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Mette comes from an island of glass artists, but her unique application of the traditional craft marries itself with contemporary photography. Her unique hand forged lenses bubble and ripple and offer alternate perspectives on life.

Words by Andy Summons

Photography by Mette Colberg

Mette’s take on glass, and a long-held interest in photography, led her to create her own lens filters. She uses traditional glass-blowing techniques, as well as casting, cutting and polishing the filters so it completely changes the perspective of the viewer until strange worlds form.

“I trained as a glass blower and completed a bachelor degree in design and a Master of Fine Arts. Throughout my education I’ve been working with glass as my primary material. And I’m very interested in the transparency of glass and how I can alter and change what you see through it. So instead of having a traditional arts and crafts perspective of glass where you make objects that you look at, I flip the perspective around and make objects that you look through, so the art is developed through the material. I make handmade lenses and filters, and through these I create abstract imagery and alternative realities – something that challenges your perception of what you’re seeing.”

Mette Colberg

“I flip the perspective around and make objects that you look through, so the art is developed through the material.”

Mette grew up on a small island off the coast of Denmark. Bornholm has a rich history of arts and crafts and is particularly famous for glass blowing.

“It has a lot of small glass studios so I was introduced to it early on in my childhood. I think I was seven when I decided to be a glass-blower and eighteen when I began pursuing it. In the beginning, it was a technical interest for me. Glass is a difficult and challenging material and I really wanted to master it. But through my years of practice, I found a deeper passion for the material itself, especially the transparent quality of glass. Around that time, I did my masters and I had all these thoughts about transparency – that it’s not only a material quality but it’s also in our language, it’s also an immaterial quality. It’s more than one thing and it has this interesting duality that I couldn’t stop thinking about. The fact that you can look at glass and look through it at the same time is mind bending and super interesting to me. So I realised that’s what I was really interested in. And I came to my current practice through photography. I’ve always used photography to document my experiments and everything I do in my art practice. At one point I was photographing small glass shards on a light table and in that process I had this epiphany – I’m taking pictures of glass through glass.  And that kicked off the whole adventure with these filters and lenses. It got me thinking about glass in a different way and I began to understand the huge impact glass has had on modern society and the way we live – the fact that you and I can sit here and talk via a computer screen and fibre optics. It opened my mind to a new world and gave me a different perspective on glass.”

Mette ColbergMette Colberg

Most Bornholm artists produce more traditional products like tableware and very few are making sculptural work. And even then it’s tethered to home decor or tableware – a vase, a jug, candelabra. There is obvious expertise and skill in these practices, but it didn’t excite Mette. She was looking for something more.

“I felt there had to be something else to it. Like, is this it? Am I just going to be making stuff forever? So I was searching for something more I could do with the material. When I went to university for my masters, the professor went on maternity leave and the substitute professor didn’t really have anything to do with the material glass – he had a PhD in Creative & Critical Writing. But I found that he understood what I’d been trying to articulate with earlier professors – the duality of transparency, and transparency as more of a philosophical term. Until I spoke with him, it felt like the other professors didn’t really understand what I was talking about.

In that professor, Mette found someone who could see her vision and encourage her to push the idea further. She developed the concept to the point where it became the driver for her creative practice, and she wants others to push the boundaries of what’s possible with glass too.

“I wanted people to understand how amazing glass is as an artistic material as well as the impact it’s had on our society. It doesn’t have to be wine glasses and bowls, it can be so much more. And as glass artists, I believe we should try to embrace that and expand our knowledge, and develop the area in which we work. I want other artists to understand that glass as a medium is bigger than tableware, and you can go in other directions. I’ve met a lot of people, some who work with glass themselves, who are really impressed with the direction I’ve taken with glass and said it was eye opening for them.” 

Mette Colberg
Mette Colberg

“The fact that you can look at glass and look through it at the same time is mind bending and super interesting to me.”

One challenge with blazing a new path in art is others trying to contextualise your work. Partly because of glass blowing’s long tradition and, perhaps, partly due to a lack of due diligence, Mette has found herself on the outer when being approached by curators and applying to exhibitions.

“When I’ve applied for an exhibition, I’ve been told my work isn’t glass because some of my work ends up as photography. They say ‘yeah well that’s not glass’ and I’m trying to explain that it doesn’t matter if the final product isn’t glass, because the whole process is glass. So this photograph is 100% glass because it’s shot through glass and it wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the material glass. I think it’s an interesting discussion and I’m willing to have it because it is necessary to help develop my creative field and my work with glass. It doesn’t bring me down, although sometimes it is frustrating. I guess that just comes with exploring new territory. But most of the time people are really encouraging, both from the arts and crafts world but also from the photography world. People are very interested in what I’m doing and that is very encouraging.”

Mette Colberg

For the few that don’t yet understand it, there are many more people who do understand Mette’s practice and she was recently commissioned to work on a project for a festival in Denmark. It was an unusual brief that asked her to re-think her beloved medium to protect drunks.

