Meng Du: Nostalgia Finds Permanence in Glass

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Gazing at Meng Du’s works transports us to a fairyland.  With rich picturesque details, the artist constructs scenes that only exist in fanciful tales.  A little girl floats on a tea-colored cloud, whispering to a deer.  A vaporous spirit escapes from a cooking pot.  Twelve glass jars, each glowing with a mysterious golden light, to reveal their gems hidden inside.  In her solo show at Fou GalleryMeng Du: The Climb, The Fall, seven groups of glass works build fantasies from the artist’s personal memories.

Meng Du, Echo from the Highland II, Kiln-formed glass, tea, silver, wood, 5" × 5" × 5.5", 2016

Meng Du – ‘Echo from the Highland II’, 2016. Kiln-formed glass, tea, silver, wood, 5 x 5 x 5.5 in.

Meng Du (杜蒙, b.1986) finds beauty and peace in the act of recording what has been, or is about to be, lost.  In her own words, she wants to “show memories in decay, as a way of memorializing them and showing the process of their slow disappearance from our consciousness.”  For the artist, the concern for such dissolution is not groundless.  This Beijing native is a witness to changes that gradually turned what she once treasured into memories.  Hutongs, traditional alleys, are vanishing; famous historical Chinese courtyard houses, known as siheyuan, are being razed or transformed into high-end restaurants and residences.  But Du finds her remedy for nostalgia in glass, a medium that is both fragile and solid.  Using her hands and imagination, images of old objects and precious moments are delicately imprinted and sealed in glass, waiting for lights and our gazes to awaken them.  Michael Rogers, Du’s instructor at Rochester Institute of Technology, refers to her art as an archive of longings: “Rich in poetic metaphor, her works tend to quietly whisper stories of times and places that having once existed are now lost to us.”

Du knew nothing about glassmaking when she was in college.  Majoring in visual communications at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, she had worked with print publications since her sophomore year.  In 2008, Du went to the United States with her classmates after graduation, and a museum experience in San Francisco triggered her inner calling for art making.  This trip totally changed her life path.  Now she is an artist-in-residence as well as an adjunct professor in Rochester Institute of Technology’s glass program, from where she obtained her MFA in 2013.  We interviewed her via email and asked about her transitions, struggles and reflections as a glass artist.

Meng Du: The Climb, The Fall, installation view, photo courtesy of Zhangbolong Liu and Fou Gallery

Meng Du: The Climb, The Fall, installation view, photo courtesy of Zhangbolong Liu and Fou Gallery

Beyond Chinatown (BC): When you decided to apply for glass programs in the U.S., you had no experience in glassmaking and you were at a disadvantage with your language skills. What made you so determined to pursue glassmaking, especially in a country far from home?

Meng Du (MD): Your first question is quite difficult to answer.  I thought about it for a long time and did not really know how to answer it…to be honest, I do not even know where my persistence came from in the very beginning (laugh).  At first I was simply attracted by the sense of accomplishment that came from creating things by hand.  I love being able to hold objects in my hands and feel the physical existence — the feelings are down to earth and warm.  However, I was not sure what kind of material I wanted to work with.

Then, I saw the Dale Chihuly exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.  It was my first time seeing giant, non-industrial glass installations in a museum setting.  Through glass, light was projected onto the walls and floors, and flowed through the exhibition space and the surroundings.  Strangely, I was touched by that moment in front of my eyes, and I suddenly understood the significance of stained glass in western church architecture.  I could not help getting to know more about glass. I guess that’s why I insisted on choosing this path.  My personality would not allow me to regret.  So, despite many obstacles, and I almost (because of a momentary mental lapse) gave up, but I’m thankful that I persevered.

Meng Du, illustration for the Tui Glass Project

Meng Du‘s illustration for the Tui Glass Project (退火集)

BC: You have a background in communications design — working on computers and dealing with software.  Now you work with glass, and the process is full of craftsmanship and manual labor.  Is it very dangerous?  Although these two fields seem very different, from your experience so far, what connections do you see between them?

MD: Glassmaking is unavoidably dangerous because of the material and the required temperature.  In addition to burns and cuts, you develop body strains due to the working conditions.  But as I get more experienced, I can avoid being hurt. Knowing how to protect myself is also part of being professional.  Since I started to learn glassmaking, my biggest reflection so far is that you MUST have enough patience.  You have to be strong minded enough to digest those real failures again and again.  I consider it a craftsman’s character.  Learning about craftsmanship is nothing like learning about design, for which you can stay up late learning software and have things in control within a short period of time.  In contrast, craft apprentices have to invest a long time into their training.  If you cannot sit still, have a peaceful mind, and survive the dull training, basically you might as well quit in advance.

Of course, you have to have logical thinking, an eye for details, and be patient to do design work.  My previous training has significant influences on my current practice.  Now, computer software is no longer the cause of failures — my understanding of natural factors such as time, temperature, and gravity are.  When glass breaks, it must have something to tell you.  Now it’s been a while, working with glass almost feels like having conversations with a friend.  There are moments when I click so much with this friend that I wish I had met him/her sooner — and also moments when feelings of love and hate intertwine.  But this now becomes what I enjoy the most when working. ☺

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Meng Du – ‘Ordinary Days: Sometimes’, 2016. Found object and mirror, 6.6 × 6.6 in.

