Emma Woffenden

Emma Woffenden and Tord Boontje opened their joint exhibition, Anima/Animus, at the Glass Museum, Ebeltoft, Denmark, on 1st October.  An unusual event, it is only the second instance of direct collaboration between these two apparently very different personalities. It is a celebration of their common interests: in use and re-use, in light and shadow, and in sexuality, sensual experience, birth and death, passion and lament.  The inclusion of transglass in the exhibition also makes clear that their concern about economy, the waste of resources and fair returns for the makers continues to engage them as urgently as ever.

Individually, each has a very distinctive artistic persona.  Woffenden trained as a glass maker and only she uses glass independent of their shared Transglass project.  Having begun her career with the material, she remains essentially identified with it. Boontje, the designer, uses overtly decorative ornamentation; Woffenden presents unembellished forms, situating them expressively.  Both employ the conjunction of unlike materials to suggest transformation.

Woffenden makes no concessions to ease.  If there is a cry for help or understanding it is not hers.  Instead it emanates from the predicament within the work itself. Her audience must accommodate the subject and adjust to the pain, unassisted.  Boontje is just as challenging.  In times when minimal modernism is still a safe bet, beauty in art or design can be a dubious concept. He insists that his audience faces up to equally uncompromised prettiness if, on occasions, there lurks some prickliness.

They met in 1992 when Boontje moved to London to do a Masters degree at the Royal College of Art.  Boontje cites ‘meeting Emma’ as the single significant event of that year; Woffenden had begun her degree a year earlier. He graduated in 1994. Glass was not one of his materials until then and, again, she was the catalyst.  They set up the transglass project in 1997.  Initially working from her studio, equipped as it was with kilns and machines for cutting and grinding, the minimally-designed useful wares were made solely from recycled wine and beer bottles. Re-using the glass had the dual purpose of economy both in the use of material and also in saving on moulds and other expenses.  But Boontje himself has also pointed out that they were able to find ‘the real, the raw and the unfinished [and] a recognition of the beauty of abandoned objects’’ ‘The aesthetic and language of form comes from us both, referencing previous work in glass and ceramic…We became connoisseurs of wine bottles choosing our wine and beer by bottle shape and colour rather than vintage…We were very particular [in] choosing French beer bottles for glasses in green, they made thin and even rims, Fosters Ice [provided] the only acceptable white glass but [were] a nightmare to clean… We got sponsorship from Perrier Jouet and launched Transglass which also included mirrors in the shape of maps.  Cutting bottles was not a new phenomena but the reason it attracted so much media interest was because it was a recycled product that achieved an elegance and sophistication not normally associated with recycling.’ The avant-garde designer and RCA teacher Ron Arad is quoted by Boontje as a key influence. During the early 1980s, Arad was responsible for pioneering Creative Salvage artworks made from recycled materials – raw and decidedly inelegant.

In time they attracted the interest of several charities in supporting transglass’ sustainable production methods and also in putting it to work for social causes. Significantly, among these was the American company, Artecnica which was also committed to design quality. The association with Artenica led to the setting up of workshops in Guatemala. By now, 2007 up to 13,000 pieces are made each year and the extended range benefits from local craft practices and teaches new skills. Mirrors are a traditional Guatemalan speciality and transglass takes advantage of this in the design and production of 3-dimensional sculptural works.  Such individual artworks can be labour-intensive and consequently are highly priced; the skilled artisans are paid appropriately.

transglass is an entirely practical project in which Boontje and Woffenden have used simple, straightforward design principles, glass-working skills and an ethical commitment to re-cycling and social fairness. Their joint exhibition at Ebeltoft is of an entirely different order.

The title reminds us of their apparently contradictory artistic natures and it also poses many complex and intriguing scenarios.  Anima and Animus were adopted by Carl Jung to describe key personality features that he identified in his studies of human psychology. Anima, from the Latin for ‘soul’, is relatively straightforward.  We can easily understand the concept of an inner, feminine part of the male personality.  Animus is more double-edged, its definition less precise.  Translatable as ‘mind, spirit, courage’ or ‘anger’, Jung used it for the inner masculine part of the feminine personality.  Alternatively, it also describes a pervading attitude or spirit and its usage extends further to ‘ill will’ and ‘animosity’.  There are associated variations such as ‘animate’ (which suggests breath – and therefore glass-blowing) and animism, the attributing of conscious life or spirit, or soul to nature, natural objects or phenomena.  Boontje and Woffenden are always careful in their use of language and have undoubtedly chosen the exhibition title deliberately and with design. In the show, their names appear individually and jointly beside the grouped works, each group coming together to form an experiential situation, the whole assemblage forming an exhibition-wide installation. The dialogue between Boontje and Woffenden is, in many ways, the theme.

In 1998 Boontje produced a furniture collection which he called Rough-and-Ready in which the chairs were made from simple wood, old blankets and discarded packaging materials, paralleling the Transglass concept.  But the year before, 1997, he began to design products for Alexander McQueen and, with the birth of Boontje and Woffenden’s daughter in 2000, he was further propelled, willingly, into a less sparse design mode.  He said ‘decoration and homeliness’ became interesting and historical sources were important too; he studied 17th century English embroidery and Swedish country textiles.  A recent outcome can be seen in Anima/Animus.  In Figurative, Feminine Furniture two works form the group.  Dress Chair, designed as part of Boontje’s collaboration with McQueen in 2005, and L’Armoire , which recalls the voluptuous curves of André Groult’s chiffonier for his Chambre de Madame at the international exhibition, Paris, in 1925. Both Boontje’s pieces have a powerful female presence not only due to their mimicking of form but as much in their suggestiveness of stereotypical female characteristics, the one passively seated, the other enclosed yet bulging with barely contained secrets.

From the start, Woffenden was marked as exceptional in British glass.  Her conceptual work is about conveying states of mind, a fleeting moment between opposing realities, or about describing the ambiguous.  As in the work for transglass, Woffenden’s sculptural interests are as much about finding beauty and honesty in everyday reality as in exploring more tenuous and more profound truths. Box, Cross,Goodbye; Separation and Broken Beings are all titles which speak of some despair.  Yet she often finds humour and pleasure even in extreme experiences.  Ever prepared to democratise materials, she has used cardboard, rope, metal, fibreglass and found objects with her glass since 1995 employing these in ways which contradict or undermine their perceived characteristics and uses.  Ever the glass artist, she also plays with technique and terminology. Slumped, broken and even ‘steamed’ glass features in several of the installations.

Boontje and Woffenden work in the same space for part of the year in an idyllic forest setting in northern France in a deserted, now converted 1939 building associated with the now vanished silk industry.  It provides essential freedom to try out the large scale, sometimes articulated or motorised sculptures or simply to juxtapose different static elements.  Outside, the forest is all sunlight and shadow, solitude, chaos and tangle. Forests are rich in stories too, such as appear in Snow White and Ice Branch, grouped together as Fairy Tale, or as in Shadow Self.

Tord Boontje comes from the design world of multiple production; Emma Woffenden from the experience of individual expression, the unique response.  Far from retreating into bucolic isolation, they are fully engaged with their very contemporary roles. They find different ways of being themselves but, on this rare occasion, they have collaborated in a working partnership and in doing so they have invented a new and vivid dialogue



: Emma Woffenden and Tord Boontje: individuals in a partnership. Jennifer Opie, Neues Glas/New Glass no.4, 2009