Leaving the spring behind.
Now, let’s rent
A boat of rain!
At Spring; Leaving Fushimi
Michael Hengler has more in common with the eighteenth century Japanese artist and poet Ike Taiga (1723 – 1776) than envisioning a boat made of the same material as the medium on which it floats. Both owe a significant debt to foreign cultures experienced through study and broad arcs of travel, though Hengler in this restless era has been able to visit more places.
An undergraduate degree in Italian literature indirectly prepared Hengler for his later study of glass in Murano, Milan, Florence and elsewhere in Italy. In part, language itself opened doors. In the thirteen years he has focused on glass, he’s traveled, worked and taught in places like the Czech Republic and Malta and in various parts of the US before completing a 2012 Masters degree at the University of Hawaii.
The 2013 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America does not shy away from a challenge. Sometimes he even seems to seek the more difficult road. Perhaps the most consistent challenge from his perspective is time itself. He says, “Embedded in my work is this constant attempt to beat time, to optimize my linear time frame from point A to B or from birth to death.” He attributes some of this near-obsession to his consciousness that “[M]y life is definitely going to expire,” gained from repeated brushes with death.
A performance piece, Potential, that he did as part of his master’s degree program was designed to manifest that sense of urgency in a literal way. I took a sailboat-size rope and with a winch strung it across a span of space and set it up as if I was climbing a beanstalk into the infinite sky. I was hoping to capture a sense of struggle without artifice; that it was a sincere struggle. As it turned out, it was probably one of the more painful experiences of struggle because as I climbed across space, the rope created a terrible rope burn across my skin. [Part of the staging was] a series of hourglasses diminishing in size from about 2 feet in height stacked up to 10 feet.”
Hourglasses empty of sand ironically suggest the existential, unending nature of Hengler’s battle. The invisible weight of time conflated with gravity drags him away from his chosen task. The empty hourglasses say that time has run out from the very beginning. Behind Hengler, as he was filmed on his climb by an assistant, a projection of blue sky enhanced the illusion that the climb was upward rather than horizontal. But the distant (and ersatz) sky seems an image of unquantifiable and unattainable hope, ease, and clarity.
Struggle, courage and determination were also features of an earlier 2008 performance work Hengler did at the Eugene (OR) School of Glass. With a team assistants he reproduced in three dimensions the elements of Francisco Goya y Lucientes’ etching Que Valor! (“What courage!”). It is one of the few “Disasters of War” prints that depicts a specific historical event.
In 1808 during the Napoleonic wars the defenders of the Spanish town of Zaragosa retreated from the French invaders in disarray. When Augustina de Aragón, arrived at one battery with provisions, she found the cannon unattended. The soldiers were all dead or in flight. Immediately she took up the fight. Goya depicts her standing on the bodies of casualties as she fires a canon with a match snatched from a still-warm hand. Augustina is credited with having repelled the French and saved the city from Napoleon that day. Of course, a few weeks later Zaragosa fell to the invincible conquerors at great loss of life, but this is not the point to Hengler and others who call Augustina the Spanish Joan of Arc.
Hengler finds inspiration in her perseverance. “It says, ‘You can find a way out. You can find a way to win.’ Que Valor! gleans hope out of despair. I was enamored with the story and wanted to render it in glass.” With his own small army of twelve, he did exactly that in a single fourteen hour siege using hot glass.
Hengler’s work at CGCA has its origins in Hawaii where he made miniature boats of glass chemically identical with lava and in a brush with dangerous temperatures, set them afloat on a river of molten lava. His interest in volcanoes began in Oregon where local volcanoes almost led him to abandon art for geology. “The idea about the lava boat traveling down the river is about that linear expanse of time and what one can optimize in a given time frame. It questions the given reality and presents some surreality where boats made of rock float on molten rivers of lava.” Launching the boats into the molten glass flow “was terribly dangerous” he admits. “Actualizing this idea took me three years, but it happened in spite of everyone telling me not to do it.” The volcanic terrain that he had to cross with his then-fiancee (now wife) who filmed the action is hostile: irregular and covered with sharp jutting shards. “It’s hot. And sulphur dioxide is flowing through the air. It’s crazy.”
At WheatonArts, Hengler unknowingly evoked Ike Taiga’s poem by making glass boats that mimic water in appearance. However, even this idea, partly informed by oceanography classes he took at the University of Oregon, proved to have its own dangers. Hengler wanted to make a functional seven-foot-long glass boat that would float and that he could row. He made a prototype.
Unfortunately, so far he has not been able to find a way around the possibility that thermal shock caused by the temperature differential between sun-heated glass surfaces and water-chilled ones may cause the glass to shatter. This danger kept him from launching the boat. The buoyancy of the vessel with a human passenger was not a certainty, either. Hengler is exploring several options in refining this beginning. Meanwhile, he releases a flotilla of thirty-three small glass boats attached to glass buoys into the sea. He engraved his email address on each one in the hopes of tracking their final landing places. One was found right away by visitors’ service specialist Jane Roop in Cape May State Park. She initially took it home and put it into her swimming pool but later donated it to the township. Local residents are delighted with the boat.
“It’s just like sending out a piece of myself,” Hengler says. “I don’t know if it’s about the boats being found or about romanticizing the idea of where they might end up.” Some will go no further than the Delaware Bay but he hopes, “others will be caught in the Gulf Stream and travel as far as England or, even, the Canary Islands. It’s like disseminating seeds into the world.”
Written by Robin Rice