Ambra Medda talks with glass artist Ritsue Mishima

Glass and Space

By Ambra Medda

Kyoto-born, Venice-based Ritsue Mishima creates glass objects that embody paradox. Produced in collaboration with glass masters in Murano, Italy—the glassmaking capital of the world—Mishima’s works are colorless yet multidimensional and textured, transparent yet supremely luminous. They materialize through Mishima’s intuitive and spontaneous approach, and then disappear into their surroundings as they collect, reflect, and amplify the ambient light.

For the 55th Venice Biennale, the Museum of the Palazzo Grimani invited Mishima to exhibit a new collection of works throughout the piano nobile of this grand, centuries-old residence. Mishima’s installation, In Grimani, includes 100 unique glass objects, which she created in response to the palazzo space.

Ambra Medda talks with Mishima about her latest project, her process, and her appreciation for the present.

Ambra Medda: Ritsue, I’ve admired your work many times in Pierre Marie Giraud’s gallery in Brussels, but your installation for the Venice Biennale In Grimani is transcendent. Tell me about your relationship with Venice.

Ritsue Mishima in her Venice studio Photo © Francesco Barasciutti
Ritsue Mishima: Well, I’ve lived here for about 24 years now. It’s hard to say what drew me here and why I started working with glass. I was born in Kyoto in 1972. And I didn’t study art at university—I never really liked structure or to be told what to do. I guess you could say I’m auto-didactic—which really means my friends helped me to learn some skills. And in that way, I followed my instinct. I came here to Venice, not really to become a glass artist, but more just because of my curiosity.

AM: How beautiful!

RM: I just thought, “I’d really like to go there.” I wanted to try this random thing. Intuition comes before doing. The vision comes naturally, doesn’t it?

AM: Yes, a will and desire to follow your instinct—it’s a really important thing. So now you live and work in Venice. Tell me about the creative process behind your extraordinary glass.

RM: Well, one thing that is particular to me is that 100% of my glasswork is made here in Venice—in Murano, of course—collaborating with my glass masters, Andrea Bilio and Giacomo Barbini. I work together always with the same three to five people—a master and three or four assistants—using my furnace in Murano. My team really understands my passion and enthusiasm.

AM: And your vision, of course . . .

RM: In the beginning it was challenging, and I needed some patience. But now there is a symphonic quality, a harmony, and it’s really beautiful to work with them. I leave some space for them—I don’t need to decide everything—and I always ask them what they like.

AM: Of course. It’s like an interpretation of your thoughts.

RM: Yes, always. It’s them doing it. I don’t know how to blow glass, so that’s why I really let it go. I ask them, “Ok, what are we going to start doing first?” because naturally the master knows very well the condition of the glass material and how to achieve the purest results.

AM: It’s a true collaboration.

RM: Yes, exactly. Because it’s nice like that.

AM: So how did you come to the idea of creating the In Grimani exhibition in Venice?

RM: Well, each of my projects comes about through a different process. In Grimani started because the director of the Museum of the Palazzo Grimani, Giulio Manieri Elia, was interested in my work and invited me. I’m always very sensitive to space, so I visited the palazzo many times until my inspiration and vision arrived.

AM: So the project is born from a dialogue with the space?

RM: I mean, my glass is always transparent—I never change the color—but, yes, my motive is always to communicate with the space. The idea to do a show in Venice came to me two or three years ago. I’ve been here for so long, but I’ve never presented my work in Venice. My shows are always in Brussels or New York or Amsterdam, but never here where I live. And I thought, “What a shame. I create everything here, but my team of workers from Murano have never seen a show.” They see the objects, but never an installation.

Ritsue Mishima and the team Photo © Francesco Barasciutti

RM: It’s true. They get sweaty and dirty from the work, you know? Sometimes things break in their hands; they get burned, collaborating with me, risking with me. But they never see the final product. So it was born a few years ago, inside me. And it grew, because I wanted to show them the final product of the work. I thought about it for a while and you could say, in the end, it was a coincidence. There was a meeting with the director of the palazzo museum, and he asked me to collaborate.

