Adventures in uncertainty: glass artist Zuzana Kubelková

Zuzana Kubelková is far more than just a gifted glass artist. Her talents also span related fields such as painting, drawing, jewellery, stained-glass and design. And the end works reflect not just Kubelková’s inventiveness, craftsmanship, creativity, and dexterity, but also her constant search for new avenues of artistic expression. 

Adventures in uncertainty: glass artist Zuzana Kubelková

 For Czech version click here

Zuzana Kubelková began her glassmaking education in northern Bohemia. After studying at the High School of Applied Arts for Glassmaking in Železný Brod, graduating in the field of pressed (or pattern) glass, she continued her studies at the Ilja Bílek studio in the University of J. E. Purkyně (UJEP) in Ústí nad Labem, as well as undertaking a number of overseas research fellowships. Since 2007 Kubelková has partaken in a variety of exhibitions – the first award for her work coming within two years. And this was followed by further recognition, including winning the Ludwig Moser Award (2012) and the Stanislav Libenský Award (2014). Recently, Kubelková won the top prize in the Young Glass 2017 competition held in Ebeltoft, Denmark.

Both curators and art critics have praised the artist for her bold experimentation. Kubelková  clearly enjoys exploring the inherent sense of adventure in the concept of uncertainty, and this manifests itself both in the creative aims and ideas of the artist, as well as via the varied usage of materials that she combines with glass. But none of that will be visible at the Sui Generis exhibition in Prague’s Galerie Kuzebauch (running from 10.11.2017 - 07.01.2018). This exhibition is – in the best sense of the word – playing on a single note. Which means it focuses solely on exhibiting unusual glass art works by the artist.

Marie Kohoutová sat down with Zuzana Kubelková for the following interview:  

I took another look recently at your glass sculptures from your time as a university student under celebrated Czech glass artist and teacher Ilja Bílek – and the experience wasn’t at all a surprise. The influence of his teachings is highly evident, in the best sense of the word. One notices distinctive geometry; clean and rather stern lines; elegance and moderation; a logic to the construction of the work; an absence of unnecessary additions – not one gram of “extra fat”... But three years later, your works – specifically those seen at the Sui Generis exhibition, but also others – have become looser and more playful. How difficult is it to develop an individual artistic direction after having been schooled by such a strong figure as Ilja Bílek? And the effort to “unmoor” yourself – if such a process really occurred – was it something of a battle and act of defiance, or was it a natural blossoming and redirecting towards your own sphere of creativity?
Yes, every art school graduate will carry the figurative fingerprints of the teacher under whom they taught – be that at our glass art studio in Ústí, at UMPRUM (The Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design) in Prague, or at Petr Stanický’s [Czech glass artist and sculptor –Ed.] studio in Zlín. Anyone who is just a little bit familiar with these studios will be able to tell with whom a particular graduate studied. Nor do I think that is necessarily a bad thing. Each school has its own signature, and its own strengths. In my case, my “unmooring” from Ilja Bílek’s influence already began during my studies; albeit his influence is still felt. Each learning consultation – whether related to drawing, painting, or glass, design, or other creations – brings something to the student. And back then this process certainly brought me a great deal. Then, over time, I began to loosen up and began to experiment. I believe that this first began to manifest itself after returning from a study fellowship in Budapest, where I had been experimenting with other approaches to glass, and had seen other possible manifestations of this material. Upon my return, I undertook the “Proces deformace” (Process of Deformation) project, which itself was something of an experiment, even though it related to fused glass sculptures. And then the process took-off by itself. Ilja Bílek gave me a free hand and I responded by experimenting with that freedom. And this resulted in the creation of my first spatial installations. After that I added touches of chemistry, electronics and programming. Now I am bringing other materials and approaches, which are closely associated with glass, but at the same time often differ greatly from traditional glassmaking processes. These are experiments, which, when successful, enable me to create original pieces. School provided me with a good foundation, and then I carried on by myself.

