Few things are as fascinating to watch as skilled glassblowers in the hot workshop, gathering molten glass on their long iron rods, then quickly adding color, shape and texture before it hits. cools in a few minutes. In Soufflé, a competition-reality glassblowing show that first aired on Netflix in 2019, that grace and elegance is also punctuated by a lot of stress: the inevitable shattering form, the countdown. ARTnews recently met Alex Rosenberg, a season one contestant and one of five fan favorites who will be taking part in a Soufflé Holiday miniseries available to stream from November 19. In her work, Rosenberg, who also made an appearance as a guest judge on the show’s second season earlier this year, asks probative and existential questions about the use and value of specialist craftsmanship in contemporary society. In his off-screen artistic practice, some of his witty performances and installations are downright hijackings.
ARTnews: I heard about that performance you did where you were selling handmade drinking glasses on the sidewalk outside big box stores. Hope the rumors are true because it sounds very intriguing.
Alex Rosenberg: Oh, wow, that’s a deep cut! But yes, it definitely happened. I think it was in 2007 or 2008, in Massachusetts, and I believe there was no documentation. At the time, I was excited to learn the craft of glassblowing, but never really managed to make any money from it until very recently. I spent years striving for the pinnacle of crafting or whatever, but that didn’t really translate into what most audiences were interested in. Still, I really liked making clear glass and wanted to get good at it. So I would get these products from Pier 1, Crate & Barrel, or similar stores and then just try to replicate them. Eventually, I started selling them on the street just outside the store they came from. I was inspired in part by Eric Doeringer, who made miniature versions of various paintings outside a gallery in Chelsea and sold them.
But in your case, the counterfeit gesture is backwards, at least when it comes to value. The version sold on the street is home-made and the one inside is mass-produced. Have people bought your parts?
I don’t remember anyone buying anything. And in retrospect, the idea seems like a kind of self-aggrandizement, like I’m implying that the value of my profession is unquantifiable or something.
I read it as quite self-aware, like that kind of existential commentary on craftsmanship under late capitalism. It seems that many people sadly prefer the impersonal experience of the store. I’m curious about another track you did, 2.6 cents an hour (2006), which seems related.
Oh, this is one of my favorites! Rather than thinking about different ways to sell glass, I thought to myself: what if I just made change? I designed a process for making change by launching [a type of glass known as] lead crystal, then I applied a chemical coating which gives the parts a metallic look. The coating is very delicate, so when someone handles the parts, the coating slowly fades away and the true materiality is revealed. The 5-cent coins actually worked in payphones and vending machines, but other coins were too light. I was excited about the prospect of a foreigner getting these coins as they came into circulation. But I was also thinking about how to measure the value of skilled labor.
This theme of counterfeiting keeps coming back. I know that when you learn to blow glass, you start by learning to perfectly reproduce certain shapes, like a globe. With your practice, you seem to approach this process in a more conceptual way, so that the act of replicating takes on new meaning, beyond a technical exercise.
That’s the perfect way to put it. You learn by copying shapes from museums or history books which are considered the pinnacle of craftsmanship. But I started to think, if I copy this, why don’t I copy that?
In Directory (2011-12), you used those glasses and vessels that you made in teaching demonstrations, and then you created an arrangement that when properly lit casts a shadow on the wall that looks perfectly like a lying man with exaggerated erection. It is quite strange.
Part of this job came about because I enjoy learning new skills, techniques and materials. I started to think of shadows as a new medium to explore. I had a hard time showing this work because I couldn’t teach anyone else to install it. I tried working with a studio assistant, thinking if I could teach someone how to put the work together then maybe there would be a way to get people to install it somewhere else. But no one ever could. The piece won an award from a European museum in 2012 [Glazenhuis, Belgium], and part of the deal was that they were supposed to acquire the job. But they told me they couldn’t, since no one could install it. They just wrote me a check instead.
I can see that you need an expert because it’s not only that you created a certain shape, but you also created a very particular light effect by playing with the translucency and the thickness of the different pieces of glass.
After that, I decided to let the work deconstruct itself. I showed it once again in Europe, in this little glass museum in Denmark [the Glasmuseet Ebeltoft]. On the last day, visitors were invited to take a piece home with them, until only a long vertical shadow remained. I generally feel more comfortable pairing these technical exercises with something more subdued, and wanted to poke fun at the machismo that one often encounters in the hot store.
Through several of these projects, you seem to be saying, “Yes, I can create these perfect shapes, but so what? I hope I don’t put it too hard. But these projects look quite different from some of the work you’ve done on Soufflé. It made me curious: is there room for these questions in the world of glass?
I think there is. It’s more that the art on TV is just weird. There are all these incredible constraints – you’re really, really limited in time and material. And it’s a family TV show, so it’s a very different audience. I must say that I found the reviews quite disarming! I am an educator [at Salem Community College], and I often do reviews. I started to realize, Oh, I’m supposed to defend myself, it’s a competition. I generally see reviews as an opportunity to reconcile my intention with the public’s perception. In the show, it’s less about learning and growing, than about defending your choices before the judges. It really disgusted me at first.
But glass is still a performing art in a way. You have to practice all the time to keep going, and there are choreographies involved since you often work with a partner. Everything has to be done quickly before the glass cools down. I make sure to practice a few days a week; it looks a lot like doing scales. And performances are definitely more and more prevalent in my studio these days.
Tell me about one of your more recent works.
I tried to find more ways to work in the public space. From 2018 to 2019, I worked on a project at the Eastern State Penitentiary here in Philadelphia. It is considered the first penitentiary in the world. It’s sort of in ruins and it’s a tourist attraction. Sometimes they have art exhibitions in the cells. But because it’s a National Historic Landmark, there are so many restrictions – you can’t put a nail in the wall or paint anything, so it’s a very strange place to show the work.
I noticed that the wall around it is made of the same kind of stone [Wissahickon Schist] which you would climb if you climbed in the Philadelphia area. And I imagined that the people who were incarcerated there were probably fantasizing about climbing it. I have gone through the archives, where various escapes are recorded in the diaries of the guards. Surprisingly, they let me climb the wall. I was able to do 12 climbs using climbing gear that I made from materials that would have been available to the people in the prison at the time. I asked formerly incarcerated people to teach me craft techniques they learned while in prison, such as how to make a rope out of sheets. I worked with structural engineers and climbed the wall several times over the span of a few weeks. I didn’t use glass for this project – there are some skills and techniques that I continually revisit, but I always want to learn new ones too. Then I set up an installation in one of the cells, where I exhibited the material, drawings and archival documents related to the site in a showcase. Finally, I made an artist’s book recording the techniques and craft methods I learned. It can be used as a real climbing guide for that specific site.