“It may take days or years, or it may happen at any time, but if a crack is to find its way, it will.” Stella Rahola Matutes makes this statement about the inevitable fate of a fracture as she climbs the stairs to her studio. She is carrying a glass tube about 75 centimeters long and twenty centimeters in diameter for her next installation. The piece has a crack of another thirty centimeters, and this has emitted a very particular sound during the brief ascent in the metal structure of the building; it has not been the clean ‘cling’ of the glass that is held a few seconds in the air of a glass of champagne. It is a drier, shriller sound, a screech that announces the eventual certainty of the crack’s advance.
A few steps behind her, I wonder if the grocery bag full of glass I am carrying - also broken, defective, failed objects that never fulfilled their intended function - is also engraved with a fatal date, a crack with will power about to complete its purpose in time.
“Relax, they’re fine.” We’ve just passed a pothole in the road leading back to Barcelona, and from the trunk has come a chorus of groans from our broken glass haul. I apologize, thinking that my clumsy driving has caused further unwanted fractures, but Stella assures me that I needn’t worry. I have offered to accompany her to fetch material from a glassblowing workshop in Capellades, about fifty minutes from Barcelona. Throughout her artistic career, Stella has established a collaborative relationship with a number of glassblowing workshops, and in her work methodology the search for material is the beginning of the creative process. Stella periodically visits a few workshops with which she has established an almost symbiotic relationship: she obtains material for her installations - broken pieces during production, accidents, discards, failed attempts or simply the waste that is generated in any artisanal or industrial process - and they get rid of a waste for which, given its low volume of production, there is no recycling plant in Spain.
The phobia of sharp objects is so common that it has even been assigned one of those clinical terms with Greek roots, aicmophobia. In accordance with this innate survival instinct, in the Capellades workshop I try to stay away from work, partly also to stay out of the way, while Stella goes through the haul of glass that Ferran Collado has been accumulating in a container since his last visit. Founded in 1920 in the neighborhood of Sants, Vidres Collado is one of the few remaining artisan glassblowing workshops in Europe, and Ferran is the third generation of a family dedicated to the trade, with a fourth, his eight-year-old son, already practicing rudiments such as stretching and the first blown.
Like any protection, Ferran hands me what look like simple sunglasses with yellow lenses. I have to put them on to look at the flame of a blowtorch with which he heats a large glass tube of about two meters, and reaches a temperature of 1,500 º. The apparent carelessness with which he handles the cooled glass pieces or with which he removes splinters from the surface of a work table can be defined as ease or security, or perhaps it is an intimate knowledge of the limits of the material. It is a mastery that, observed in first person, validates the definition of the craftsman as a link between art and industry, between the creative impulse and creative need.
The kind of glass that works in this workshop is very specific: its technical name is borosilicate, although it is better known by the trade name of some of its variants, such as Pyrex or Duran. Invented in 1887 by the German chemist Otto Schott, the main difference with the common glass that has been manufactured 3,500 years is that the silica (silicon oxide, the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust after oxygen) is added a percentage of boron. This chemical composition makes it a material with greater chemical and thermal resistance; it is more resistant to shocks, adapts to extreme temperatures of between -40° and 300°, and withstands thermal shocks - sudden changes in temperature - of up to 220°.
“For me, fragility is a material,” Stella notes. For years, she has been working with borosilicate as the main raw material for her installations and sculptures. Interested in the relationship of the craftsman - rather than the artist - with the material: “Glass is a very contradictory material,” she says. “In it, heat and cold come together. It is very seductive, but it cuts. It is erratic and amorphous.”
Beyond the chemical characteristics that determine their use, the main difference between crystal and glass is their structure. In crystal they are organized in an orderly and repetitive manner. Glass, on the other hand, is created when materials subjected to high temperatures (mainly sands and rocks with a high concentration of silica) acquire a viscous state and cool so quickly that their molecules do not have time to organize themselves in a disordered and symmetrical structure. In fact, in science it is explained that glass is neither a true solid nor a true liquid, but a hybrid phase that combines qualities of both states. Defined as a “non-classical state of matter” or as a “rigid liquid”, glass is non-equilibrium matter that seems to present a dissociative identity disorder; an amorphous solid whose ultimate destiny “at the infinite limit of time” is to crystallize.
