Artist Profile: My Obsession with British Artist Luke Jerram

In this week’s blog, I explore the history and work of British artist Luke Jerram, recipient of the Museum’s 25th Rakow Commission in 2010. Next week I’ll share extracts from my recent conversation with Jerram where we discuss his career and love of glass.

It’s always gratifying to delve into the Museum’s collection and discover new stories, whether about an artist, an object, a connection, or something else entirely. Things become even more interesting when you find yourself part of that story, even though you didn’t expect it.

That’s how it is with me and this story, and it’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for almost as long as I’ve worked at The Corning Museum of Glass. It was an everyday moment that served as the catalyst, a casual conversation with a colleague about an artist and where they were from, which, as it turned out, was the same place I’m from—the city of Bristol in the southwest of England.

Bristol is known for it’s colorful houses, hilly streets, and the majestic Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the Avon Gorge. (Photo: Shutterstock)

I’ve always thought of Bristol as a small place, but perhaps that’s just because I grew up there. In truth, it isn’t. It’s big and loud and busy. And there’s always lots to do, especially if you like art. A popular activity for tourists and locals alike is to hunt for an original ‘Banksy’—graffiti by an unknown artist synonymous with the city. But when I think of Bristol now, I also think of another artist who has gained worldwide recognition: Luke Jerram.

Jerram is a multi-disciplinary installation artist with an eclectic mixed-media portfolio that includes the use of sound, storytelling, chocolate, performance, lights, sculpture, and many other interesting materials and methodologies. Luckily for us, glass is also a recurring theme. Over the course of his 25+ year career, Jerram has returned to glass time and again.

A few highlights include:

Stock Exchange by Luke Jerram.

Stock Exchange is a series of sculptures from 2012 based on American stock exchange data. Much like Norwood Viviano’s Global Cities, the shape of each sculpture reflects the ups and downs of the market across a period of time and highlights the defining cultural moments that proved instrumental in shaping the piece. Each economic crash is clearly visible and by using glass, Jerram can emphasize the fragility of the system and its effect on society.

Jerram’s Kinetic Chandelier at the Bristol and Bath Science Park, UK.

For the last 10 years, Jerram has been making kinetic chandeliers. These tall, glassy structures are comprised of hundreds of glass radiometers, which shimmer and flicker as they turn in the sunlight making it appear as if the entire chandelier is in motion. Jerram’s kinetic chandeliers are the perfect convergence of art, functionality, and science. A nearby example includes a 17ft chandelier on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, VA.

In 2015, a life-sized sleeping figure shrouded in a glass blanket appeared on the streets of Bristol. Invisible Homeless was made to highlight the growing number of hidden and invisible homeless people around the UK. Jerram was “interested to see whether the sculpture would be ignored and treated like street furniture as homeless people often are in a city.” The ghost-like figure is a vulnerable, fragile form that reminds me of the large cast glass sculptures by Karen Lamonte.

Jerram’s Invisible Homeless appeared on Bristol’s cobbled street beside the River Avon in 2015.

But perhaps the most famous of Jerram’s glass works is Glass Microbiology, a series of flameworked and blown glass sculptures he has made with the assistance of glassblowers Brian Jones and Norman Veitch since 2004. The Corning Museum of Glass acquired two objects from this series when Jerram became the 25th recipient of the Museum’s prestigious Rakow Commission in 2010. On view in the Contemporary Art + Design Galleries, Smallpox Virus and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) are scientifically accurate depictions of the notorious viruses they represent, only they are approximately one million times larger than the real thing. Typically, diseases like this are depicted in pictures as bright and colorful, but Jerram’s research proved the opposite was true and he set about making something more realistic, but just as appealing. As Jerram is colorblind, this proved especially poignant. But while exceedingly beautiful in their simplicity and elegance, the diseases that inspire the series continue to be responsible for the loss of millions of lives, which makes for a unique and contradictory experience when you view them. Jerram revisited the series in 2020 when commissioned to produce a COVID-19 model at the outset of the pandemic.

Smallpox Virus and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), Luke Jerram, Bristol, UK, 2010. 25th Rakow Commission. 2010.2.46. Photo: The Corning Museum of Glass.

But my connection to Jerram goes beyond geography. In 2007, a few years before I immigrated to the US and long before I knew who he was, I was a participant in one of Jerram’s earliest art projects. The Dream Director was an overnight experiment designed to influence the dreams of volunteers by playing unique soundtracks into their ‘pods’ while they slept. Or, as Jerram put it, “to use dreams as a location for making artwork.”

I remember that I was lucky to be included, having only learned of it the day it was due to start. So, unlike the other volunteers, I was unprepared to spend the night sleeping on the floor of a local art gallery. But I was given a toothbrush and a robe and made to feel at home. Before we began, Jerram welcomed everybody with hot chocolates to help us relax and gave an overview of his work and his hopes for the night.

Each volunteer was given an eye mask to wear, and we crawled into our pods. The masks, connected to a computer, detected Rapid Eye Movement (REM)—the phase of sleep where a person’s brain activity, breathing, and heart rate have all increased. This is considered the optimal state for dreaming. With REM detected, sounds were played softly into that person’s pod. It was only the following morning, after trying to recall our dreams, that we were told the type of sounds played to us through the night. Some people heard lush jungle sounds of birds chirping and frogs humming, while others heard watery sounds of waves lapping on stony shores and playful splashing, or something else entirely. Later, Jerram and his team would analyze the data for connections to determine if the music and sounds had indeed influenced our dreams. Overall, it was a lovely experience.

A short documentary of The Dream Director was released to YouTube. Eagle-eyed viewers will briefly see me at 1 minute and 30 seconds as I put on my sleep mask.

The Dream Director is the perfect embodiment of Jerram’s ideology. His projects are out of the box and universal, but there is always a current of scientific reasoning below the surface. I hadn’t forgotten about this experience, but learning more about Jerram’s career in the intervening years lent it a certain gravitas that I was proud of. Whenever I’m in the Contemporary Galleries by myself or giving a tour, I always make sure to look at Glass Microbiology because it can be unexpected connections like mine that make the artwork more relatable.

Unfortunately, Jerram didn’t make it to Corning for the unveiling of his Rakow Commission, and in fact, has never visited despite conversations throughout the years. So, when I finally plucked up the nerve to send him an email, I was delighted to get a response. Speaking with him and sharing my story felt like a full-circle moment for me and he was just as amazed. Come back next week to find out what else we talked about.

*All images are courtesy of Luke Jerram, unless otherwise noted.

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