What is the best way to experience a work of art? According to the Danish glass artist Steffen Dam, when you are all alone, only in the company of your own thoughts and curiosity—on the toilet, for example! Steffen Dam just finished his most comprehensive work to date, Journey to M31, this summer. It transforms one of the small restrooms of Glasmuseet Ebeltoft into a personal cabinet of curiosities and at the same time invites visitors on a fantastic journey into outer space and the universe. On one side of the room lies the land’ of childhood—the artist’s memories of summers on his grandmother’s farm in Vistoft with cotton curtains blowing in the wind and the smell of cows, where there was a place for everything and everything was in its place—illustrated by a map of Mols. On the other side is a map of the universe and the Andromeda Galaxy, also called M31, which in future will swallow the Milky Way to form a new galaxy. Steffen Dam also installed a tool board with sensitive instruments and strange measuring devices, all intended for future use, as well as a large medicine cabinet with rows of samples and specimens, which somehow seem familiar but are not really anything that we have seen before. They are, as Steffen Dam says, “plausible, but not real.” A large airship hovers under the ceiling and when you look into the mirror you see not only yourself but also a small star lost in infinity. The thirty-four individually made cylinders neatly lined up in the medicine cabinet are reminiscent of things like soil samples, ice cores, air samples, and organisms in boiling and bubbling liquids, all collected on travels. The massive jars “stand exactly there where they belong” and represent the “ideal collection.” Dam created the meticulously executed cylinders in a process that included working and shaping the hot glass using various tools as well as cold work such as sawing, grinding, and sandblasting. The objects on the tool board include parts of an old electricity meter, a cream syringe from the 1950s, radio tubes, a red cats eye from WWI, the brass tube of a trumpet, a piece of a bassoon, and other found objects. Everything is carefully sounded out, oiled, cleaned, and assembled with remarkable precision and a great understanding of the material. The mode of expression and choice of material were inspired by “steampunk”. Together with the airship under the ceiling and the other selected materials, the board lends the room an aesthetic sensuousness and special ambience that blends the past with the future. The multidimensional mirror takes up Steffen Dam’s orrery boxes. Beyond the exterior layer we see planets and an infinite space of bright stars, which move according to their own system. It’s like a traveling cockpit. The Journey to M31 unites everything that has interested Steffen Dam in recent years and that he researched and developed in his artistic pursuits. This normally inconspicuous place—a small restroom—manifests Dam’s longstanding interest in cabinets of curiosities, his fascination with the aesthetic possibilities of glass, and his enthusiasm for mechanics, tools, and craft skills—to the great pleasure and surprise of museum visitors who close the door and suddenly find themselves surrounded by a wondrous world between the tangible and intangible, the experienced and infinity. Steffen Dam was born on Funen, Denmark, in 1961. As a child he was mesmerized by his grandfather’s natural science reference books with their systematically arranged illustrations of our planet’s flora and fauna. He also loved visiting his great-aunt whose apartment resembled a museum, filled with all sorts of heirlooms from gold-framed landscape paintings to fossils, flint axes, beach detritus, as well as display cases filled with insects and butterflies on pins. Both relatives stimulated in Steffen Dam a love of scientific classification mixed with an immediate fascination for the diversity of life, which in many ways came to be the basis for his later works with glass. His father’s well-assorted and orderly collection of tools, which took up a whole wall at home. also fascinated the young Steffen. His father was good with his hands, repaired his tools himself, built new handles, ground cast iron, and much more. Here Steffen learned to value craft skills and fine tools; and he learned to make things himself, paired with an excellent understanding of the most diverse materials. In 1982 Steffen Dam finished his training as a toolmaker, which he says is a “zero-defect subject” that demands extreme care and precision. The discrepancy between the tools he constructed flawlessly with minute attention to detail and the industrial process for which his tools were intended and which left no room for aesthetics made him give up the profession after a few years. This aesthetic dimension, which he had sorely missed, he initially sought in ceramics but later encountered in glass. In the mid-1980s he furnished his first studio in Aarhus and soon began to fuse and blow glass. In 1990 he founded a glass studio together with Micha Karlslund in Aarhus. Ten years later the two artists moved to their current home in a former 1930s village school in the small village of Handrup near Ebeltoft on Djursland. The artist couple uses the old schoolroom as their joint studio and at the other end of the house they have a cold-glass workshop with a diamond saw and grinding equipment. An adjacent building accommodates the warm-glass workshop with its glass furnaces as well as an art gallery. The large garden surrounding their house provides lots of room to grow vegetables, not to mention a large compost heap—for Steffen Dam an ideal place to find inspiration.
Pia Strandbygaard Bittner,
Master of Arts in Art History and Film Studies, Head of Communication at Glasmuseet Ebeltoft
Edited by Uta M. Klotz
Translated from German by Claudia Lupri