Your Sui Generis collection makes use of the opportunities of both form and expression presented by fabrics: elasticity, folding, draping, chafing, tearing, random creasing, interweaving threads into larger ones, creating fringed edges, all kinds of knotting and binding, and also various off-cuts – all this serves as a springboard for glass which has “emerged” from fabrics . What was the goal of this undertaking – to give a firm form to fabrics, or to soften, loosen and stretch glass?
The aim was to transform a primarily industrial material into a living and organic form. Glass fabric [or glass fibre, often known as fibreglass –Ed.] is inherently a material with which I can only partially predict to what degree it will be re-moulded and transformed – and that itself makes it seem alive. And paradoxically glass fibre – which is a textile – is used as an insulator, and is also woven into the threads of super heat-resistant protective clothing. I take such a material, melt it down, and completely do away with its original purpose and form. Such re-purposing is very technologically demanding. Each fibre possesses its own melting temperature. There are numerous factors at play, and figuring out all of these was probably the toughest challenge. The same can be said of the basalt fibres I sometimes utilise – these also require very high temperatures.

Actiniaria formed from fused glass textiles, part of the Sui Generis exhibition

Sui Generis biorhythms 

One creation of yours which particularly struck me was the “Warped Glass Masks” project. Were these glass face masks inspired by the great history of Venetian masks, or simply by the opportunities presented by glass textiles? Because if it is the latter, then we might consider them to be a second component of the Sui Generis exhibition – not so much installations, but rather art objects directly mounted onto the human body, specifically the face. How did the glass mask project come about, and will it continue in the future?
I have attended the Carnival of Venice a number of times. But, in fact, my chief inspiration were African masks, which I had come across while travelling in southern Africa. And then, by sheer coincidence, I also came across glass fibres, and so I combined my original idea with this material. Which led to a number of experiments. With the exception of a few items of jewellery made previously, the “Warped Glass Masks” series essentially represented the first step in the creation of the art objects that can be seen at this exhibition. But the inherent disadvantage in such pieces is that they cannot actually be worn, as they are so fragile that anyone would be afraid to put them on. And also because they can still contain some shards and spikes, which no-one wants to risk piercing into their face or anywhere else on their body. Whether it is masks or jewellery, I would very much like such items to all be wearable rather than being mere artefacts gathering dust.

Some examples of the Warped Glass Masks project

While the older generation of glass artists is now turning to painting, in light of the ever-growing costs and other complexities associated with producing glass artefacts, many young painters, sculptors, designers and artists from other fields are increasingly dipping their toes in the world of glass. You appear to have little reason to “run away” from glass at the moment, and seem to be expertly handling the difficult processes and management issues pertaining to this material. And yet the rich scope of your other artistic endeavours (painting, drawing, jewellery-making) suggests that glass alone is insufficient to cater for all your project requirements, and that in order to fully realise all of your ideas, you also require other substances and mediums. How important are these other fields for you? And do they serve as a way to continue to search, to experiment; or a way to take a break; or a way to cultivate ideas for future glass-related works?
Working with glass is both physically and mentally demanding, and sometimes it is also expensive. I can understand how after some time a person can become worn-out. Painting and producing smaller pieces is certainly less demanding, and everyone needs to take a break once in a while. Mostly during the winter months, I combine my glass work with painting in particular. During such times I free myself from thoughts of technology, form, materials, and instead focus on composition, colour usage, and generally allow my imagination to is a different kind of thought process. I rest while undertaking this, and, as you mentioned, I cultivate new ideas in my mind. Sometimes I might get a new idea regarding a fresh approach to glass, or I get a completely new creative idea. It is like when I go jogging – I don’t have earphones in my ears but rather listen to the world around me, while also sorting out the various thoughts in my own head. It’s the same when I paint – I switch off.

Another one of your most notable projects “Little Touch of Africa” jewellery collection, which reflects – via the use of natural materials (animal furs and hides, teeth, claws, bones, skulls, feathers, parts of plants, grasses and seeds) – a creative output with an entirely different aesthetic, and also examines the animistic cults evident in traditional cultures. How can such animistic reminiscences hold their own in this world of modern designs, and, chiefly, fashion?
I believe that there are many remnants of that past which have survived in our modern fashion and art. We are always mining the past anyway. Jewellery continues to be made from feathers. We have buttons out of bones; items made from ivory remain popular, never mind the continuing desire for furs. These are exotic items, which will continue to attract people. Unfortunately, such materials have become commodities around the world, and attract people who know no ethical boundaries. But historical materials and traditional African cultures still have much to offer us. Their masks and jewellery are works of great handicraft. They are both rugged and highly distinctive.

