New York sculptor Elizabeth Jaeger on the art of making glass sculptures that look like rotting fish and her fascination with mourning rituals.
Elizabeth Jaeger is best known for her ceramic sculptures, depicting everything from life-size greyhounds to zucchinis. Her delicate work is often presented in assemblages and has been shown at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Moma PS1. On the eve of her exhibition Brine at Klemm’s gallery, we talk to her about medium, making and mourning.
This is your first solo exhibition in Berlin, what will you be showing?
I’ve made a series of glass fish using a second century BC Roman process of blowing into a cast that I had read about in an academic article. There are only 11 of these fish that I know of: in the British Museum, the Metropolitan in New York and in private collections. I interviewed the head of the Roman section at the MET, but he couldn’t tell me more about this ancient technique, and I couldn’t find the original writer of the article. Then I interviewed all these glass blowers who were like “that will never work, ceramic will explode” but I ended up doing it anyway and finding a glass blower who’d work with me for the larger fish. We developed this technique with charcoal and thick ceramic and sometimes with plaster to secure it.
What were the original fish used for?
To hold a special type of fish oil and as I understand it, artisans used to steal each other’s designs by making impressions of one another’s moulds. This fascinates me and explains why the fish got smaller and smaller. There is also a theory that they were lachrymatories, bottles used to catch tears when someone was in mourning, and when the tears had dried up inside the bottle, it would be time for the person to move on. That really intrigued me, the idea of ritual and fictionalised ritual.
So your “brine” is the salty water of tears?
Yes, and also, if you google brine you mostly get turkey basting recipes. So there is this idea of process, and I was also thinking about fish drying all over the world; taking something and hanging it, and it becoming this leathery salted fish. I wanted my glass sculptures to look like rotting fish, as if they’ve been out too long and got that milky layer. That took a really long time to develop. We were using opalescent glass, which is really tricky because the final look depends on how fast you heat it up and cool it down.
Is ritual a common theme in your work?
It plays into it, yes. When a friend died of an overdose a few years ago, it was really strange to think about this person being reduced to a body. I had this sculpture, “Richard”, a naked man with a large penis. I took Richard and my friend Tony on a road trip around America. We’d get Richard out of the car and photograph him across the country as he deteriorated. It was our deranged, fucked up way of mourning. One time I had Tony throw a rock at Richard, we had this sort of detachment from this sculpture. But the rock hit him really hard and he fell over and his face broke and we were both really sad. There’s a video of me putting his face back together. It was an unconscious way of understanding something becoming nothing again.
Like the body parts of saints in reliquaries?
Yeah, there’s one that has Jesus’ foreskin… People make pilgrimages to reliquaries. It sounds very instinctual: you’ve had an effigy, made a pilgrimage, a moment of spiritual crisis. The energy people put in reliquaries, you can feel that.
You’re known for working in ceramics. Will you stick to glass?
I don’t know. The most sensible way to blow glass is using plastic and I just really hate plastic. I like the flexibility and the agility of ceramics, but I’ve never studied it specifically. I wouldn’t say I’m a ceramicist – I’m a sculptor. Ceramics is a really great tool, it stays where you put it, you don’t have to cast it. At the moment I have hundreds and hundreds of pieces of ceramic in my studio. I have to figure out what I’m doing with these before I make more… Every artist has the same problem.
Brine Through Jun 8 Klemm’s, Kreuzberg