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‘A poetic rendition of the heart form:’ new installation opens at the National Portrait Gallery

At the National Portrait Gallery, a wall of glass hearts produces a field of colour and movement, mirroring the responsive nature of the human heart.

Commissioned as a centrepiece to Australian Love Stories, renowned Australian glass artist and Canberra local, Harriet Schwarzrock, has created a large-scale installation reflecting on the role the heart plays as the emotional centre. 

Ms Schwarzrock graduated from Sydney College of the Arts in 1999 with Honours in Visual Arts, majoring in glass, after transferring from a science degree. She has exhibited extensively throughout Australia and abroad, and her piece, breathe, won the sculpture prize in the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize in 2014.

Glass, inert gases and electricity come together to produce a field of colour and movement in this major new work, mirroring the responsive nature of the human heart. Photo: Grace Carr

Titled spaces between movement and stillness, Ms Schwarzrock said the 120 glass hearts featured in the new installation are “a poetic rendition of the heart form.”

“Although the gases are invisible, when excited by electricity they reveal subtle effects and differences. I am fascinated by this interplay between the invisible and visible, between our extraordinary similarities and differences,” the artist said.

Studying the idea of the resting heart rate, and how it rises and falls depending on emotion, Ms Schwarzrock spent a year working on the installation.

“Each piece takes almost an hour to blow and there’s subsequent processes.

“I had to learn a bit of science and I did a fair bit of experimentation. I’ve got, as my husband tells me, quite a large pile of broken hearts in the corner of the studio,” she said.

“It was quite a steep learning curve for me, and I was fortunate in that I was supported in having a residency at the Canberra Glassworks where I initially worked through some of the technical challenges.”

Sandra Bruce, NPG Director of Collection and Exhibitions and co-curator of Australian Love Stories, said that spaces between movement and stillness is a teaser for the exhibition.

“When we think about love stories, it’s generally the romantic love, the intimate love and we know that Australian Love Stories is so much more than that,” she said.

“Harriet’s work, which really speaks to a universal understanding of what is at the heart of us, which is our hearts, and how everybody has similar physical reactions to love and emotional reactions to love.

“I think it’s really nice we’re opening it a couple of weeks early so that people can explore it and maybe see how the Portrait Gallery can start to engage with our exhibitions a little bit differently.”

Originally meant to open in 2020, Australian Love Stories was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Ms Bruce, the National Portrait Gallery always planned to commission Ms Schwarzrock.

Harriet Schwarzrock holds a glass heart. Photo: Grace Carr

“We weren’t bringing in the show from London anymore, it was all about Australian Love Stories,” said Ms Bruce.

 “We thought ‘well, why we don’t talk to Harriet to see if she can do something bigger for us, something really immersive that has a lot of impact that will really capture people’s imagination’.

“To have someone like Harriet in our backyard was great for us, really exciting.” 

The installation, now open to the public, will offer a luminous and interactive introduction to Australian Love Stories, representing the boundless forms of love in the exhibition.

“It’s been very special to be asked to exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery,” Ms Schwarzrock said.

Australian Love Stories opens on 20 March and will run until 1 August.

Tickets are available at: https://portrait.gov.au/exhibitions/australian-love-stories-2020

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