Elizabeth Kelly: Macrocosmia

Elizabeth Kelly’s name in glass is synonymous with the tags of ‘architecture’ and ‘geometry’. For the past decade Kelly has investigated organic microscopic structures including viruses and cellular life forms. ‘Macrocosmia’ is a solo exhibition that features three larger than life sculptures that refer to microcosmic architecture. For each, the artist has incorporated an internal frame crafted by a 3D printer, this is necessary because of the heft of the glass; each piece weighs in at about 100kg. But, there is more than technology in aid of these new creations, she has also benefitted from collaboration with Dr Ralph Sutherland, a theoretical astrophysicist from the Australian National University, Canberra and architect Paul Barnett. On the development of her practice, she shared ‘It feels like there was a great deal of research in the first 15 years which has then manifest in the last 15 years with what I’d say is a much more mature body of work in terms of sculptural intent.’

Elizabeth Kelly, Oceania Sphere square (detail), 2018, pressed glass, PET plastic mantle, silicone, ceramic grout, steel frame, 185 x 75 x 75cm. Courtesy the artist and Craft ACT, Australian Capital Territory

Is there a hierarchy for you between form and material? Do you consider yourself a glass artist or sculptor?
First and foremost I am an artist. I term myself a ‘glass-maker’ and primarily I’m an artist whose concerns are about sculpture. Because my work is research driven, I learnt the craft first of all and then went into art practice.

Why is it so satisfying to play with scale?
It is an intellectual hurdle. That’s how I’ve worked for the last 20 years, to flip the scale. When I flip the scale I can think about it in an immersive sense, temporarily in that scale. And then to flip it to another one, you’re re-jigging the way you think about pretty much everything. It’s very playful and it is something I think is necessary because as a sculptor we are looking at the world in terms of three-dimensional form at all scales.

Is colour important?
Mostly I use transparent material, sometimes opaque glass, which means the tramission of light is pre-eminent as a material. When I’m putting together a ‘colour essay’ like in ‘Macrocosmia’ I refer very heavily to how colours go together in a natural format. Normally I work with form first and then put colour to it, but colour essays are quite involved in terms of how they come together and they’ve got to look right. I make those decisions of colour much like a painter. I’m very drawn to the tertiary range of colours, most of the works I make lean towards that or at least they aren’t exactly primary.

You buy industrial waste to recycle, why is this?
There are a few reasons why I deal with recycled glass. Firstly the power consumption associated with doing anything with glass is absolutely enormous, if I can recycle I’ll do so as much as possible. When I make glass it’s more expedient in the melting process. Melting the recycled glass means I’m not converting raw chemicals to glass. If you make it from scratch for example, 30% of that batch weight is lost because it goes up the flume stack. The more recycled glass I can use the better my emissions are going to be.

Elizabeth Kelly, Dusky Sphere, 2018, pressed glass, PET plastic mantle, silicone, ceramic grout, steel frame, 185 x 75 x 75cm. Photograph: Steve Keough. Courtesy the artist and Craft ACT, Australian Capital Territory

There must be a lot of planning that goes into the production before you’re even at the making stage…
Yes. I do it because I can’t get anybody else to do it. Because I’ve specialised in this for so long, it just means I have total control over all of it. The outcome is fairly unique and I’m doing direct casting, direct colours… It’s different from blowing glass, and I love it, I really do. It’s a great feeling of satisfaction, being able to have that control.

And what do you take from your relationships with Sutherland and Barnett?
The best thing is that they cut me the slack being the artist on the project, which means that they have to have a trust where they’ll let go and say ‘OK this is your jurisdiction’. They’ll give me a basic concept and if I can come up with a brief with that concept in mind then they trust me enough to say ‘Run with it’.

What have you learnt from this body of work that you’ll carry forward?
It was really interesting engaging in contemporary technologies, the armatures being 3-D printed for example. I’ve been wanting to scale up and work on an architectural level with glass elements for a long time, and this provides another way of looking at how that structurally can work. Glass is a fickle material and you need to build it up in elements.

Craft ACT
Until 25 August, 2018
Australian Capital Territory