BC: Your works are full of personal memories, emotions and pastoral imagery.  To the extent that the hard medium of glass is turned into something gentle and nostalgic.  How do you see this kind of transition?

MD: The uniqueness of glass as a material and its extremely complicated crafting technique enable it to be presented and interpreted in hundreds and thousands of ways.  In my opinion, glass is not hard, but very “soft” and fragile.  The sound of its breaking, the fluid form when being heated, and the temperature burst from the kiln — all of these bring me strong yet subtle sensual feelings.  At the same time, glass has its own memory, and that is why I find the material especially poetic (laugh).  Thus glass became a language that is most suitable to express the emotions of my art.

Meng Du, One Day, kiln-formed glass, tea, stone clay, 7.5" × 9" × 13", 2016

Meng Du – ‘One Day’, 2016.  Kiln-formed glass, tea, stone clay, 7.5 × 9 × 13 in.

BC: Your latest body of work One Day is composed of five self portrait style sculptures, and it is obvious that they reflect changes with you.  We would be curious to hear about the stories behind this work.

MD: It took me three years to complete this set.  I had been procrastinating.  Maybe it is because it reflects my own status.  I would stop the process if I did not feel right, and then three years slipped away when I relaxed too much… The usual process of glassmaking goes through clay, rubber mold, wax mold (this is where you make final changes since the product will look exactly the same as the wax mold), plaster + silica mold, firing, and annealing…after you divest all the molds, it is another long process of cold working, such as cutting and grinding.  I was stuck at the wax mold stage for a long time.  I tried many methods but still could not figure out how to create a smooth transition between the five figures.  Then, one day I was about to recycle a wax mold that I was not satisfied with, and I forgot why I was in a bad mood.  I started to put the mold over candle fire and stared at it.  I watched the wax melt onto the table into a liquid, and the original shape of the mold slowly became blurred…that’s how I gradually found the right expression.

I named it One Day because the movie title One Day occurred to me at first, but the work has little to do with the story in the movie.  What attracts me the most to the movie is that when the protagonists schedule to meet on July 15th every year, they always have changes and ups and downs due to influences from life and environment.  People meet and then bid farewell.  Every single day is a point of crossed paths of lives. In the past year, a lot has happened in my life.  There were extremely upsetting days, but also days full of positive energy.  So when a day becomes a unit, when I look back to see what had happened in the past week, month, or year.  I can feel that I have changed every day, and new branches and leaves have sprouted from inside.  No matter what kind of life I live, at least these branches will bear with me and grow with me together.

Meng Du,Evanescing Scenery No.1, kiln-formed glass, tea, 0.5” × 31.5” × 31.5”, 2013

Meng Du – ‘Evanescing Scenery No.1’, 2013. Kiln-formed glass, tea, 0.5 x 31.5 x 31.5 in. 

BC: The process of making/reshaping glass is a process of reshaping yourself too.  What does the process feel/mean to you?

MD: Born and raised in Beijing, I was used to a lively and busy life, and it was hard for me to really focus my mind on doing things.  As a result, these past years in the States learning glassmaking has been a journey of secluding myself and meditation.  As time goes by, my skills are improved, my understanding of materials has changed, and together they have enriched the expression of my work.  In the beginning I was upset about the fact that what I wanted to do was beyond my skills.  And now I can express my ideas freely and skillfully.  This really feels great.  As I said before, glass has its own attitude.  Working with glass is a process of learning how to behave oneself.  Do not try to compete with everything.  Fortune cookie sayings such as “Haste brings no success.” and “Be in a calm mood.” have been slowly incorporated into myself during work processes (I am a slow person anyway…).

Illustrations by Meng Du for her Tui Glass Project, in which she shows the New York Times print used as glassmaking tools

Illustrations by Meng Du for her Tui Glass Project, in which she explains glassmaking tools and terms through drawings

BC: Any ambitious/interesting project in your mind?

MD: Yes! For now, I first want to go back to China and see what the working environments are like.  Despite the limited equipment and studio conditions, I can’t wait to see what kind of “chemical reactions” that will happen.☺

In addition to that, I’ve been planning on another version of the Tui Glass Project and want to name it the “Drop By Project”.  I want to invite those who are not in the glassmaking field to create things with me.  Many friends have expressed interest in glass, but they do not have the opportunity to learn and practice.  So I want to try my best to involve more people and tell stories together in ways that we are good at.  Meanwhile, I also want to finish illustrations for the Tui Glass Project as soon as possible, so that people can gradually learn about tools, techniques and every other aspects of glassmaking.  This is a big project but I am having fun doing it. ☺

Meng Du in protective clothing in the glass studio at Rochester Institute of Technology

Meng Du in protective clothing in the glass studio at Rochester Institute of Technology

Meng Du: The Climb, The Fall is on view at Fou Gallery through August 6, 2016.  A closing reception with the artist will be held on August 6 from 3 – 6 PM.  Fou Gallery is open Saturday 2 – 6 PM and by appointment via email.

The interview was translated from Chinese by Hansi Liao has been edited for clarity.

Lead image: Meng Du, Waiting for the Awakening, 2015.  Kiln-formed glass, cherry wood, tea, 16 × 16 in.  Photo by Hansi Liao.