Breathing at Last: The 2020 Rakow Commission Takes its Place 

After several years in production and numerous COVID-related delays,साँस {Saans} eyes of the skin سانس ({Saans}), the 2020 Rakow Commission by Boston-based Indian artist Anjali Srinivasan, is now on display in the Museum’s Contemporary Art + Design Galleries.

In this detailed image of {Saans}, countless reflections of the viewer can be seen.

“This piece is a six-feet-tall, four-feet-wide wall of mirrored glass that looks like it’s been smashed into tiny pieces,” says Susie J. Silbert, Curator of Postwar and Contemporary Glass at The Corning Museum of Glass. “But, as you look at it, it subtly starts to breathe as if it has noticed your presence. And because it’s made from blown glass that’s been mirrorized and made into a ‘skin,’ it reflects you in thousands of convex mirrors that atomize your reflection, breaking you into a bunch of tiny parts. When you’re standing there, perfectly still, you could feel like you almost disappear, but when you make any small movement, these convex mirrors amplify your movement across the piece’s entire surface.”

“So, for the artist,” Silbert continues, “it’s the idea of what does it take to make change? How big do you have to be to make change? The answer that this piece is trying to give you is that you don’t have to be big at all, that the change itself doesn’t have to be big— it can be whatever you can do—and that your change will become amplified when you work together, when you are part of something bigger. And that’s a really important message.” 

To celebrate the conclusion of this long journey, we caught up with Anjali Srinivasan to find out how it feels to have {Saans} (2022.4.1) installed and on view.

Anjali Srinivasan, featured with her 2013 work, Thinking Cap/Head Container. Image courtesy of the artist.

Q. Anjali, three years in the making, your piece is now on display at the Museum. Can you describe the journey of completing the 2020 Rakow Commission?

A. The Rakow Commission made possible the research and development of a project idea that I first wrote about in 2007. So, it’s been longgggger than three years in the making and that experience feels like a full-blown, three-hour-long Hindi film, with all the twists and turns accompanied with a range of emotions, song, dance, tears, pining, and drama included.

There was the romance phase, where my thoughts were with the piece all the time. The pandemic was an unforeseen roadblock in the story. It slowed down the momentum, not knowing what’s next, not being able to spend time on the work. There were bouts of frustration and resignation from the deafening silence of supply chains and inability to access glassblowing as one was used to. From about mid-2021, I was able to kickstart the project in small baby steps as parts and access became possible, akin to the ways in which a movie pushes through the plot challenges. Shipping the artwork off to the Museum was a sigh of relief, an anti-climactic climax. And seeing it at the Museum marked the ‘feel good’ moment.

So, yes, a full-blown movie script right there. That being said, the journey of this work was not taken solo. There were others like Matt and Farah who walked with me. All of us slowed down and sped up based on what the project called for. And I am very grateful for their company on this journey.

Anjali blowing glass for the mirrored surface of the Rakow Commission. Image courtesy of the artist.

Q. COVID presented some unique problems, how has that challenged you?

A. Well, I was making work about breath during a respiratory pandemic! Apart from the irony of that, one was hard-pressed to gain access to blow glass and to be permitted to use one’s breath freely (without a mask) during lockdown. Eventually, I used CMoG’s innovation of a foot pedal contraption in combination with Amy Lemaire’s 3D-printed mask adapter that made blowing possible.

COVID also led to dire supply chain issues around the world and glass materials, as well as electronics, were hit badly. We spent more than a year waiting for parts to arrive in the studio because manufacturing stalled everywhere. And even if I changed technologies, I ran into the same problem. Parts of the idea responded to the world it was being made in and the object adapted its behaviour to reflect that. So, that waiting game was quite challenging to the artistic spirit that was raring to keep going.

Anjali working in her studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

Q. There is so much on the surface of this piece, but how much is underneath, both physically and symbolically?

A. The breathing behaviour of this piece relies heavily on its surface being fractured, similar to the textures, wrinkles, and lines on our skin. Just as human skin stretches over skeleton, muscle, vein, blood, and organs, there is a fairly elaborate interiority to the artwork. Derived from the structure of both the Sheesh Mahal’s architecture as well as living organisms, {Saans} comprises a symmetrical arched metal grid, within which sensors and slow-moving solenoids operate like organs, pushing sculptural shells that act as muscle through wires that carry current across the piece. To me, this deep connection between the ‘bodily’ and the ‘architectural’ resonates as authentic behaviour in the work. The glass wall is indeed breathing and everything within it enables it to do so.

Q. What does it mean to see your work on display at The Corning Museum of Glass?

A. Heartened. The Museum’s collections, exhibitions, Library, and Studio have, for many years, served as an important resource and I am glad to be a small part of that story now. Works by and concerns of South Asian artists working in glass are often not part of mainstream conversation and I am particularly touched that a piece inspired by the wondrous Sheesh Mahal will reach an audience that it might not otherwise. Art is a powerful way to peer into the multitudes of histories we inhabit, to change habits and power dynamics, to encourage us to experience the world in new ways, to connect dots between unseen intangible things, and my discussions with curator Susie Silbert during the making of the work, and her scholarship, made this experience meaningful.

Q. Can you breathe (pun intended) easier now knowing this work is complete, and what’s next for you?

A. Is it, though? The way I see it, {Saans} is incomplete without human presence. It feels complete—through the act of breathing, the sign of being alive and whole—only in the presence of another. I would like to push this notion even further, maybe a range of emotive breathing across a long spanning wall, potentially with other sensing, transmitting, and respiratory systems inside the artwork. Most immediately, I would like to give this piece the time and space to just be and to learn from its interactions and aging.

साँस {Saans} eyes of the skin سانس is currently on view in the Contemporary Art + Design Galleries. Visit to learn more about this unique artwork and find links to videos of lectures presented by the artist and the 2020 Rakow Commission.

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