“I was asked to do a project for a festival in Denmark and they said, ‘but you can’t use glass because drunk people and glass don’t mix well’. And I thought, but that’s what I do? I had to find a way to translate this project into something that wouldn’t be a hazard for drunk people, so I used sugar instead. I made a series of lens filters out of sugar so people can use them to take psychedelic pictures and then eat the lens afterwards. That was in 2014 and I would call it a beta version. Now I’ve teamed up with a Chef who’s famous for his experiential dinner events. We’re trying to see if we can develop it into a commercial project, so currently we are looking for partners to see if we can take it a step further from being a small art project.”  

Mette ColbergMette ColbergMette Colberg

When developing ideas for different lens filters, Mette explores how perception may be altered by different glass blowing techniques and finishes – like blowing glass, dragging it into cold water until it cracks then heating it again so the cracks fuse back together.

“Well first of all, it’s a basic interest in seeing how the distortion of transparent glass can change what I see. And I use traditional skills that I learned through my education within glass. I am using different techniques from glass blowing. Everything from casting and cutting techniques to grinding and polishing techniques. So I don’t have a set form and I don’t really know what it’s going to look like when I look through the glass, so it’s just pure exploration. But because I’ve been working with glass for a while now, I know something about refraction and how the light will bounce off glass and how it will change the direction of light and sight. It’s a process of me saying, ‘okay what would happen if…’ and then spending a hell of a lot of time making it. And then sometimes – almost every time actually – it’s not what I thought would happen but it’s often way cooler. It’s very rare that I get something and think, ‘okay this is really boring’.” 

The next aspect of the project is working out what subject will best work to show the unique qualities of the lens filter. Sometimes it’s abstract portraits of people – of bodies – or a still life. It’s another layer to her process of experimentation and another reason she’s so enamoured with her practice.

“There’s always something interesting happening. Some filters work well on an object in a certain way and then I have to decide how much information there should be in the subject that I’m photographing. Sometimes I take pictures of bodies, especially nude female bodies, and some lenses work perfectly for that and some don’t.”

Mette Colberg

“I’m on a discovery through the lens, so I’m like an explorer and the camera is what I’m exploring through. I’m not trained professionally in photography and this gives me a different approach to it. There is a great freedom in not knowing how to do it right.”

Mette ColbergMette Colberg

Photography has always been an important part of Mette’s creative practice. At first it was a means to document her work and then the epiphany changed everything – her relationship with photography as well as her own practice.

“It’s always had a big role in documenting my work and experiments. Sometimes I’ll see things through the camera lens that I don’t see when I’m looking straight at the object. So I always had a big library of things that I’ve made and photographed. Besides the material glass, my camera is the most important thing in my practice because it’s the method and technique through which I can capture what is happening through the glass lens. It’s almost like my camera is a looking glass. I’m on a discovery through the lens, so I’m like an explorer and the camera is what I’m exploring through. I’m not trained professionally in photography and this gives me a different approach to it. There is a great freedom in not knowing how to do it right. Whereas within glass I am quite skilled and have a solid education, and this can sometimes becomes an obstacle for me and make me feel less free.”

Mette went through a phase of taking her camera and lens filters with her everywhere just in case she might see something that could work with one of the filters. But before long, she realised she preferred to work in solitude. She found her lens filters were great conversation starters but she wanted to concentrate on her work, not talk about it.

“My practice doesn’t work best out in public – I don’t really like to take pictures out in the open. The lens filters are a great conversation piece, but I work best when I’m on my own in my studio where I can focus. If I find an image or object outside that I want to photograph, I’ll get my camera and my lenses and go there. It’s more a process of researching and then setting up. Mostly I do photography in my studio where I can make a set.”

Mette Colberg

As Mette further explores perception and the idea of transparency, she’s discovered parallels with the layers we have as people. Ideas like gender, religion, nationality – all these layers that contribute and combine to create our unique experience of the world around us.

“My work has also drawn me to explore the filters and layers of humans. We are all built up by layers from our upbringing and life which is formed by our gender, religion, where we grew up – everything. This creates the unique filter through which we see the world – our personal perspective. That constructed perspective is something I’m exploring and I hope that the physically changed perspective in my work can be a reminder of the importance of understanding other people’s perspective. To understand that you have your own personal perspective and it may differ to someone else’s view and perspective. It’s about trying to see things from multiple perspectives and viewpoints, and creating an understanding for your fellow human beings and their situation. Things are not always what they seem, so be aware of that. There is always more than one perspective.”

As Mette continues her exploration of perspective and wrestles with the philosophy of transparency and our relationship with glass, she is also working on a commission for a public project in Sweden. It’s her first public commission and on a scale she’s never attempted before. She is using photographs taken through her lens filters and printing them on glass so they’re semi-transparent and can be viewed from multiple perspectives.

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Mette Colberg