Just like almost everyone else, Rui Sasaki found life as she knew it irrevocably transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The glass artist grew up in Japan, but her tertiary arts education took her to the United States and her subsequent career took her all around the world. Sasaki’s globe-trotting lifestyle means she rarely stays in one place for long, and this sense of rootlessness, of not having a place to call her own, inspired her exploration of intimacy using art. Through her glassworks, she seeks to find a connection between herself and the unfamiliar spaces around her.
When the pandemic hit the world, Sasaki resigned herself to being at “home”—a rental house in Japan—for the longest time since leaving to study in the United States. In her mind, she has always drawn clear boundaries between Japan and the rest of the world, between the spaces she thought she knew by virtue of citizenship and the new spaces she was thrown into. But the past year spent almost entirely in Japan forced her to confront two hard truths: that she doesn’t know the place as well as she thought she did, and that she has to turn her pursuit of intimacy inwards to consciously rebuild her understanding of what home means.
In plants and glasswork, Sasaki finds the perfect medium for this task. The physical transparency of glass ties in well to the conceptual transparency of plants as a record of her surroundings. The natural and the man-made coalesce under her hands, transforming into something bigger than their parts. The foliage first undergoes a baptism by fire in the kiln, before its skeleton is sandwiched between two glass sheets. This transparent coffin entombs the plant’s final “breath” as a splatter of air bubbles. The finished product is a preserved plant that looks soft and ethereal like a snowflake, but is unflinching in the multitude of information it records and reveals.
Most of your past work is in glassblowing, so why did you choose to integrate plants into your creation for Vogue Singapore?
Because of COVID-19, I can’t travel anywhere, so I’ve been at home most of the time. This is the first time I’ve stayed in just one place for so long and I got the opportunity to witness the growth of the plants in my neighbourhood. Pre-COVID, natural spaces are usually very carefully maintained and organised, but since everyone is indoors now, they’re allowed to grow as they are. When they inhale, they capture properties of the environment—the humidity, the water content in the air, and so on. That’s how I came up with this idea. I chose a plant, fired it in the kiln, then put it between sheet glass. The plant exhales its final breath, which is really just all the moisture coming out, and that’s preserved as bubbles. Those bubbles convey so much about the surroundings the plant grew up in, the surroundings I live in.
Intimacy is a strong theme in your works, including this one. Can you elaborate on that?
I grew up in Japan but did my tertiary studies in the United States. When I left home for a foreign land, I lost my sense of home so I tried to find a sense of intimacy in my new surroundings. Before the pandemic, my exploration of intimacy was focused on unfamiliar spaces. But during the pandemic, I was forced to focus on re-learning my own home and country—spaces that I thought I knew but realised I didn’t really understand because I’ve never stayed that long here. In fact, the plants I used for this work are ones with certain smells, textures, or appearances that remind me of my childhood in Japan.
When you preserve something in between glass sheets, it creates a record that can last for hundreds of years. So my creation is like a time capsule that can give people in the future a sense of what a particular slice of the world was like at a particular time in history. It’s not like a photo that can be staged and framed and faked. I like recording things as they are, which is also why I like working with plants. As a living organism with its own mind, it’s a very honest material. So this work is my way of exploring and connecting with my surroundings.
“So my creation is like a time capsule that can give people in the future a sense of what a particular slice of the world was like at a particular time in history”
How’s that exploration going?
It’s inspired me to rethink my definition of home. This house is actually a rental, but it feels so much more like home these days because I’m noticing things about it I’ve never realised before. For instance, I see height marks left by previous tenants on the walls. It sounds a little scary but it’s actually very fun discovering these new things—something I’ve never had time to do before. It’s like an adventure. When you get to know a place, the intimacy develops naturally. So even though I don’t own this house and it contains residues of other people, it’s starting to feel more intimate to me.
I’m also much more attuned to my surroundings. I can track the movement of the sun over the day through the amount of sunshine I get. I can hear birds humming and my neighbours’ footsteps.
Since plants can provide such an honest record of the surroundings, have they shown you any changes in the physical environment over the course of the pandemic?
I’ve done works similar to this pre-pandemic. But now, when I fire the plants in the kiln, they shrink so much more. When I opened the kiln this time, I thought at first I did something wrong because there was almost nothing left of the plant. It’s less than a quarter of its original size. The bubbles produced are bigger but there are fewer of them and most of them explode—I suspect it’s because the plants now contain more air. Another big difference is that last time, the ashes will be mostly white but now I can spot some green and brown among them. The roots also don’t disintegrate as easily as before because they are stronger now. I think in general, plants are growing much more energetically without human interference. It’s something that can’t really be detected with the naked eye, but through my artistic process, I can observe the minute changes in my physical environment.
What inspired your love for glasswork?
I’ve always liked swimming; I like the sensation of being submerged in water and feeling weightless. I began tinkering with the idea of making art from water, but water in its liquid form is very hard to work with and I’m not interested in using ice. Then one day, when I was 12, I saw someone working with molten glass and it struck me that glass is very similar to water in certain ways—the transparency, the malleability. Then in university, I was studying industrial design and textiles at first, but then I took a glass-blowing elective and instantly became obsessed with how fun and technical it is—it’s like a sport where you have to work very fast. Touching glass reminds me of what it’s like touching water. I’m also interested in the scientific principles behind working with glass, like the material’s atomic makeup and light refraction and so on.
Glass is fundamentally a fragile material, but it can be used in contexts that require strength, for instance as windows. It’s just like the theme of intimacy in my works—both fragile and strong. There’s something beautifully ironic about preserving residues for hundreds of years between two sheets of fragile glass. My work is like a Venn diagram of sorts, in which I try to find the sweet spot where strength and fragility overlap.
That’s a wonderful juxtaposition.
Exactly. These days, I enjoy thinking about the concept of the glass itself on an abstract level. How it’s transparent and fragile; how it can be used to encase something and preserve it immutably. It helps me translate my exploration of intimacy from an abstract concept into a tangible product. Glass as a raw material is already so beautiful, and I’m interested in making it even more beautiful by using it in unexpected ways.
I like what you said about how your work captures the plant’s “final breath”—it’s like you’re anthropomorphising it. How are you personally “taking a breath” these days amid the pandemic?
When I’m very stressed out, I like looking at water so I drive to the ocean that’s just 20 minutes away from my house. Immersing myself in nature really relaxes me, so I also enjoy just lying down in the field or going into the words. Cooking is also a new hobby I picked up during the pandemic. I use a lot of herbs in my cooking—I like eating plants! (laughs) The smell of herbs like mint, rosemary, and cilantro is very soothing to me. Even when I’m picking plants for my art and not for eating, I like smelling them. That’s why I prefer picking them in Spring when their scent is strongest.
Deputy Editor: Amelia Chia
Photographer and Videographer: Nik van der Giesen