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Tactile Fleshiness 

 

Interview with Hanna Hansdotter by Paulina Sokolow

 

On Hanna Hansdotter and the Unbearable Weight of Glass


1,100 degrees centigrade is the melting point of a particular mixture of non-organic rock. However, instead of crystalizing, like most other rocks, this material turns soft and pliable. How this magical transformation was first carried out, we can only guess. Perhaps lightning struck somewhere, or a volcanic eruption produced sufficient heat in the vicinity of just the right pot-pourri of minerals. It turned into glass: a beautiful, translucent, hard, and insulating material, which has a great variety of uses, and which everybody fell instantly in love with. After a long progression of different techniques, a few decades before the start of the Common Era, a method was developed that would dominate the craft for several centuries. It involved the masters blowing air from their own lungs through an iron tube, to inflate the glowing molten glass into expanded, hollow spheres. Since then, the variations, colours, and functions used have been innumerable, but the basic technique has remained the same throughout. Human, material, breath, expansion. 

A quick leap of thought, and we’re suddenly in glass country: Småland, about 2,000 years later. Hanna Hansdotter is busy working on her first exhibition for CFHILL. The same ancient procedures and working methods have been used in these old glass-working huts. But this time, the final product is something else: voluptuous vessels resembling organs. Bodies twisting and turning, like captive animals straining for freedom. “Tactile fleshiness,” as she describes it herself. 

Today, Hanna Hansdotter is regarded as one of the most brilliant names in glass since the last great era in the 90s, of which the most famous representatives are perhaps Ulrica Hydman Vallien and Bertil Vallien. Her highly original sculptures incorporate this entire multi-millennial history, but they are also very much in the present, addressing the pressing existential issues of our times.

She ended up here in Småland entirely by chance. In her early 20s, there was nothing in her life to suggest that she would one day become an artist.

I was living in Oslo, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I travelled and partied a lot. Eventually, I began to feel the need to do something practical. Something I could do with my hands. One night, there was a story on the television about a glass academy, and so, I applied to it.

Ten years later, then, she has come full circle, and has returned to where her journey began. She’s a designer now, working for Kosta Boda. But she is also an acclaimed artist, who has won awards and produced a highly celebrated graduation exhibition. Her inspirational, unusual life story is intimately entwined with another story, one about Sweden at the dawn of the industrial age. A wooded landscape in the southeast of Sweden, and a few local policy makers who decided that this area would be a good location for glassblowing at some point during the 18th century. Once again, we are travelling back through time. The fact that the terrain was covered in dense forest meant that the place met the biological requirements.

 
  Goldfish Print, apricot metallic.  2018. Boda Glasbruk. Shape-blown glass, silver foiled. 45 cm x 36 cm. Edition 1+2 AP.

Goldfish Print, apricot metallic. 2018.
Boda Glasbruk. Shape-blown glass, silver foiled. 45 cm x 36 cm. Edition 1+2 AP.

  Goldfish Print, black metallic.  2018 Boda Glasbruk. Shape-blown glass, mirror foiled. 48 cm x 32 cm. Edition 1 + 2 AP

Goldfish Print, black metallic. 2018
Boda Glasbruk. Shape-blown glass, mirror foiled. 48 cm x 32 cm. Edition 1 + 2 AP

  Dripping Print, soft yellow metallic.  2018. Boda Glasbruk. Shape-blown glass, mirror foiled. 50 cm x 37 cm. Edition 1 + 2 AP

Dripping Print, soft yellow metallic. 2018.
Boda Glasbruk. Shape-blown glass, mirror foiled. 50 cm x 37 cm. Edition 1 + 2 AP

 

The intense heat was to be produced by wood stoves, and this would require fuel. Another requirement was skilled professionals, who were firmly determined to achieve something.  In time, countless glassworks would be established here. When this industry reached critical mass, competition kicked in, and suddenly, it was the artists’ turn to take the stage and provide the various glassworks in the area with uniqueness. And thus, the next phase began: a competition to determine who could create the thinnest, most highly decorated, most colourful, and most intricately engraved glass. This competition grew so fierce that word of it reached all the way to the continent. Swedish glass became a concept synonymous with desire and wonder. Kosta, Boda, Skruf, Bergdala, Lindshammar, Nybro, Pukeberg, Åfors, Älghult, Orrefors. Each of them had their own glassworks, their own staff, and their own particular style.

