Learning to let go (and how science can help)
On a studio visit with Amelia Pascoe last year, she showed me a handful of flasks she had created under the guidance of a glassblower, who was contracted by the chemistry department at Victoria University to produce lab ware for students.
Slightly lopsided, Pascoe’s forms radiated charisma in their imperfection, showing a human touch and personality lacking in her teacher’s volumetric flasks. Yet the glassblower’s technique for making such apparatus meant Pascoe’s work was more precise than her mind’s eye intended. Curious about other methods, she decided to contact a glass artist, who she hoped could help her explore her unconventional objectives with less rigidity.
At a glassblowing studio in Whanganui, her new instructor showed her the execution needed to make a vessel. Again, it resulted in a series of objects too well formed—until Pascoe dropped a glowing globule of molten glass on the studio floor, causing an organic dollop to coalesce and set. Eureka! She knew then she needed to let gravity do its thing. “I get it,” said her teacher. And with that, the series Opticks (2017) was conceived.
Gravity is a scientific force, one that unfailingly conforms to the principles of physics. It can be calculated, but when combined with the stuff of circumstance, it affects us and the objects around us in unpredictable ways. As you age, your body sags differently to others. When knocked off the mantlepiece, a vase breaks into 27 shards, just so, like no other vase has ever shattered before.
Isaac Newton (1643- 1727) who became one of humankind’s most influential scientists—having developed the law of gravitation and written the book Opticks—was also an alchemist. Pascoe says:
Despite his impact on scientific thought, Newton believed in theories like ‘the philosopher’s stone’, which was said to turn base metals into gold. This idea of transformation has resonated with me, particularly over recent years. During the Age of Enlightenment science really started coming to the fore, whereas previously, religion offered people answers to how the world worked. While Newton and his contemporaries made significant discoveries—as did the many amateur scientists of this time—other beliefs prevailed that seem ridiculous now: like the agent phlogiston causing combustion.
After hundreds of years of scientific advancements, the tropes of alchemy have become as enchanting and charming as Pascoe’s extemporaneous glass forms. While somewhat removed from chemistry taught at Victoria University in the 21st century, alchemy is just as much a testament to our enduring will to experiment and figure things out.
This tension between planning and unpredictability sits at the heart of Pascoe’s practice. In her series Tread Softly (2014), she purposefully shed her methodical approach, gingerly reconstructing shoes on a path to somewhere new. Two years later, she began heading home to her pseudo-science roots on a new track, through the series On the origin of species (2016). Here her well known miniature scaffolding structures sprouted from balls and silhouetted aluminium forms, which together, imitated mechanical extensions of wearers’ mouths and feet. With Opticks then, Pascoe arrived full circle, having learnt how to embrace logic and intuition in equal parts.
Threading a thick, brightly coloured cord through a hole she has drilled through a fist-sized rock, Pascoe twirls it around her head and—in her most audacious act yet—the artist lets go. Its target, a framed piece of glass, erupts into an entangled network of cracks.
Another transformation has occurred.