Journey to M31, A Toilet Transformation by Steffen Dam is a new site-specific permanent installation at Glasmuseet Ebeltoft, a contemporary glass museum in Denmark. Dam is a Danish artist who's been working with glass for over 30 years. Originally trained as a toolmaker, Dam merges casting and grinding techniques from other mediums, and has pioneered a unique body of work that frequently references aquatic specimens. The installation, his most comprehensive work to date, was made possible through a donation from The New Carlsberg Foundation. It occupies the former restroom on the first floor of the museum and the artist, who is represented in the U.S. by New York's Heller Gallery, suggests it be considered as a sort of 'Cabinet of Curiosities.'
The walls are thematic. One relates to childhood, largely based on Dam's own personal memories. Another wall presents a more metaphysical theme, made up of a map of the universe and Andromeda Galaxy (also known as M31, which gives the installation its title). The room also houses a mounted tool board and a large glass cabinet of specimen jars. Other features include an airship hovering overhead and a mirror that reflects the cosmos.
The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet discussed this new exhibition with the artist via an email exchange.
Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: Can you talk a bit about how you incorporate the beauty of nature, and references to nature and organics, into your works?
Steffen Dam: I’m not really interested in beauty - I’m interested in the cabinet of curiosities, or rather to be puzzled - and to puzzle the viewer of my work. The installation “The Journey to M31” doesn’t ask anything - it is supposed to be a surprise to the person, who enters the little restroom in the furthest corner of the glass museum. It offers to consider how it would be if we traveled to the Andromeda galaxy (M31)… A situation parallel to earlier days, when people exposed to objects in the cabinet of curiosities, thought: what is this? Science doesn’t give me an answer; the bible doesn’t give me any answers. I’m alone with my own imagination - my favorite situation. Museum wise: this is a quite unusual situation - you lock the door. No guard looking over your shoulder. You’re free to ignore or indulge in what you see.
Glass: How do you balance your technical skill from years of being a toolmaker with what seems to be a sincere openness to chance and experimentation?
Dam: I left tool-making- the super accurate craft - because of the lack of possibility to explore sudden ideas and accidents. Execution is still crucial - there has to be a certain degree of order. If there is a mess you can’t communicate without words, and since I want to convey a specific starting point for the viewer’s experience, vertical is vertical - joints are trustworthy and so on. It’s straight forward tool-making. But what is pickled in jars or incased in blocks can be as messy as it takes to make me (and you) think that this is a plausible object.
Glass: Can you discuss the role of repetition in your process?
Dam: Repetition… To be honest it is the result of demand. But I discovered that repetition also refines details. Things that seem technically impossible over the years turned out to be a piece of cake. Last year I succeeded in melting together two pieces of glass almost invisibly. This is a detail in many of my objects that is important for future developments that has failed for 10 years. It’s a long and boring story about how to polish and clean glass with the help of a microscope. I consider my process to be non violent – I’m playing along with what’s willing to happen. Repetition is also the time it takes to discover the potential in small variations of the process.
Glass: How did you first conceive of Journey to M31?
Dam: The idea of the rest-room transformation came from the museum director: “what can we do to surprise and entertain the guests? He said. At first I thought it was a peculiar idea, but soon I saw that two-and-a-half square meter room is ideal !
The elements in the room are things that I long wanted to do, or things that I have done before. The fact that our galaxy - the milky way - is presently on the way to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is new and sad news to me. It will happen in some million years, and yet it bothers me - could we meet in a more peaceful way? This could be a title for your article ? Smily.
The transformation consists of a giant airship - where only a ¼ is coming through the wall. A selection of intergalactic tools with no obvious function in the shape and mindset we presently have. A combined mirror-planetarium-cockpit-infinity-box that allows you to glance into space. A map of where we are coming from - my personal starting point is in the only indentified village on the map – more specifically in my grandmothers guestroom. I’m seven years old. I’ve just woken up. It’s summer. The smell of coffee and flowers and the song of birds. And soon I’m going to help my uncle feed the cows. The best point in time ever. I’m sure that everybody has a similar “starting point”. And finally a map of where we are going to - M31.
Glass: Can you discuss the significance of the unknown in your work?
Dam: The unknown… Is generally much more interesting than what we believe to know.
Glass: Your works project a sensitivity to both human life and cosmic existence, an intermingling of microcosm and macrocosm. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to make works with this expanse of subject matter?
Dam: Human life… I’ve taken my chances with the sentence: My work describes the world as I see it… too puffed up I see now.
Micro/macro… The idea that there could be a difference is from my rural perspective a misunderstanding - probably made in the scientific or the verbal world. I’m from the physical world. I have great difficulties typing and I don’t have a phone. I grow as much of the family’s food as I can, and my body is adjusted through many generations to the life that can be lived here.
Having said that, there is no fun in being content alone. I’m aware that my fellow man lives all kind of lives –perhaps a better sentence would be something like : I aim to get in touch with as many different people as possible – not to please anybody but to make them puzzled the way I like to be.
Steffen Dam has received several prizes and awards for his work in glass and he is represented in many international collections and museums among others Museum of Art and Design, New York, USA, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK, Corning Museum of Glass, NY, USA, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, Germany, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, and Toyama Glass Art Museum, Japan. Journey to M31 is part of Glasmuseet Ebeltoft’s permanent collection. More information may be found on his website.