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This essay was published in the January 1999 issue of Glass Art magazine

Catherine Rahn: 

Deep Glass

By William Warmus

Diver and installation of glass Sea Stars by Catherine Rahn

Near Wakaya Island, Fiji. Photo: Cat Holloway 1998

 

 

"And menaced by monsters, 

fancy lights,

Risking enchantment."

T.S. Eliot, East Coker

 

Tuesday June 2, 1998

Bligh Water, Fiji Islands

Beneath the South Pacific

We wait on the sandy bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Clothed in full SCUBA gear, just offshore from remote Wakaya Island, a rumbling sound above our heads signals the rotating propeller of the Zodiac that is delivering Catherine Rahn’s glass Sea Stars for an underwater photo shoot. Before the team can surface for the artwork, the glass begins to plunge into the water. Stars are falling, some tumbling, some landing upright like miniature spacecraft, none breaking. On the surface, glass is tormented by gravity as it crashes to earth: in the open ocean, sand receives glass softly.

Catherine Rahn pours stars into the sea. She is among the first artists to seek entry into the ocean realm. In such a setting, everything the artist does is new, difficult, different, intoxicating. Diving in the blue Pacific is like moving through a block of glass, except that there are sharks prowling the water. They add edge to the inherent beauty of the glass.

Rahn says that "As an artist I want to honor and pay homage to the physical world. My message is not just about the artist, but about nurture. Self and selfishness have been among the most destructive factors for the environment; I want to change that through the work." Rahn pours people into the sea, assembling videographers, a still photographer, a curator and a writer aboard the Nai’a. She believes that "As a team, we are interwoven like a tapestry. The work carries this message, which is true about the whole world: we are all interwoven." In the surface world, Rahn’s work is beautiful; underwater, the stars become markers on a map, pinpointing spots where the team has assembled, where the reef is especially lovely, where we have had fun playing underwater. In her work, Rahn readily acknowledges sources of inspiration, including the artist Dale Chihuly, whose own convictions and fearlessness encouraged her to be brave and to explore the ocean, and her great uncle Philo Farnsworth who invented electronic television. Maybe an argument could be made that glass, water, and television are linked as media, all three dependent upon transparency.

The architecture critic Herbert Muschamp has written about "the increasing awareness that art resides only partly within [the?] individual artwork. It also lives in the spirit of risk and experimentation that works of art help sustain." This produces "…an American style of freedom. That style is voluptuous, emotional, intuitive and exhibitionist. It is mobile, fluid, material, mercurial, fearless, radiant and as fragile as a newborn child…" I think that this nearly summarizes Catherine’s recent work, but would add that her objects, unlike the many contemporary art forms that equate experimentation and risk with irony and cynicism, are beautiful and therefore unusual.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Wakaya, the stars fell into the sand without breaking.

[Excerpts from the author’s Journal]

The First Expedition to Fiji

Saturday, August 23, 1997

At E-6, a coral reef in Bligh Water, Fiji Islands

Today is the first dive with the glass. I sit in the main cabin of the Nai’a, a handsome 120 foot motor-sailer, cruising on the tongue of ocean that divides the two main Fijian Islands. Reading Jacques Cousteau’s statement in Silent World that "Obviously man has to enter the sea. There is no choice in the matter," I wonder: How will he enter? And will woman make a different kind of entry?

Nurture describes Rahn’s project. She seeks to nourish, cherish, harbor, and treasure. This links her curiously to the first aqualung dive made by Jacques Cousteau in June, 1943. During that dive, Cousteau discovered the roof of a cave "thronged with lobsters….Above water was occupied, ill-fed France. I thought of the hundreds of calories a diver loses in cold water. I selected a pair of one-pound lobsters…I carried them toward the surface." The will to nourish became a central part of Cousteau’s initial dive; now Rahn seeks to return a gift to the sea, a reversal of Cousteau’s project. Lobsters out, stars in.

We suit up, board the Zodiacs, flip into the ocean. Underwater, I observe Catherine as a different creature: transformed from the hyperactive artist into a calm, focused, rock solid and stable diver. We all change underwater, in what I call our "dive space," a realm where focus and calm are essential for safety.

The glass looks great on the reef! We had speculated that it might disappear if the index of refraction matched the seawater, but that doesn’t happen. At depth, glass surrenders its brittleness and returns to a living, liquid state. Instead of casting shadows, transparent arms cast light. Art has made a tentative entry into the ocean realm.

 

 

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The Nai'a: Our Dive Platform for taking the glass underwater. 

It seemed that whenever we approached Nigali pass, where the sharks were, the weather turned dark and stormy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Zodiac that transports divers and glass directly to the reef. 

Stan Waterman in blue/black wet suit (detail below).

Sunday, August 24, 1997

At E-6

Catherine and the team have arranged a group of objects at a depth of about 30-40 feet. Cat Holloway, Divemaster aboard the Nai’a and an accomplished underwater photographer, explained to me that on the densely populated reef, there is competition for every niche. She has placed some of the glass to look as if it too is fighting for space—as indeed it is—while exercising considerable care not to damage any of the coral. Catherine’s husband Chapman Root describes the process as "reverse archaeology."

I feel like a character in a Jules Verne novel as I hover above the scene unfolding below me: Stan Waterman, the legendary videographer, is taping Catherine and Chapman as they swim through an undersea portal into a site called the Cathedral, while straight ahead is an imposing glass Octopus. Sunlight filtering through the waves above plays on its tentacles and grants them motion. This creature becomes a Guardian-Totem, poised on the brink of a 3000’ deep abyss—for that is how far the wall drops beneath us. As we surface, the Octopus disappears into the overall structure of the reef. It shares this duality with the sea creatures: muted at distance to conceal; intense up close to warn away.