An item of jewellery from the “Little Touch of Africa” collection

Art exists both for its own sake, but also as a consumer commodity, be that as an investment, or just for simple “usage”, or consumption. The latter characterisation has numerous connotations, most not particularly positive. So what should those experiencing art as “users” want or expect from this medium so as to not simply engage in an act of consumption?
Certainly originality and distinctiveness. A true piece of art is a one-of-a-kind.

In an interview with the Czech news publication Echo24 (no.39, September 2017) Milan Knížák, the graphic artist, performer and former head of the National Gallery in Prague, stated: “There is too much art, and there are too many artists. Artists are trying to make themselves visible, but they can’t find success because they know in advance that everything is already possible.” Do you think that Milan Knížák is right? Is everything possible in art? And is everything really known in advance?
Some themes have begun, or are beginning to, repeat themselves. And an impression can exist that some ideas have become stale or have been surpassed. But even so, I still believe that such artistic paths continue to lead a little further on in one direction or another. One only has to seek them out, and then the conversation moves to something entirely new. The field that one devotes themselves to is also a crucial factor. For example, in glass you have to follow certain technical guidelines and procedures or you won’t get anywhere. But then conceptual art, or performance art, or spontaneous art happenings, are all entirely different. There, one can genuinely push the boundaries of human possibilities. Furthermore, it is easier to bring attention to oneself via such channels, even though that need not be the main aim. This has already been demonstrated by the likes of Marina Abramović [Serbian performance artist –Ed.], or, more recently, Jacqueline Traide [young British performance artist, who gained notoriety in 2012 after becoming a human “lab rat” –Ed]. Examples of famous glass-related performances include Professor Vladimír Kopecký [86-year-old Czech glass artist –Ed.]. Perhaps one day we will witness someone following on in his footsteps. But back to your question – in art you do know something in advance, but at the same time you can come across a whole range of results.

Permit me to put to you one further Milan Knížák quote from the same interview: “In today’s age, art is losing its exclusivity and is instead becoming a (mere) political poster or unnecessary provocation.” Is that a bad thing? Wasn’t art always supposed to be somewhat political and provocative? What about breaking down social barriers, and the birth of new eras, which are often closely associated with new artistic and aesthetic forms of expression? Innovation and provocation – are these concepts not at the very heart of art?
Art can be used for many ultimate ends. That is one of its strengths. But it can also be misused. It is a double-edged sword. People often hide behind the concept of art. In today’s age, it is difficult to say what can still be, and what cannot be, considered art. Today, anyone can be a self-declared artist, irrespective of having any kind of an education in this field. Sometimes money is sufficient; sometimes it is a person who has gained publicity in another field of endeavour. It is the same as how many people call themselves photographers or graphic artists, just because they own a camera and a personal computer. I am not putting everyone in the same basket, as even people with no formal education can have talent and come up with ingenious and creative ideas. You could interpret it as a challenge for our times; as a call for novelty and innovation. But either way, art still continues to provoke, and that has always been the case. Art is also assisting in the invention of new products, directions and styles. If that wasn’t the case, then art as an idea would have become defunct long ago.

Which examples of bygone visual arts are able to “wow” you? And are these general artistic movements, or styles, or specific artists or works? Or is it rather abstract questions that art itself has been able to solve? Or is it something else entirely?
I was always fascinated by tradecraft and architecture, both of which go hand in hand.  Mainly gothic cathedrals – their height, stability, their stained glass windows, their utilisation of space, gargoyles and other ornamentation. The same goes for features of renaissance buildings, such as cupolas. I continue to be fascinated by how they managed to construct such awe-inspiring buildings, but without the kind of technological know-how that we have at our disposal today.


Interview conducted by Marie Kohoutová; top photo by Tomáš Princ; photo of items on display at the Sui Generis exhibition by Gabriel Urbánek; additional photo from the personal archive of Zuzana Kubelková; translated by Dominik Jůn

30. 11. 2017



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