, she recalls. She now spends more time in Lisbon, especially since she started working with the Vicarte atelier, in 2015. “I can’t produce in London. To produce in glass is almost impossible, due to the costs. I have the chance to be able to do it here in Lisbon. The Vicarte atelier is very specialised. It is a place where art and science are united,” says Uriel about this research unit, common to the faculties of Sciences and Fine Arts in Lisbon, which includes among its activities the development of new materials for glass and ceramics contemporary art. As an artist, Uriel was invited to work with the atelier—carte blanche. The first five to six months proved to have a steep technical learning curve. Until she “was able to work alone, with some punctual technical assistance”, she recalls.
One of her first challenges at the atelier was the conception of an object inspired by German architect Bruno Taut: a set of coloured glass building blocks. Taut made the toy in the 1920s. She liked the domestic yet impractical dimension of Taut’s glass toy. She worked on a bottle-size scale for it, The fairy place (1) (2016), a small glass tower made of glass blocks. She says it almost carries the “idea of a cake, a kind of appetising architecture, as a distinction, a prize, something that is different from the rest, a celebration”. She confides: “my background is in fine arts, but I have always been surrounded by architects. I'm interested in architecture that thinks about the relationship with the body, and among those, I am interested in the work of architects who have created furniture”. She also speaks of the changes in the field, from modern architecture that centred on the human to a glass architecture that displays more corporate-oriented values. “Taut was an architect of the utopian, a designer who believed architecture could change the life of its inhabitants, and improve it”, says Uriel, highlighting the visionary values that attracted her to his work, which places architecture and objects of daily use at the centre of our social lives, habits, and organisation—with the potential to change them. At the time, she was interested in what she could do without yet having the high technical skills required by glass work. Except that technical difficulties and production issues brought their own opportunities. The process itself allows her to find new solutions when something doesn’t work, which in turn opens the way for something else. “I am very interested in those moments when errors appear during the process”, she says. “It is quite liberating. When you know all the technical stuff, it comes with many restrictions. Instead, when I started, I was thinking of the things I wanted to do first, and only after was I thinking about what was possible to do in glass. Thinking this way gave me a lot of freedom”.
When prompted about the coldness associated with glass, Uriel agrees, but adds that although it is a very rigid material, it is also fragile. She is very interested in the transparent quality of glass. It is aligned with a general movement in modern society demanding for more transparency, which in turn has been applied to architecture. The idea that “everything has to be transparent”, a universal concept that inspires trust but can also be used as a form of control, is one that Uriel’s probes with her investigations with glass. Glass has a mirroring quality, it is not only transparent but also reflective, so it can be at the centre of varied forms of surveillance and display of power. When she says that, it personally reminds me of the 1920s dystopian novel by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, where citizens of a totalitarian state live in transparent buildings with no intimacy. But glass can also be read through its own metamorphosis, from nature to manmade object. It has that range.
“Glass comes from the earth, but it is very related to man”, confirms Uriel, emphasising yet another line of enquiry about the medium.
A significant part of her work with glass consists of installations and objects that owe part of their forms and meaning to the glass panel, and in particular, the broken one that has been taped back together. It represents that flat surface whose relative thickness and level of transparency determines how well we see from the inside out or from the outside in. Within Uriel’s artistic strategies, it points to the relationship between body and architecture, accompanied by all the subtle details about how a body enters any architectural space and the compromises it physically negotiates to fit in.
The first time she created glass panels for an exhibition was for Scissor, Sand, Paper, at the Museum Wiesbaden, in Germany, in 2016. There, Uriel replaced some of the panels of a large window by her own. “It was the first time I made panels made of glass, and that I intervened directly on the facade”, she recalls. As a result, some of the large windows contain muddier glass squares, filtering light differently and quietly imposing themselves over the mood of the exhibition room, or so it seems to me. “At the beginning I wanted the idea of stained glass, or broken glass that you fix with tape”, she points at just such piece in her studio that was used as a conceptual basis for this rather physical, but also very specific research.
At her exhibition in Culturgest in 2016, titled segunda-feira, commissioned and curated by Miguel Wandschneider, she continued her investigations into the potential of the facades. Apprehending the space in a very precise way, this time they placed whole panels made by Uriel in a way that blocked some of the walkways, while still filtering some of the light, like church glass-stained windows would. By creating new separations and new rooms, and orienting the circulation of the space, the curator and the artist borrowed directly from the architect’s toolbox. From intervening on glass windows to erecting walls, Uriel seems to play with a range of possible intensities to alter our field of vision and/or sense of mobility.
Other signifiers are part of Uriel’s visual vocabulary—the art of display for one. Some of her objects are by themselves, while some are paired with their own display system—just like the stands in Madragoa’s exhibition. But also in her show Bonança, at the CA2M Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, in Madrid, in 2019. There, metallic structures held pink skin-coloured glass objects, hybrids of organs and medical material, gently but solemnly occupying the room with their clean design. “The way I work glass is very organic. Glass is very fluid, the process can bring imperfections, it converts, and it has a lot of fragility”, she emphasises the varied possibilities of exploration. On the one side, her casting process is on par with the way common objects are created nowadays: chain production and industrial casts. This allows the work a certain social commentary by highlighting the intimacy we humans create with the least rare of things. On the other side, the way she creates the sculptures includes an intermediary step, where she first works on wax, moulding the object with her hands. “You can work without the wax step, but for me it is a moment when I get to manipulate it. It is very important for me to work with my hands.”
She operates on the wax, adding layers of alterations before it dries. To me, she seems to be adding concentrated layers of time, as if unpacking the story of a whole life lived behind the use of whatever object she departed from. Scale is also within Uriel’s artistic grammar, since she carefully considers domestic and urban sizes, but all in relation to the body. This body is then evolving through her work in a world that draws both from the working class and the world of design, where art objects, common objects, emotional objects, artefacts, and objects as story-tellers are all charged with a certain aura.
Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art critic, curator and writer. She is a regular international contributor to art publications such as Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic, and other publications including the South China Morning Post. She was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hong Kong-based independent art magazine Pipeline that ran print editions form 2011 to 2016 where she curated thematic issues with artists, curators and other art contributors. She has a Masters degree in International Prospective from Paris V University.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
Belén Uriel: Antes, despues, ayer, mientras, ahora. Exhibition views at Madragoa Gallery. Courtesy of the artist and Madragoa Gallery.