GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It might seem like a leap, using gorgeous studio glass objects to convey potentially alarming data about population growth, but Norwood Viviano pulls the two together very persuasively. “Global Cities” (2015), his installation at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), translates graphs that register explosive growth in urban populations around the world — from New York, Rome, and Mexico City to Sydney, Lagos, and Shanghai — into the varying contours of glass pendants.
Viviano, who is based in a small town near Kalamazoo, applies 3D computer imaging to making objects that reflect his concerns about the impact of industry and population on ecosystems. His conceptual approach to glass, ceramic, steel, and other materials often associated with craft and design is reflected in the intriguing range of venues where he has exhibited. They include the Lincoln Motor Company, Detroit; the Corning Museum of Glass; the Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague; and the Royal College of Art, London. Presently, he is preparing work for a group exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery.
Installed in a gallery that GRAM uses for showing contemporary regional work, “Global Cities” pulls together three modes of representation. One is the expansive, horizontal map that’s delineated on a platform in the middle of the floor. Another is the array of glass pendants, each representing a city and suspended from a tubular grid that reinforces the installation’s overall sense of order. The third is a graph featuring a horizontal lineup of vinyl silhouettes, displayed on one of the gallery walls.
In contour and color, the vinyl profiles correspond to the glass forms: the oldest cities are rendered in black, the next oldest are purple, and the newest are blue. But where the glass pendants are deployed according to their coordinates on the map on the floor, the vinyl silhouettes are read from left to right according to age, which is indicated by a vertical timeline. Thus, the oldest urban center is identified as Rome and has the tallest silhouette, while the youngest, and shortest, belongs to Shenzen, China.
Viviano measured the age of each city based on the point at which each was given the name under which it’s generally, presently known. This means that their deeper histories, based on settlement by First Peoples, isn’t necessarily reflected. It’s only when these places are given enduring names — names that effectively abstract them, just as political maps abstract physical terrain — that their existence is recognized. Not coincidentally, this often is the point at which these places were colonized by Europeans. This imposition of abstract order seems to be one of Viviano’s themes, and a way in which he demonstrates a tension between (but also a unity of) concept and material.
As noted above, cities’ relative ages are put in historical context by the vertical timeline, which indicates various historic events as well as dates, allowing visitors to cross-reference events like the fall of Rome and World War II with population graphs. Thus, the fall of Rome corresponds with a period of severe and protracted population loss in that city. The Second World War relates to population declines in such cities as London and Tokyo. At such points, the vinyl silhouettes and the glass forms narrow significantly. However, during periods of relative peace and prosperity, the graphs bulge out to indicate growth.
Beijing provides a dramatic example of alternating periods of moderate growth and dramatic decline, all capped with exponential expansion, creating a shape akin to an immense floral bloom atop a narrow stalk. In contrast to Beijing and other cities in booming, former Third World economies, the silhouettes of Western cities are relatively static or show steady growth. Tiny Grand Rapids is an example of the former and New York exemplifies the latter. Grand Rapids is represented by a piece about the size and shape of a stopper for a small perfume bottle. As for NYC, its silhouette registers continued growth since the mid-19th century, such that it resembles the profile of a martini glass.
But reading numbers is one thing. What makes Viviano’s installation into a viewing experience is the fine craftwork of the glass pendants, which also resemble the plumb bobs used in construction work. Viviano uses a glass-making method called reticello, in which clusters of glass canes are laid crosswise and fused, then sculpted to create forms that are embedded with fluid, diagonal grids or lattices. Here, the lattices expand and contract in relation to the fluctuations of population as expressed in the objects’ contours. The effect of these lines, which also evoke measurements of longitude and latitude, is mesmerizing, especially as each pendant ineluctably expands.
Standing near this gleaming array gave me shivers. I felt I was witnessing a gorgeously embodied, unfolding disaster. Not a pleasant feeling, needless to say, but it left me hoping that viewers in denial about the effects of endless growth might be seduced into realizing how fragile these urban civilizations are, and how close they are to shattering.