Alexandra Bremers, visual artist

by Tom Peeters

I don’t want to force an open door, but let’s get a big misunderstanding out of the way: Xandra Bremers is most certainly not what is commonly known as a “glass artist”. Her pieces are neither pleasingly decorative nor slickly aesthetical (most so-called “glass art” ticks both boxes). And yet – this artist happens to use glass as her most important medium, but this, as we shall see, is no coincidence.

Indeed, glass, more than any other material or medium, lends itself to creating visual statements about the fragility and the transience of all life, of all existence. This is at once the central and all encompassing theme of Xandra Bremers’ oeuvre. Especially in the technique she has chosen as her own, pâte de verre, a rather complicated form of glass casting, the works seem to crumble or disintegrate just by looking at them, or rather the reverse, the glass fragments seem to coagulate into images pregnant with meaning. Hope and despair often go hand in hand in one and the same sculpture.

These pieces start out from existing objects (a children’s bath, a sleigh, a stove…) that form the base for a mould on which the glass is formed, piece by small piece, fragment by minuscule fragment. This is a lot like we ourselves form an image of the world around us: based on fragments we manage to grasp here and there, based on impressions that are provided by our senses… Thus we are able to create a livable and workable reality for our daily lives.

Of course – and it’s here that things get tricky – glass is in and of itself a “beautiful” material, exquisite, seductive and refined. It’s maybe even a little too easy to create a thing of beauty out of glass. Confronted with this essentially empty beauty, Xandra Bremers didn’t choose the easy road, but carved out a narrow and steep path for herself. She chose to rise to the challenge, i.e. to create a transient beauty, born, not out of the material itself, but out of toiling with and in the material, out of the battle to distil meaning and sense out of disjointed fragments. Images and beauty come into existence not because of the medium in which they are created, but almost in spite of it.

But still, it is exactly out of the properties of her medium – glass – that Xandra Bremers’ principal subject seems to spring forth: the frailty and transience of life, the fragility and the fleeting nature of beauty.

Her “Skull” (2009) is a prime example of this. The piece seems to crumble apart, but this disintegration takes on the characteristics of a living process because of the way the light seems to play in the sugar-like texture of the piece. Thus the skull shows us a vulnerability that exceeds death. This is also true of the associations this little sculpture calls into life: the Mexican All Souls tradition to manufacture skull-shaped confectionery and to consume these in the graveyard, surrounded by family and friends. Or: death as a celebration or at least as the beginning of something new. Personally, I was also reminded of the way skulls and other human remains are displayed in archeological and anthropological museums: as long as visitors queue up to view these remains, these long gone people are not really dead.

This also applies to “Erbarme dich um meiner Zaehren willen” (Have mercy for my tears’ sake) (2011). The delicate glass pig is flying to another level of existence, or to a new life altogether, on wings of music (J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion!). Xandra Bremers’ other animal sculptures (dogs, deer), which are crafted, not of glass, but of latex, also seem to “live” in an in-between state. Latex, or natural rubber, is itself a dead material, but it is harvested from living trees and has all the properties of living matter: it looks like skin, changes colour when exposed to sunlight, softens when it warms up and thus feels very organic to the touch.

Her dogs and little deer are floating somewhere between life and death. They evoke compassion and a kind of fraternal connection to all mortal creatures on this planet of ours. At the same time, this somehow assuages the pain of our own mortality.

This poetic touch one can also find in other pieces: a crumbling sleigh (sculpted out of ice, it almost seems) that refers to the winters of old and how they only live on in memory, a terribly fragile little stove that keeps the fire of remembrance burning in old black and white photographs, a gramophone’s horn through which once Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder could be heard (if there ever was one poet suited to putting feelings of loss and transience into words it was indeed the German Friedrich Rückert).

However, the work that translates decay and finiteness, poetry and beauty, compassion and pain caused by terrible loss best into a poignant image is probably “Alpha and Omega: Lou likes to laugh longer” (2011). A solitary children’s bath in delicate pâte de verre subtly refers to the first thing that happens to us after birth – we are lovingly bathed. Oddly enough, a bath is also a key part of preparing a corpse for a funeral and thus one of the last things a dead body undergoes before final goodbyes are said. So: joy and grief, a beginning and an ending, quite literally alpha and omega. Bathing someone you love is an act of tender caring, compassion and unconditional love. Upon seeing the bath, I was also reminded of the expression “circling the drain”, often used to describe a person that is very near death and has little time left to live.

The most striking detail of the sculpture however, is the bath-plug, hanging on its little chain. Upon closer inspection, this is no ordinary bath-plug, but a so-called cremation disc. This numbered ceramic disc was placed near the dead body of Lou, the artist’s father, in the cremation oven, in order to correctly identify the remains afterwards. Knowing this, as a viewer, charges the piece with a strong personal meaning, making sure its “message” really comes across.

In light of our own and others’ mortality, in view of decay, loss and impermanence, it is our duty to live thoughtful lives, to show compassion and pity, to shape fragile beauty and to create frail moments of happiness, to make our fleeting lives worth living to the fullest. That, in my view, is the task Xandra Bremers oeuvre entrusts to us.

Tom Peeters is curator and historian, living and working in the city of Antwerp. After studying at the University of Leuven he worked in the gallery circuit in Antwerp and a.o at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, Netherlands. The past ten years he was responsible for various exhibitions at Art Organisation Monumental in Belgium.