“I work looking for the limit of materials,” Stella explains. Throughout more than a decade of trajectory, she has experimented with different materials. “At the beginning,” she explains, “the processes I used were much more manual, more physical. They had a lot to do with craftsmanship: porcelain, paper, concrete, formwork… Everything I’ve done has always been super-hyper fragile. The pieces would break when I packed them.” The use of borosilicate allows Stella to maintain a link of this first stage, with the confidence of haptic knowledge - of the perception of touch - of the senses. “With this material I can talk about both manual knowledge and scientific knowledge; its different facets and its contradictions.”
“Sometimes, you need the crisis.” The crisis, real or metaphorical, is a constant in Stella’s career. An accelerant, sometimes fortuitous and sometimes sought, that feeds the creative engine and drives its evolution. Stella has been working for some months in Hangar, the former textile factory where her studio is located, preparing La Biblioteca. She has conceived The Library as an opportunity to show the material she works with from different perspectives, as well as her way of cataloguing and indexing it. But a library is also a physical space, a construction, a building or at least a room, and Stella is not only an artist, but also an architect.
While studying architecture at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Stella began to collaborate with different studios, but then a first crisis occurred, exogenous and related to the heteropatriarchal political environment of the world of institutional architecture. In 2003 she decided to interrupt her studies in Barcelona to apply for a scholarship, travel to Switzerland and study with the architect Peter Zumthor, who was then quite unknown. Born in Basel, Zumthor lived in a very small village in the canton of Graubünden, in the far east of Switzerland. Initially trained in craftsmanship - cabinetmaking, like his father - Zumthor is distinguished by a mystical approach to architecture. He taught classes but had no intention of stepping foot in university classrooms, so his workshops took place in a former hospital; more specifically, in the basement (the place that, as anyone who has seen a horror movie knows, is where hospitals have their morgue). “That basement was a republic apart. The first day he told us that he didn’t like blueprints, that architecture wasn’t two-dimensional.” What the students had to make were models, Stella explains: “The model had to be architecture, not just represent architecture on a volumetric scale. They were huge models. The model had to express what it was in the most intrinsic sense, and it had to be made of the materials that made it be. On the other hand, the model had to respond to the introspective, to talk about you”.
Accustomed until then to working on models with cutters and white glue - “In that model workshop they used to melt lead!” - Stella was fascinated by this material approach to architecture. Two years later, she returned to Barcelona, and while she completed her studies in architecture, she also rented a studio where she could carry out material research and continue the Swiss experience. “Without a clear objective,” he clarifies. “Without knowing if it had to do with design or sculpture, but knowing that I needed that physical contact with the material.”
“I work with shit, with scraps, and incomplete ones at that”. The pieces that Stella collects in workshops such as Ferran Collado’s are only possibilities that never came to be, scraps that combine fragility and transparency -the light- to express their functional failure with the threat of the crack, the edge or the tip, with a broken or deformed beauty.
“I started with glass claiming its materiality,” he says. Of course, crystal and glass occur in nature as a product of extreme phenomena involving large temperature changes and the transformation of states of matter: it happens when a volcano spits molten rock, when lightning strikes the sand in the desert or on a beach, or when a meteorite crashes to earth. “In architecture, glass is used when you don’t want to put any material in,” he explains to me. “However, when you started building with glass in the early 20th century, it had huge political and philosophical connotations. Glass was supposed to free us from shadows; it was attributed with a hygienist component, of transparency and honesty. It served to have a relationship with the outside without any kind of barrier, to acclimate an interior space but still have a visual relationship with the outside. But over time glass has come to represent the capitalist architecture of skyscrapers. It has gone from transparency to its antithesis; now it only allows us to see from the inside out. It is the architecture of the control of economic power. It is born within a utopia and becomes part of a perverse culture”.
In 2017, Stella enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts at the Goldsmith School at the University of London. After this experience, she incorporated confrontation and critique into her methodology, to which another crisis also contributed, again exogenous and in this case global: the pandemic and confinement, just when she had just become a mother, which forced her to reformulate work processes and reconcile with design. “Suddenly I had all this precious time, but I couldn’t go to the studio. I had to take care of my baby. My work has always been very materialistic, I need trial-and-error, to relate to the material. That’s how the computer reappeared as a creative and working tool. Before, my work was more visceral, more intuitive. With the computer, working in two dimensions, the process is more articulated, more mental. I have recovered a certain relationship with architecture and the design of artifacts. The design of the structure is, to a large extent, the piece. But that doesn’t mean that the process is rational and logical; I work in an intuitive way and the reflection comes later”.
