Canadian artist and designer Omer Arbel stands in the John Madejski Garden at the V&A, watching the most recent element of his series 113 unfold. ‘Material Experiments’ sees a small team of glass-blowers carry out the ongoing series in a ritualistic re-calibration of materials until Friday 23 September and ending in a special late-night performance. 

The process of Arbel’s series begins in local charity shops around London, where a group of 11 artists have selected items made from glass and copper alloys. The objects are then displayed in the V&A’s Santa Chiara Chapel, where they sit until they are chosen by the team to be repurposed. The glass pieces are melted down and blown to form irregular vessels; bowls are stretched into hollow, elongated droplets and a sherry glass is morphed into a lopsided sphere. 

Sculptures and found objects on a table at the V&A, part of Omer Arbel glass-blowing show, ‘Material Experiments‘

Omer Arbel, ‘Material Experiments’ in the Santa Chiara Chapel at the V&A, part of London Design Festival 2022

Next, the team melt down the chosen metal object and pour the molten liquid into the quickly contracting containers, causing them to shatter on the surface of the metal and resulting in a carefully designed collision of science and art. 

Arbel’s work is process-based, ‘so a set of parameters are given to us for the design process’ explains Jay MacDonell, glass-blower and director of material explorations at Bocci, ‘then we just choose whatever it takes, and the different aspects come together to form a pathway’.

Two people heat glass in kiln ready for blowing

Omer Arbel, ‘Material Experiments’ in the John Madejski Garden at the V&A, part of London Design Festival 2022

The input from each decision leaves imprints of the individuals involved in the process. MacDonell describes the patterns within the copper alloy structures as ‘like a memory of the glass form’, and this thread of memories runs smoothly through Arbel’s concept for 113

The outcome of the ongoing works, which Arbel started experimenting with in 2019, are spindly copper structures, fragments of metal are left suspended, floating but maintaining their new-found form. The exterior surface of the metal contrasts with its opposing side, having been protected from oxidation by the seal of the now-shattered glass – another shining detail in the experiments that, planned or not, nods to the characteristics of the natural materials. 

Sculpture of metal and glass by Omer Arbel for show ’Material Experiments’ at the V&A

Omer Arbel, ‘Material Experiments’ in the John Madejski Garden at the V&A, part of London Design Festival 2022

Arbel oozes with excitement for the potential of a material overhaul: ‘What I’m proposing is kind of a total reconfiguration of the same raw material,’ he says. ‘I want to ask – what are precious antiquities, what have they lived through and what is their spiritual presence?’

Macdonnell takes a similar tone, explaining that ‘we create this play on the value of pieces from thrift shops that cost so little, but now they’re being shown at the V&A’.

Arbel’s inquisition begs the question: should we melt it all down and start again? And why do we hold so firmly onto relics of the past. His explanation feels like a philosophically fuelled delve into how we value physical forms, and with that query lingering in the air, he sets another intriguing parameter within which our thoughts can flourish. ‘It’s a perfect metaphor for the kind of changes that are happening. Taking old things, melting them down, and then a form being shaped by something that breaks.’ §

See the performance and process