As the years passed, demand eventually grew so strong that factory methods replaced glassblowing, to keep up with the great hunger for Swedish design. It’s something of a paradox that this success would initiate the gradual decline of this proud tradition. Kosta alone remains today. It was also where a lost young woman from Lund ended up after questing for something to do. With her hands. Perhaps something was coming to an end, but for Hanna, it was all just beginning. 

It could just as well have been metal or wood. I never did very well in school, and I didn’t bring much cultural capital along from home. The fact that I ended up working with glass is actually the result of a series of coincidences. My education was highly influenced by the local industry, and my school was just across the road from the glassworks. They trained us to be industrial workers, blowing wine glasses. After this, I worked at the school for a year, and it wasn’t until then that I decided to seek higher education, and try to apply my practical skills to artistic pursuits.

Hanna Hansdotter didn’t have a clue that Konstfack even existed. But that was where she would find some important pieces of the puzzle. Craftsmanship was important, of course, but to get anywhere, she was going to need a few more tools than that. And, not to be forgotten, a unique set of contacts. The first year was basic training, as she learned to make her way around all the different workshops.

In the second year, I got pregnant, and then I was out of school for two years. That could have been the end of it, because I didn’t even really know what I would do, or whether I’d ever go back. I was working at a playschool, and I became single during that time. I ended up going back to Konstfack for another year, and that’s when it happened.

At this point, she began to think of glass as untested ground for aesthetic explorations.  The technique, which she had attained professional-level proficiency with, became an aid and a framework for challenging tradition and breaking with convention. A method for manipulation. The form of the vase became her starting point. 

Even though the vase is something of a trite symbol of glass if you ask me, it’s useful as a collective reference, to draw eyes to the object. What can a vase be, besides a vase? Can we use it symbolically, to have other discussions? The vase has served as a kind of norm for me to challenge and manipulate. I want to achieve tactile fleshiness. I want my glass to be crooked and skewed. As though it were in motion.

Three people are present, participating in the creation: the artist, and two other glassblowers. The form is defined by the hexagonal iron moulds, which are made using equally ancient techniques: welded flat iron and iron piping are arranged into patterns taken from the history of architecture, incorporating both Western decorative patterns and Islamic arabesque. The six sides form a hexagonal shape, which the molten glass will soon swell through. A soft breath into the pipe, and the glass begins to grow. A series of critical moments follows, in which the artist has only a couple of minutes in which to manipulate the form and bring it to life. After this comes cooling, polishing, and then silver fuming of the inside. This work is deliberately planned–choreographed, almost. One slip, a single lost moment can ruin everything, and result in an object that doesn’t have the desired characteristics.

Mould blowing is all about efficiency and repetitive production. Various techniques have been used for mould blowing through the ages, as dictated by the conditions of production–and this means that the technique and the aesthetics have undergone parallel developments. Everything has its time, and everything depends on social structures, progress, the economy, and the stage of industrialisation that it occurs in. Personally, I was raised in a post-industrial society, and I interpret the existing methods based on my own experiences and interests. I like to think of my own technique as an evolution of pressed glass, as a way to make patterns and imprints on glass. I manipulate it. In my most recent works, I’ve continued my explorations of colour and gradients. I’ve also increased the scale of the pieces, to see what will happen when my glass works become more and more like sculptures.

The story continues from here. We stop for a moment, to take in Hanna Hansdotter’s first solo exhibition in the late spring/early summer of 2018 We’ve witnessed yet another unexpected turn, and seen proof once again of how creativity, the past, and the present are locked in a continuous state of interplay in the hands of this astounding new artist.