No matter the object in question, the sound of breaking glass evokes mishap and danger, because glass is not meant to be broken, right? The New York-based B-Team is known for its performances that shatter, literally and metaphorically, the notion of glass as a medium to be handled with kid gloves. Described as daredevils, pyromaniacs, and exhibitionists, the team whose current members include founder Zesty Meyers, Evan Snyderman, and Jeff Zimmerman has transformed the typical glassblowing demonstration into a variety of fiery, often heartstopping performances (staged in glassblowing facilities, also known as hot shops).

Glass has a long and venerable history as a material that can be shaped into forms ranging from the utilitarian to the transcendental. It can be poured, molded, blown, ground, or otherwise manipulated into such disparate objects as fine crystal, Mason jars, optical lenses, mirrors, stained-glass windows, safety glass, glass menageries, and figurines, as well as its elemental relatives fiber optics and breast implants. Glass is so prevalent that we tend to take it for granted.

Largely due to the mechanization of glassmaking, which began in 1903, the craftsman was taken out of the equation. Glass has since become no more than a resource for the manufacture of uninspired objects mundanely functional, banally decorative, and endlessly churned out. Yet from the common to the rare, glass objects are fetishized and collected. By nature and necessity, traditional glassblowing is a fairly egoless endeavor. It's a collaborative process in which the creators' identities are subsumed by the communal sweat and effort required to make a single object. Relegated to the realm of craft, glassblowers do not typically attain the level of celebrity enjoyed by artists working in other media such as painting, sculpture, photography, and video (a recent exception is Dale Chihuly, who has successfully traversed the invisible line dividing craft and high art). The B-Team's fresh perspective on glass and glassblowing partially arose, they say, from boredom and from the feeling that people in the glass world were too comfortable, too content to simply make beautiful objects. Team members wanted to recapture the excitement they first experienced in the classroom, where students are still intrigued by this strange material.

The team's brand of playful experimentation is a clever repackaging of this sense of wonder, presented in a distinctly different and dramatic environment. In their performances the artists' concern is not so much with creating a glass object, or even destroying one, as it is with demonstrating the various properties and capabilities of the molten medium. Rather than merely showing how objects are created, they seek to demystify the process, revealing the absolute destructive potential of the fiery liquid while making it seem enticingly touchable. Yet their apparent disregard for the final product should not be misconstrued as disrespect for the tradition of glassblowing, for they are consummate craftsmen. As easily as they 'destroy' one object, they create numerous other exquisitely finished pieces.

The audience is placed in what to most individuals would be an unfamiliar environment, that is, a hot shop as opposed to a theater or traditional performance space. There they witness what sometimes seem to be reckless acts. The team's carefully choreographed antics push the limits of the medium. They have created a rain of molten glass, shot glowing globs of glass at a still-hot target, juggled hot balls of glass, performed a fiery dance on a puddle of hot glass, and dropped hot glass objects into tanks of water, where they instantly cause a raging boil and then hiss and pop like firecrackers.

In Spontaneous Combustion II, the team positioned a number of video monitors around the audience members to allow them to focus on details such as the play of light and the change of color and texture that are usually visible only to glassblowers. For the B-Team, it is just these physical properties of glass that are so beautiful and make glassblowing so enthralling. They describe hot glass as a "totally different creature. It has a mind of its own and an energy that it loses when cold." In this sense, the members of the B-Team are formalists of glass. Like modernist painters who reveled in shape, line, color, and the physical properties of paint, the team indulges in the simple pleasures of glass in its liveliest state, from flaming viscous liquid to soft honeylike blob. To Abstract Expressionist painters, the medium was the message. To the B-Team, the process itself is the art work.

For their first gallery installation, at the Robert Lehman Gallery at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, the B-Team produced objects that pertained to each of the five senses. For example, sight was represented by a display of broken car windshields; smell was presented in a series of vessels, made by the artists, into which were placed substances such as baby oil, perfume, and mothballs, relating to different life stages. This show gave the team an opportunity to present glass in a different context and to consider ways in which it can relate to other art forms. At Grand Arts, the B-Team takes this recontextualization even further. Here they are essentially turning the viewer into an active participant by creating an environment that must be entered to be experienced. The work consists of an approximately 35-foot-long structure sitting in a darkened gallery. Its organic shape and lumpy surface texture set up a theme of esthetic and perceptual dissonance that is gradually revealed as the observer is drawn into the work. A white door set into one end beckons viewers closer; through a peephole they are able first to peer inside, then enter a tunnel-like space that is startling in contrast to the exterior of the piece. Bathed in bright fluorescent light, the tunnel is starkly white. All of its surfaces are a brilliant white: harsh in its sparity, yet soothing in its purity. Within this futuristic interior reminiscent of one of the final scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey the artists have created a perplexing illusion of space that simply doesn't jibe with the physical reality of the gallery environment the viewer just left behind. The tunnel, or hallway, seems to be much longer than the space that contains it, as if it is a portal to an alternate reality that transcends the physical confines of the gallery. As viewers proceed through the space, they appear, like Alice in Wonderland, to be growing ever larger in relation to their environment. A display of fun-house trickery, the false perspective is created by the gradual convergence of the walls, floor, and ceiling, so that the door at the far end of the tunnel is only 4 feet in height.

Proceeding the length of the hall are variously shaped milky white glass vessels whose vivid red interiors, revealed at the top edges, make them seem to pulsate with life. The vessels, too, have been manipulated to appear as if they recede into this illusory space. Adding to the sense of eerie displacement is sound that emanates from each vessel. Made tinny by its interaction with the glass, the sound seems to be originating from far away, creating yet another sensory disconnectedness and a sense of auditory tension, like anticipating the shattering of a wineglass by an operatic songstress hitting a sustained high note. As the viewer progresses through the space, the sound and light intensify; this, together with the physical shrinking of the surrounding space, can result in feelings of confusion and even anxiety. This work by the B-Team, on display at Grand Arts, has affinities to other installations that have sought to disorient the viewer. For example, Lucas Samaras's Mirrored Room series or Yayoi Kusama's Dotted Room installations both used mirrors to create a bodily disorientation and the appearance of endless yet repetitive space. Building on this tradition, the B-Team achieves a similarly magical effect without the use of mirrors. With this installation, the B-Team again takes glass, and the viewer, into a new dimension.

Stephanie Cash
March 1999
New York, NY

Back to top