Our military style departures for the reef are counterbalanced by the comedy of returning to the Zodiacs: We are dragged into the skiff like flapping fish; exhausted, belly down in the boat, the crew pulls the fins from our feet as we shiver, exhausted in clammy cold wet suits. Catherine’s work also strikes a balance: between the quest to make beautiful glass (like the Sea Stars) worthy of the art gallery or museum, and the playfulness that invents creatures (like the Octopus) that inhabit a storybook world, that will excite the imagination of children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The glass Octopus was assembled 50 feet below the waves, at the edge of a 2500 foot deep wall, peering into the open ocean.

Thursday August 28, 1998

Near the island of Gau

We began the day surrounded by Gray Reef sharks at Nigali Pass (a controlled shark feed) and now in the afternoon I sit in the Zodiac and wait for Catherine and Chapman, who are still below, working with the glass at a site inhabited by sea snakes. The ocean is choppy and darkly opaque, impermeable as glass. But now I know from experience that below me light penetrates and there is clarity and the reef. Down there the sea snakes are gently, cautiously hunting in the crevices, and down there too Catherine’s work is delicately finding its niche. In the evening, Stan Waterman, our expedition leader, proposes a toast to Catherine and crew: "A glass with you, sir!" Not "to you" but "with you." We are a community.

 

The Second Expedition to Fiji

Monday June 1, 1998

At the coral reef E-6

A dusk dive to collect glass deep within the grotto, where Catherine’s stars encircle a giant anemone on a gravelly bottom surrounded by towering cliffs of coral. The team is arrayed like angels (because we can fly) or ornaments on a Christmas tree (because we are carrying glass), shuttling objects up to the skiff. It is so dark that I can barely see Stan Waterman, who lingers below, recording the scene on tape. As we surface the glass captures the sun, now about to touch the horizon, and flares its beams into our dive masks.

 

June 5, 1998

At Mt. Mutiny, Bligh Water

Diving in a "world without horizons," I scan azure blue open waters, hoping to see one of the Hammerhead sharks that hunt along the vertical wall of Mt. Mutiny, a slim seamount rising up from 3000 feet to within inches of the surface. Swimming toward the wall, I spot an equally remarkable sight: Catherine Rahn installing one of her shining glass sea stars in a niche surrounded by fire red coral. The fish are curious and begin to inspect the art. Aside from the fish and a few divers, we are totally alone, 20 miles offshore, 80 feet beneath the South Pacific.

The silence, loneliness and vulnerability of diving are striking. We don’t have roots here. Almost no one inhabits the sea: at the end of the century, we remain visitors. We dive virtually unprotected, exposed to hunters (primarily the sharks). Any work the artist does underwater must be controlled by these factors. Catherine is right when she says that the "ocean transcends the self." The philosopher Paul Ricoeur remarks on something similar in his writings about time and narrative:

"In what way does time, finally, escape narrative?…If I had succeeded in my design to hold time captive in nets of narrative, I would have fallen back on the idealist positions against which I never ceased to struggle: namely, that the subject would be the master of meaning, that it would hold within the narrative all the meanings that time is capable of assuming. But world time, cosmic time, is structured after the manner of the very production of the world and not after that of the production of the narrative." The undersea world escapes our narratives. Rahn’s glass is simply a temporary visitor. Ricoeur writes of "a time of the world and a time of the soul." By design, Catherine revels in this distinction, exploring the intersections of ocean realm and art world.

 

 

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August 23-25, 1998

Ripley’s Aquarium, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

 

Ripley’s Aquarium is hosting Catherine and her team, facilitating dives and installations in several of their large tanks including Ray Bay (inhabited by small Hammerhead Sharks and Stingrays) and Dangerous Reef (inhabited by really big sharks). Suddenly, the loneliness of the open ocean disappears, as Rahn becomes a performer in front of huge crowds (the aquarium receives thousands of visitors every day). She is elated because the aquarium is full of children: "The best way I have found to communicate as an artist is through the children I meet when diving in aquariums. The work goes directly from the tank--where the children see us diving, exploring and interacting with the sea creatures and the art--into their hands! The glass sea stars become symbols for the ocean experience: fragile, beautiful, and mysterious. I’m grateful to be a part of this world, and the children’s involvement and interest is my best reward."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the center of one of Rahn's Sea Stars is like looking into the depths of the ocean.

Upstate New York

November 15 ,1998

Fourteen months after Catherine’s first expedition played with glass under the sea, it is perhaps interesting to list some of the ways in which Studio Glass and SCUBA diving are (and are not) related. They are both creatures of the Post-World War II era of affluence. Phillipe Taillez, one of the original divers with Cousteau in the 1940s, wrote that ‘We were now classified as ‘heavy workers,’ category 5 along with glassblowers, miners and blacksmiths." The invention of the portable air tank and the small furnace launched the movements, and it might be argued that each is divided between "people with spears" (or blowpipes) vs "people with cameras" (the more reflective types). The burns and cuts of the studio are replaced by bites and scrapes on the reef, the roar of the hot shop by silence. Glass is very hot, SCUBA very cool.

In 1861, the naturalist M.J. Michelet defined "...the right of even the humble mineral to rise into animation, and of the deep and eternal aspiration that lies buried, but busy, in the bosom of Nature." Artists campaign to give artistic life to inanimate matter. The depths of the sea also conspire to create life. Catherine’s project asks the question: why not join the two transparent worlds of glass and water? Use one to enliven the other? In the words of T.S Eliot, make a place where "Here the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual."

 

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Sea Star by Catherine Rahn: On the blowpipe, the arms are torched to soften them so that they may be pulled into gestural positions.