AM: Very nice. So how did you come up with the title In Grimani?

RM: I invented it myself, this name, and the director really liked it. When I told him, he had to give me a hug because he liked it so much. After visiting often this beautiful space—this palazzo building from the 1600s—I realized that the protagonist isn’t me; it’s the palazzo, the space.

AM: So what was your dialogue with the space like?

RM: Ok, this was what I felt: It’s a beautiful space, but it’s also a very difficult space. When the director asked me to do this show, I wasn’t initially very happy, because the space . . . well, it’s too beautiful. I asked myself, “Do I have to do something above the beauty that is already there?”

AM: Yes, it’s already very beautiful.

RM: Some Venetians say it’s one of the most beautiful in Venice. It’s very interesting historically, because the building isn’t in the traditional Venetian style. It’s an exotic palazzo building, because the Grimani family introduced the Roman style. And, you know, there are 500 square meters of the space . . .

AM: Wow!

RM: So I visited, and visited, and visited. I don’t know how many times. And the space talked to me, you understand? It communicated . . . I am a bit Japanese, maybe, in this way of explaining, but I was very sensitive to the space. Naturally, it’s not that I speak to ghosts, but slowly, slowly, a dialogue with every room developed, and images came to me.

AM: So the pieces are truly inspired by the space. How many did you make for the In Grimani exhibition?

RM: In total, more or less . . . 100.

AM: 100, wow! Great work Ritsue; my compliments.

RM: You know, when I was visiting the space, I always felt a bit sad afterward—sad for the space. Because I felt this truly beautiful space—created so long ago—exists inside a display case, like at the great Metropolitan Museum of Art. It felt frozen in time, in a different realm, and I knew I wanted to bring the space to the here and now, to 2013.

AM: That’s beautiful, Ritsue . . . I’m so happy that I learned about your work through Pierre Marie Giraud. How did you start working with him?

RM: It’s been so long, I don’t remember the whole story . . . He came to visit my studio, because he wanted to collaborate—he really liked my work—and he convinced me. He is so young, but very professional. I think he’s very prepared and very polite, a serious professional.

AM: Yes, exactly, and he has a beautiful sensibility. I have an enormous respect for him.

RM: He’s great, because he’s really well versed. He thinks a lot about the artist’s vision.

AM: Yes, and then he really enters into contact with the materials. I notice that when I go to one of his shows; he tells you about a piece, and, well, he makes it come alive.

RM: Yes, he has enthusiasm. He has so much respect for the artist and for the object. And that’s why I feel good collaborating with him. Every year, he comes to visit my studio and to see me in Japan. I appreciate that he comes to meet, to speak, face to face.

AM: Do you spend a lot of time in Japan?

RM: For about 7 years, I’ve been going back and forth between Japan and Venice. I go to visit family, and then also . . . I fell back into love with Kyoto. I bought a 70-year-old house there, with a garden—a Japanese garden—and I’m redoing it. You could call it a dream—to refurbish the garden and this old wooden house. It’s definitely not big, and I’m not rich, but . . . I want to see it finished.

AM: That’s wonderful, Ritsue. So this is your dream for the future?

RM: My dream for the future? Well, I think that my dream is now. It’s not the future; it’s now. I want to be aware of the moment. Everyday I find a corner where I can sit, even five minutes, to find thankfulness and to enjoy the now. It’s the most amazing thing in the world.


In Grimani: Ritsue Mishima Glass Works is curated by Giulio Manieri Elia and Mishima Studio and presented at The Museum of the Palazzo Grimani in Venice. The exhibition takes place under the patronage of the Japan Foundation as a collateral event of the 55th International Art Exhibition—la Biennale di Venezia. The show runs May 30 – September 29, 2013.

This conversation has been translated from Italian. Introduction by Wava Carpenter.

  • Interview by

    • Ambra Medda

      Ambra Medda

      Ambra is a passionate, seasoned curator, who facilitates great design through innovative collaborations between designers, artists, brands, and institutions. Among many other things.