“Like Penelope: stitching and unpicking.” It is the second day of assembly, and Stella and her four assistants have begun to build the main piece of The Library: a large glass tapestry composed of Stella’s archive, a showcase of the borosilicate pieces with which she works. But a library, to be a library, must be both a material and intellectual construction; a space designed from architecture and whose contents must be ordered, catalogued and indexed according to functional criteria. Stella and her assistants have begun to weave this borosilicate carpet from the ends, arranging and ordering the pieces on Dilalica’s white and ochre terrazzo floor. “All the rugs are made of warp and weft. The warp is what gives it structure. The bangs left at the ends of the carpets show us that structure. The weft, on the other hand, is free. It is what gives it the design”.
The end of The Library closest to the entrance of the space consists of rods, test tubes and other laboratory pieces in allusion to scientific knowledge, and the farthest is formed by the reeds, the glass rods used to work the material during the stretching and blowing, in reference to manual knowledge. The transparency of the glass makes the installation at times and, depending on how the light hits it, looks like a two-dimensional carpet, but the piece gains in volume in the central area as Stella is sewing and unsewing. The stitching and unpicking is, more than a mere step in the assembly of the installation, the final stage of creation. Stella must decide the arrangement of the pieces in morphological families, making and undoing compositions until she finds the exact weft of The Library.
In this new installation, in addition, Stella incorporates photography as a new artistic medium, with two small-format pieces that offer a look at the texture of glass. On the one hand, a projection of eighty slides with photographs of glass pieces of The Library "that have had a shorter life, almost zero and, therefore, let you see how the raw material but also the first steps of work. The third part of the installation are two negatoscopes that show, like an X-ray projector, the structure of two very different pieces that make evident the processes of transformation of the material with which Stella works: a sphere, the most elementary form of glassblowing; and a more complex and worked piece, where the internal tensions of temperature and manipulation are manifested. “My main tool is sculpture,” she clarifies. “And in this type of photographic work there continues to be a lot of handcraft. Photography is also very sensitive work, very chemical. Although you have factors like exposure time, focal length, or aperture, so there continues to be room for trial and error.”
“It’s still alive,” Stella declares. On the second day of assembly, I ask her about the piece she was carrying up the stairs just two months ago. “There it is,” she points out to me. The tube has not yet been assigned a location, so it lies on the margins of the carpet, on a piece of bubble wrap accompanied by other pieces also waiting to be woven. Upon closer inspection, I realize that the crack that announced its fate is actually more complex than I remembered; it is a system of cracks, a conjunction of wills that at some point -I suppose- will synchronize their destinies in a domino effect of fracture.
The Dilalica gallery, the physical space where Stella designs and sets up The Library, is not the typical white cube that acts as a neutral continent, but is conceived to interact with the exhibited works, and record in time their exhibition history. Stella uses this feature of the space as a key element in the installation. Measuring 12.4 meters long by two meters wide -and which at the end of the installation will have a total of 1,713 pieces- the carpet of The Library occupies most of the gallery’s floor. Few visitors will be able to access the interior at the same time, just fifteen, and must do so by leaning against the wall or columns to pass by the glass without stepping on it (and break it), with a deliberate discomfort that conveys the very difficulty of making an assembly of these dimensions.
I ask Stella with some insistence - on the car ride, by email, by WhatsApp - if she has had any moderately serious accidents while handling glass. When we see someone cut - even just imagining it - we experience a reflex response, a physical reaction of empathy in the form of disgust and morbidity, aversion and attraction. Some cognitive psychology studies argue that morbid curiosity is an evolutionary strategy. This apparently unhealthy interest in death, violence or the pain of others has a real informative value about reality. Our curiosity thus responds to an animal instinct for survival: what we can learn from these violent events has a greater psychological impact - it produces longer-lasting and cognitively more elaborate memories - so that it is of great use to us in potential situations of danger.
“Everyone who works with their hands has their experiences,” he tells me finally. His somewhat vague answers and his use of euphemisms reveal a certain modesty. “The truth is that I’ve had a few accidents that have landed me in the hospital. Major burns or problems with the use of toxic materials,” he finally says. I imagine that for an artist, as for a craftsman, the danger associated with his work is not something to boast about like a war wound turned into a medal of valor. It is knowledge. A very intimate apprenticeship that establishes a carnal relationship with the material with which one works. “In the case of glass … many pieces have very fine points, so, depending on how the light hits them, you can confuse them. A few times I’ve pricked myself and got a little piece of glass inside. So I’ve carried that piece of glass in me for weeks.”