A former tanning salon next to Domino’s has been transformed as part of a new National Glass Centre exhibition which merges the city’s tradition of glass making with four new thought-provoking works.
The shop had been empty for some time, but artist Ryan Gander’s Ghost Shop installation makes a statement on Britain’s empty high street shops whilst showcasing the remarkable talents of glassmakers at National Glass Centre, regarded as some of the most highly-skilled in the country.
For Ryan’s piece, glassmaker James Maskrey was tasked with making a fully glass betting shop, from the To Let sign, a bin and a fire extinguisher to crumpled glass betting slips, chocolate wrappers and a glass cheese plant.
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Even the fixtures and fittings and floor are made from glass, meaning the shop can’t be entered but it’s available to view at all times through the reinforced window for the next five months.
Ryan said: “Betting shops are like those doorways of illicit sin in Soho, it’s like you don’t want to be seen in one. They have strange energies: a real sense of adrenaline mixed with desperation, mixed with joy. Every emotion is heightened.
"You can see that anger in the screwed up slips on the floor.”
Ryan said the installation is distinctly Sunderland.
"National Glass Centre is the only place that could make such a piece and you can’t move it because of what it is, it’s too difficult and fragile, so it can’t go on tour,” he said. “It’s only here you can see it. It’s as unique as you can get,” he explained.
“The skill that went into it is insane and it’s a lived history for the glassmakers.”
Each of the four artists commissioned for Glass Exchange, which has been two years in the making, were asked to respond to Sunderland’s status as a world-leading centre for artistic practice in glass, drawing on Wearside’s strong links with glass-making.
The National Glass Centre, just a stone’s throw from St Peter’s Church, where French glaziers created Britain’s first stained glass in AD674, hosts one of the four pieces.
Visitors to the centre can see Colonial Ghost by Cameroon-born artist Pascale Marthine Tayou, which looks at connections between colonisation and the growth of Christianity in African countries.
For this piece, glassmaker James was tasked with making 160 glass figures, displayed in 32 Christian cross formations, which span the length of the balcony gallery. The figures, which each took three hours to make, are remarkably detailed, from a warrior with a spear to a chef with a tray of food and a photographer with a glass camera.
James said: “Technically, this is the only place in the country where you could make such pieces because we have equipment like a water jet cutter for complicated shapes.
“What’s also been fantastic is working with the alumni from University of Sunderland. This is a real celebration of what the glass and ceramics course does and the quality of the people.”
The remaining two artworks are on display at Durham Cathedral, the first time the two major North East venues have shared an exhibition.
Monster Chetwynd’s installation, The Life of St Bede, has gone on display in the Galilee Chapel, the very place where the famous North East saint is laid to rest.
The four dioramas capture key scenes from the lives of St Bede and St Cuthbert, such as otters greeting St Cuthbert at Lindisfarne and drying him with their fur, complete with tiny glass otter figures, and St Bede entering St Peter’s monastery and being welcomed with open arms by Benedict Biscop.
The pieces, all made at National Glass Centre, are a vibrant and playful take on the Glass Exchange brief and are a literal interpretation of Sunderland’s rich glass-making history.
Meanwhile, the fourth piece in the exhibition, The Moment by Katie Paterson, is on display beneath the Benedict Biscop window in the cathedral and ties in with Venerable Bede’s notions of time. One of the greatest scholars of the Anglo Saxon period, Bede wrote significant texts on cosmology, time and arithmetic, providing instruction in the use of different calendars, the meaning of the Zodiac and the calculation of Christian holy days such as Easter.
Katie’s hand-blown hour-glass installation contains gathered fragments from material such as meteors, some of which pre-date our solar system, which is designed to encourage the viewer to think about the nature of time.
The artist, who is also delivering a series of pieces which will also be exhibited in Edinburgh, and later at National Glass Centre, said: “My projects always start with a core idea, and then rely on others to bring them to life.
"It’s been a joy to work with master glass blower James Maskrey, who has translated my scraps of ideas into beautifully-crafted objects. I’ve never before had the opportunity to work in hot glass, so to be able to with James at this level, in a world-class centre of glass making, has been a privilege.”
:: Glass Exchange is on display now at National Glass Centre, Durham Cathedral and High Street West until Sunday, September 11, 2022. It’s free, although there is a suggested donation of £5 at Durham Cathedral.