Shattering Beauty by Simon Berger

The latest exhibition at the Murano’s Glass Museum shows the next stage in the life cycle of this material

For centuries on Murano, glassmakers have been conjuring molten sand into flawless, fragile forms. The latest exhibition at the island’s Glass Museum shows the next stage in the life cycle of this material. For the Swiss artist Simon Berger, breaking glass has become a way of making art. Shattering Beauty – Museo del Vetro, Murano, 28 January – 7 May 2023, Curated by Sandrine Welte and Chiara Squarcina – is a site-specific installation in the temporary exhibition gallery on the ground floor of the museum.  

Simon Berger, Shattering Beauty, Murano 2023. Ph. credit Francesco Allegretto

The show comprises about twenty works, all on display for the first time. Among others, there is a group of ‘cubes’ at the opening, each of which is made from a stack of thin panes of clear window glass with patterns hammered on them, so that when they are placed together, they produce a three-dimensional image of a sphere. In the first sculpture, the sphere is just entering the cube; in the second, it seems to have ‘rolled’ into the middle. The spheres-in-a-cube are accompanied by a separate sphere, weighing 10 kilograms, in solid clear glass. Together, the ensemble ‘sets the ball rolling’ for the rest of the show, explains curator Sandrine Welte.

On the sides of further cubes are ‘portraits in glass’, in which a flat glass pane has been used as a ‘canvas’, on which Berger has hammered out images, including of human faces and a skull. There are also mirrors, whole and fractured, as well as a lion’s face that stretches across a group of glass cubes to produce a three-dimensional effect, and an image of a woman’s face projected onto a wall. Many of the pieces were made in situ, using glass shipped over from a factory in a Swiss village near Berger’s studio, where he once worked, but which he was reluctant to name. The cubes were made in the studio, while the separate sphere was purchased on the internet. To make his creations-from-destruction, Berger employs a single tool: a double-headed hammer with a sharp tip at one end and a flat plane at the other, which he newly prepared for the Murano exhibition by sharpening the point, in order to give maximum control. The technique he uses took eight years to develop. Over that time, he has used and ‘retired’ two previous hammers before the present one.

Simon Berger, Shattering Beauty, 1652. Ph. Savino Cancellara

Born in 1976, Berger began his career in carpentry. At an early stage he also experimented with street art and spray paint. He never had any formal training in the arts, and describes himself as a ‘lifelong autodidact’. There are ‘advantages and disadvantages’ to this approach, he says. But ‘as a person, I feel happier and freer when I can find things out for myself.’ After working for a few years as a joiner, he encountered glass when building wood-framed windows.
The idea of making an artwork by breaking glass is not, of course, wholly original. Artists to have used similar techniques in their works include John Kiley, Cassandria Blackmore and Yorgos Papadopoulos, who declared, ‘Glass is my canvas, hammers are my brushes.’ To Berger, however, this idea came intuitively: in both wood and glass, he was attracted by ‘the power of destruction’. Making portraits in this way is a distinctive feature of his work.
The ‘portraits’ in the present exhibition are of young women of unblemished complexion, with high cheekbones, full lips and a sultry gaze. They are based on images which Berger found on the internet. ‘This is not always Simon’s modus operandi,’ stresses Welte; in other works, he has used photographs that he has taken himself. The inspiration for the motif of the face came many years ago, when he saw a portrait that fascinated him: ‘a face says so much more than words.’ This combination of the age-old art of portraiture with the modern, architectural setting is, he argues, appropriate for a material which is ‘timeless, but also contemporary.’
Once made, the pieces are inevitably fragile. It is uncertain what will happen to them after the exhibition ends, says Berger. As every artist working in the medium knows, glass is ‘always breakable – there is always a risk.’ But that, of course, is also part of its attraction.

Simon Berger, Shattering Beauty, Murano 2023. Ph. credit Francesco Allegretto

The exhibition was brought about with the collaboration of the Foundation of Civic Museums, Venice, and Berengo Studio. Adriano Berengo discovered Berger’s work on the internet and, with Welte’s assistance, contacted and later visited the artist in Switzerland, where he bought two of his artworks. Berengo then proposed that Berger do an exhibition at Venice’s Museo del Vetro, which he helped to arrange and finance. He also asked Welte, who had worked with him on other projects, to curate the exhibition, which she has done jointly with the museum’s director, Chiara Squarcina.
In Welte’s interpretation, Venice embodies several themes which are echoed in Berger’s shattered panes, as in many works in glass: water, mirrors, the shifting of perspectives between the surface and what lies beneath. The installations are arranged so that viewers can walk between them as if through calli, the narrow streets of Venice. This arrangement alludes to one of the etymologies of the city’s name, veni etiam, ‘come again’: viewers are encouraged to ‘come back’ repeatedly to the same works but from different angles. Welte also draws a connection between Berger’s faces and the carnival mask. To enhance this connection, the show has been timed to overlap with the Venice Carnival, which runs from 4-21 February.

Simon Berger, Shattering Beauty, 1652. Ph. Savino Cancellara
Emma Park
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