about the author

Matthew Spencer is a Seattleite currently working in the town of Bad Ischl, Austria. In 2012, he graduated from the University of Washington, where he spent his time haunting the library, mostly in search of unread German and Latin American authors. Fiction writing has been only a recent enterprise, though his music journalism has previously appeared in Popmatters and Brainwashed, among other publications. Last year, he worked as an interview editor for Voice of Witness on a forthcoming oral history of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Uncollected writing and random thoughts can be found at unpaginated.wordpress.com.

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Glass Hamburger in Helsinki

Matthew Spencer

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Dawn finds the glass artist pacing his studio. The sun alights on dusty windowpanes. Shelves hold manuals, sketchbooks, instructional DVDs. The form sought after is a hamburger, slightly outsized, in Vaseline glass. A row of failed prototypes sits fanwise across the concrete floor. In this hour of doubt, a few essential certainties arise. Uranium oxide reaches its melting point at 2827°C. A work of art is perceived against a background of and by association with other works of art. The changing weight of the oceans and atmosphere causes miniscule deformations of the Earth’s crust. In this world there is another glass hamburger. Stevens and Keats wrote of its forbearers.

It happens like this: one day a man sees a glass hamburger displayed in the lobby of a municipal office building in Helsinki. Each ingredient is replicated with exacting clarity—lettuce, tomato, beef patty, sesame seed bun. The glass fluoresces pale green under the light of an ultraviolet lamp. A heavy silence lingers in dim corridors. Wildflower scenes in faded pastel ornament the colorless walls.

Each morning the man pauses by the display case on his way to work as a midlevel functionary in the Financial Management Services Department of the City of Helsinki. Three months the burger remains in the lobby, until it is replaced by placards soliciting plasma donations. A sense of absence grows within him. He talks to his coworkers over the cubicle partitions. He mentions names like Chihuly, Carther, and Sarpeneva. Citywide, the invoicing situation is normal. Declarations of dog ownership can be given electronically or by filling and printing a form. The deadline is February. His coworkers gaze at their computer monitors, continue typing the business of the day—purchasing bills, bookkeeping, payroll.

He enrolls in a series of extension courses at the local adult education center, flirts diffidently with the art instructor. She wears thick framed glasses and leads discussions on the theories of Michel Foucault between basic figure drawing sessions. She talks about visits to London, Paris, and Berlin, where she has spoken leading gallerists, once accosted Jeff Koons in an elevator “regarding the masculinist implications” of his work.

The would-be glass artist finds himself daydreaming. A train of images runs through his mind: his face on the cover of Artforum, a career retrospective at the National Gallery, a city made of gold, capital of a new bohemian kingdom, its spires towering along the Gulf of Finland. The local chapter of Nimettömät alkoholistit has the room the following hour. He helps the art instructor rearrange the chairs after class.

On tram rides home he studies the relevant professional literature, glances at the city rolling by. Reefs of low hanging cloud bloom crimson like immense wounds festering in the sky. His fellow passengers cough mutely. He counts out the years to retirement, life slowly bleeding from him, scrolls through his text messages to the art instructor and sighs. Meanwhile, the tramcars glide in their courses, turning off to the left and to the right, toward Senaatintori, Arabianranta, Munkkiniemi, sparks of midafternoon twilight glinting along the rails.

The months pass. Petty disappointments multiply. His phone displays images of coworkers on vacation in Spain, Florida, and the Bahamas, the tanned men and women of the Financial Management Services Department lounging beachside under thatched cabanas, looking out toward blue expanses, coral fringed seas. Meanwhile, the spring snow melts to a sad gray curd on the streets of Helsinki.

The would-be glass artist spends his free time reading, visiting exhibitions, corresponding with the masters. His letters and e-mails are politely answered by interns, personal assistants. He continues his chosen profession of midlevel functionary, earning a raise six months before his yearly review. At home, he renovates a disused toolshed to the back of his property, paving the floor and installing an electric heating system for the winter months. He buys a set of furnaces, midrange models “perfect for the beginner or the advanced hobbyist.” They sit in the corner of the shed looking out onto the garden and the birch forest beyond it. He purchases more supplies—a large aluminum table lamp, a gas torch for annealing. He builds a work bench from scraps supplied by a local furniture company.

Then, on an ordinary morning, early, when vernal warmth is slowly returning to the prosperous towns and cities along the Gulf of Finland, the glass-artist stands alone in his toolshed, nervous and wasted from lack of sleep, pausing for a moment to consult the equipment he has purchased, the works he has produced: some vases, a set of dinnerware, a paperweight in the shape of dolphin commissioned by some vague relation.

He takes his notebook and he holds it to the rising light—all his skill, all his devotion gone into one last fabrication. He crosses the shed and takes a heavy blow iron from his workbench. His fingers roll nimbly across the metal as he draws a fist’s worth of glass from the furnace—glowing earthstuff, microcosm of heightening mountains, continental drift—turning it over and over, finessing it to symmetry. He rounds the glass on a damp woodblock then plunges the iron into the mouth of the furnace once more.

The most visible use of Uranium is as a raw material in achieving nuclear fission. The life of an artifact proceeds from vision to recognition, from the concrete to the general. A wall clock marks the time with its dry ticking. He withdraws the iron and takes a set of pliers to the molten confection, pulling and crimping the glass into shape, each movement exact and conforming to a sequence remembered even in sleep.

He takes the rubber hose at the end of the blow iron and sets it to his lips, exhaling deeply. The glass inflates and widens, its honeycolored glow slowly fading in the grayish morning. Between breaths he talks to his materials, goading them, his foot tapping a steady rhythm on the concrete floor. Within the realm of geologic time the semisolid rock of the mantle behaves as a viscous liquid and is brought to the surface by means of convection, the history of circulating currency and the modern unified state administered by members of a professional bureaucratic class forming, by comparison, a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity. The glass collapses in on itself, like a specimen trawled from some ocean vent, the heat of the furnace still fading over its surface.

The glass artist sits on a high backed chair near the garden window, contemplating the trees coming into leaf, springtime awakening all around him. A jet of steam rises in the still air of the toolshed. He takes a kettle from a hotplate and pours himself a cup of tea. A book in Russian lays openfaced on the worktable. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” What a story needs is love hindered by obstacles. Life continues in the prosperous towns and cities along the Gulf of Finland. The glass artist gathers his prototypes and smashes them in a plastic bucket. He takes the bucket and pours the shards into a crucible. This morning all things rise toward perfection.

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