Ione Thorkelsson, "Synthia’s Closet," 2015
Ione Thorkelsson, "Synthia’s Closet," 2015, cast glass, blue jay skull, fibre optic cable, PVC tube and LED, installation view
It seems odd that a renowned glass artist would find inspiration in a dollar store. Glass is elegant, beautiful, fragile. Dollar stores, on the other hand, are filled with plastic. But Ione Thorkelsson has always enjoyed poetic licence, and refuses to be typecast. “Besides,” she says, “you can get flashing shoelaces in a dollar store.”
Synthia’s Closet, Thorkelsson’s latest work, is a series of glowing glass spheres that contain bones, feathers and translucent parts mined from dollar-store electronics. When suspended from the ceiling of a darkened gallery, they form an ominous molecular galaxy. The work is a response to the unnerving and ethically ambiguous field of synthetic biology – Synthia was the name given to a recently engineered, self-replicating genome. “Our ancient innate understandings about what is fundamental and unchanging in the natural world may have somehow been irreparably shattered,” she says.
Ione Thorkelsson, "Skulls (detail)," 2006
Ione Thorkelsson, "Skulls (detail)," 2006, cast glass, steel mesh and rebar, 86” x 15” x 7”
Thorkelsson, winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award, essentially a Governor’s General’s Award in craft, has never shied away from big themes. Showing alongside Synthia’s Closet are several works from her 2007 series Ossuary: Bones as Signifiers of Human Absence. For Skulls, Thorkelsson made casts of a model human skull and stacked them, jaw to forehead, inside a wire cage. The piece is transcendent and otherworldly – as a material, glass tends to evince spirituality. At the same time, it describes the very corporeal existence of mass graves. In Matrix, bones are placed on rods of varying lengths, resulting in a shimmering, crystalline wave of femurs and clavicles.
Another series examines the effects of human intervention in the natural world. Corrections #4 contains an incongruous pairing: a cast glass root, in all its branching and fibrous glory, is clamped in stainless steel.
Ione Thorkelsson, "Reassembly 2281" (with wire and zipper), 2011
Ione Thorkelsson, "Reassembly 2281" (with wire and zipper), 2011, cast glass, wire and brass zipper, 7” x 9”
Most of these works have never been shown in Manitoba, partly because their size makes them a difficult fit for the average gallery. “I have never had this volume of work displayed at one time before,” says Thorkelsson. “It is a huge undertaking and a little daunting.” Yet it’s also a return of sorts – Brandon is where, in 1993, she showed her first forays into sculpture.
The power of Thorkelsson’s work lies in its craftsmanship and in her intimate relationship with glass. She continuously pushes and coaxes it into new configurations, fusing hollow globes to knuckles and wings. She says it’s the material itself that drives her conceptual imagination. Her attempts to account for human error and hubris, and even for human cruelty, are fantastical apparitions. Only Thorkelsson can articulate the terrible quandary we find ourselves in – how beautiful the world, and how easily it is broken.