Spotlight on the Object: Manhole Covers in the Gallery
by Lorraine Johnson
Aaron Oussoren spoke with Ornamentum Associate Editor Lorraine Johnson by phone from the Pilchuk Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, where he was working as a teaching assistant.
LJ: I first saw one of your pieces—a sand-cast glass manhole cover—hanging at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto this past spring. How did you come to make works based on the city’s infrastructural elements?
AO: I’ve lived in Toronto for the past 15 years and have been photographing the city that whole time. My photos always end up being infrastructure-related: for example, images of the way that streetcars connect to power lines; different kinds of Hydro poles; streetlamps; manhole covers. I’ve ended up with hundreds of photos of these things, and when I started cataloguing them, I was struck by how beautiful these objects are.
LJ: Cities tend to be “noisy” visual environments and it’s easy to miss the beauty of the everyday objects that make cities function.
AO: Yes, we often see the city in terms of systems, such as the roadway system or the transit system, but there are really beautiful details within those systems. In my work, I’m trying to pay attention to the small details of these functional design elements that are so intriguing. With manhole covers, for example, they are designed and manufactured to be uniform, with each one exactly the same, and yet they gain such lovely variation through their heavy daily use on the streets. That’s what intrigued me about them, and why I ended up photographing so many of them. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the sand-cast glass process is exactly the same: the casting process leads to inevitable, small variations within objects made from the same mould. This is what led me to make this series of sand-cast glass manhole covers.
LJ: Could you describe the process?
AO: Each of the glass manhole covers I’ve made is 14 inches across and about ¾ of an inch at its thickest point. It’s solid sand-cast glass with a polished edge, and it’s got a mounting system made of stainless steel. I’ve made them out of different coloured glass—white, opal, and neutral grey—and they’re all translucent.
I scale down my manhole cover photo to 14 inches, then build a mould—an exact replica, but scaled down—based on that. The mould is made out of hard Styrofoam, and then I press it into a bed of sand, which leaves an impression. I pour liquid glass, ladled out of the furnace at a temperature of 2400 degrees Fahrenheit, into the impression, and it stiffens up right before your eyes in a few minutes. Then it gets annealed in the kiln for about 60 hours. When I bring it out, it’s very dark, so I sand it down and polish the sides until it becomes a luminescent object. I’ve made about 25 of them.
LJ: There’s a striking combination of solidity and fragility in these pieces.
AO: Yes, that was important to me. Manhole covers in the street are trodden upon; they’re everyday objects that are ignored. And so to make them out of glass—an inherently beautiful material—creates a nice juxtaposition, I think.
Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.
Sand-cast glass manhole cover, 14 inches in diameter, by Aaron Oussoren