Steffen Dam – Captured in Glass – Fact or Fiction? An exhibition at Browse & Darby, London, UK.

By Pia Strandbygaard Bitner. MA Art History. Glasmuseet Ebeltoft. 2011.

The panels, blocks and cylinders inspired by natural science and created by Danish artist Steffen Dam have provided him with a significant position in the Danish as well as the international art glass scene. In the exhibition ”Captured in Glass – Fact or Fiction?” presented by Joanna Bird at Browse & Darby, London, he adds another layer to his personal map of the world with a series of brand new works in cast and blown glass.

Steffen Dam (born 1961) is a person full of contrasts. On one hand he is rational and analysing, a technical genius and a perfectionist to the fingertips. On the other hand, he is inquisitive and sensitive to the poetry of life and the casual beauty which may be unearthed in the compost heap, butterflies in the garden, old books, technical drawings, maps, legends and the unplanned behaviour of glass. It is exactly this ambiguity of rational and irrational, precise and random, logic and poetry which constitutes the essence of his work with glass. Mr Dam’s works of art, are at the same time easily interpreted and impossible to decode.

When he was a boy, Steffen Dam gained knowledge of the world not only through education but also through other means. He studied his grandfather’s collection of natural science reference books with their systematically arranged illustrations of the species of animals and plants on Earth. He also enjoyed visiting his father’s aunt, in whose dusty flat fossils, flint axes, cabinets of butterflies and insects on needles were to be found. When Steffen Dam visited these two relatives, he discovered a stimulating combination of scientific order and the diversity of the world, which had an immediate fascination for him.

Later, as a trained tool-maker, Steffen Dam went on to work with technical calculations and the construction of machines for the industrial manufacture of plastic components. The conflict between the manufacture of specialist precision machines for mass production and Steffen Dam’s dislike for the strictly commercial approach which he found devoid of beauty and humour made him leave the industrial sector and begin working with glass.

Discipline and Experimentation

Childhood visits to his relatives kindled an interest in science which, combined with the years as a tool-maker have profoundly influenced Steffen Dam’s work.

The work involved in creating the elements for each work of art is planned to the smallest detail, but with room for an element of randomness, which is so important to Steffen Dam. He always works ‘with’ the glass in an attempt to lure out its inherent character, but the processing of it is very assured as he pulls, pinches, burns, drills, cuts and polishes the glass until it has exactly the desired shape, colour and size.

Initially, the two-dimensional panels, incorporating meticulous collections of fine, cell-like preparations, flower species and fossils resemble pages in a scientific reference book as a starting point. Steffen Dam has developed a more sculptural expression, first through specimen blocks melted together, followed by free-standing moulded cylinders containing lifelike jellyfish, air bubbles and thread-like tentacles caught as if in free movement, floating towards the surface of the water. A recurring feature is Mr. Dam’s precise locating of the individual objects in meticulously measured fields or blocks, which prevents any distraction from the essence: what is inside.

In creating the cylinders, Steffen Dam utilises the inherent qualities of the glass: the transparency of it creates the illusion that the solid cylinder is a container filled with liquid, and the optical qualities of the glass and the curvature of the cylinder enlarge the object visually. Finally, the translucent character of the glass object in the cylinder imitates the gel-like texture of the jellyfish.

Monitoring the World

Most recently , inspired by some issues of the American DIY magazine ”Popular Mechanics”, from the 50’s, Steffen Dam has developed a series of two-piece cylinders consisting of a solid cast piece in clear glass with a hollow blown tube melted on the top. The apparently half filled cylinder contains an organic object fixed in the clear glass as if immersed in liquid. A homemade measuring instrument constructed from a manometer, a video cassette recorder, the lenses of a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses and an optical lens has been attached to the object. The mechanical arrangements in Steffen Dam’s works are constructed and put together meticulously as if they were instruments for use, but they have no function. The same applies to the floating jellyfish which are lifelike and realistic, but entirely fictitious.

This installation is both absurd and deeply fascinating: a fictitious measuring instrument measures the pressure in a fictitious object – and still we attempt to determine the identity of the object we see through the glass, what the instrument is measuring, and how. The cylinder draws attention to the never-ending need for humans to categorise the world, and at the same time, it states the impossibility of this project, as what is measurable is only a tiny part of the truth about the world, the complexity of which we will never fully grasp.

Steffen Dam is a Renaissance figure, an inventor, an alchemist, an artisan and an artist, and he brings together the rarities of life in his personal ‘’ Wunderkammer’’ while at the same time he dissects reality in order to discover ‘what is inside’ and invents curious technical devices. He captures the diversity of the world in his works and uses his precise frame of reference to focus the observer’s attention on to these intangible objects.
It seems that Steffen Dam’s fate in glass is to display the intangible wonder of the world to us – to ‘prepare the world to be watched’. What we see is up to us.