Ekphrasis: Glyph Graves

I strongly believe we can make something here that’s an opportunity to break free from traditional constraints… Art, I feel, should be about exploration, not incremental polishing.  – Glyph Graves

Glyph Graves by Rowan Derryth

I met Glyph Graves on the bottom of the sea.

While I certainly knew Glyph’s work, I’d never seen him before.  I was surprised and enchanted by this amazing transparent creature before me.  I gasped, “Your avi!!” before I could contain myself.

“Ahhh yes,” he said, smiling (I think), “the bones are not mine but the rest is inside and out.”  (Humorous post-interview aside: at Saturday’s opening of Linden Labs CEO M Linden’s art exhibit ‘Doodles’, I heard M himself utter the immortal words: “Glyph, I’m camming around inside your stomach.”)

“That is amazing… I had no idea… is this how you usually go about?”

“Yes .. though I have had a jellyfish avatar that I made.” Like magic, he conjured a gelatinous creature before my eyes.

“Wow, that is stunning,” I watched, amazed.

“Looks better of course when you’re wearing it and moving around.”  He showed me around a bit, and when I asked if this was his studio, he shrugged (I think) and said “Oh, hmm, I tend to work anywhere… different places… I have one small project here, the evolving plants… that is giving me data for other projects.”

A selection of Glyph's undersea works.

If that statement, and his amazing avatar, aren’t enough to suggest that he is a man of science, let me clarify that the man behind Glyph Graves is an evolutionary biologist.  Which makes perfect sense, as the extraordinary organic sculptures that he makes, full of glowing light and shifting colour, seem to come straight from the origins of life itself.  They are entities which breath and shift in the wind, or swim through the water or air, sometimes tentatively, often playfully, filling you with a sense of wonder.

“I love the Crystal Aenenome,” I observed,  “I have a patch of water behind my house, I’m thinking that would look great there.”  And just like that, the artist gifted me with one, which I am now pleased to sit and enjoy in my backyard.

Me and my Aenenome at home.

And that is the first thing I wish to make clear: although wonderfully strange, these are exquisite works of art which, like a fine Chihuly glass sculpture, can easily grace one’s home, no matter how traditional.  Except these are perhaps even better than Chihuly’s (blasphemy!), for they have a life of their own.  In fact, I had two of his jellyfish swimming around my living room the other day, just for fun.  Who needs a cat when you have these?

“It is hard to find those even remotely interested in SL art that are not familiar with Glyph Graves and his art.”  So begins the introductory note to the current exhibit “Glyph Graves: Incomplete Recollections”, curated by the tireless White Lebed, well-known for her work with Burning Life, and fellow Artist-In-Residence at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and personal friend of Glyph’s.  I was privileged to have her show me around the exhibit, and tell me a little of why she decided to organize this:

“Glyph is a very old friend of mine – almost two years, and almost from the start I wanted to do this.  When we met he already was very advanced, and I was a new artist. I was curious to see how he started, and stage by stage how he developed his tools… particularly some mistakes, wrong turns.  Those are very important for artists, often more important than wins and discoveries.  But Glyph is very passionate about doing new stuff… when he works he is obsessed with his new project and he tends to lose interest to his old stuff once it is shown.  Basically his inventory is a mess.”

Glyph's earliest sculptures.

We both laughed at this, but I must say they did an outstanding job making sense of his inventory for this show.  Spread over several sims generously lent by Kolor Fall, the exhibit traces Glyph’s career from his very first sculptures to his current work. Glyph confirmed White’s observation about his shifting interests when we chatted:

“One thing you should know about me is that once what I do becomes popular I will move on… just how I am… I like to create things in a clear space… if other people are doing something I lose interest.  I like to work outside whatever the current paradigm is.”

Glyph is also keen for this not to be called a retrospective, though, as the whimsical ‘Invite-O-bot’ he sent out for the opening informs us:

The Invite-O-bot speaks.

Understand that this isn’t a retrospective… that’s for dead people… and despite outward appearances I ask you… Does his heart not still beat? Do his lungs not breath?  If you cut him does he not bleed? (pause) Well… actually… the last one no… but, two out of three really isn’t bad.

And as I can see his heart beating before my very eyes, I cannot but agree that he is indeed not dead.  Glyph also took me on his own tour of his exhibit, but before we went there he wanted to show me one of his complete installations, ‘Strangers Also Dance’, now at the UWA sim (and you can check out the Designing Worlds episode on it here).  As we walked through the strange landscape he created, I asked him to tell me a little about the theme of his work.

Glyph: I guess an underlying theme is transformation… for me that is a native principle of SL.
RD: Seems like that is the case with all your work.
Glyph: Yes… even the purely textural ones.  The texture is transformed by the sculpt it is in; it gets pulled and spread or narrowed by the shape of the sculpt.  In a way, with those, I use the shape to paint with.
RD: Do you make art in RL?  And somehow I find that question inadequate… you ARE making art in RL that manifests here…
Glyph: (laughs) I actually think that RL art is virtual too.
RD: How do you make your decisions about colour?
Glyph: Feel… the sort of feel I think it should have… and that thing you can never explain.
RD: Intuition?
Glyph: You can call it that… it’s hard to explain the process.

We walked to the edge of a rather surreal pond, at the centre of which floats a large pink and blue… crystal?  A voice beckons:

Voice of  the Crystaline Presence: On the water, the cold… it’s hard on us… touch to unfreeze my crystaline self and I’ll take you to our refuge…

The surreal landscape of 'Strangers Also Dance'

Enter the crystal then, and your narrative journey begins:

Freed Alien Jelly: Nothing that will hurt you little one…, your warmth has freed me from the cold down here….let me show you something few have ever seen…rest now… in your sleep strange fragments of dreams of swimming in strange clouds come unbidden… suddenly you feel… disturbed as the hard crystaline surface you rested on melts away… then comforted by a sense of gentle enfolding and a warm gratefulness.  Calm little one I will hold you safe until we arrive.

The crystal chamber transforms in to a glowing sphere, a jelly, but more like a womb, as you lie curled, floating, this disembodied voice soothing you on your way.  You arrive to yet another surreal landscape… and the story it has to tell is strange and melancholy… and though I am tempted to reprint it here, I think I should leave it for readers to visit for themselves, make their own impressions.  I will say, however, that Glyph Graves is not just an artist-builder, but rather something of an exquisite poet as well.

Glyph guides me through his world.

They are also very tactile, very sensual works, as I told him.  His response was intriguing:

Glyph: Yes they often are… I don’t hold with the notion of girl’s art and boy’s art… I think that silly.
RD: I am very glad to hear you say that… I was going to ask you if you felt this work had any kind of gender identity to it?
Glyph: No…I mean I’m male and comfortable with that.  But to constrain art for reasons of gender insecurity…
RD: Well, I think these works by their very nature are gender neutral…  You being an evolutionary biologist, this all makes sense… your work feels so primal… like the birth of the universe.
Glyph: (laughs) I think that has more to do with growing up next to bushland and exploring as a kid.

Playing with the 'Disturbed Organisms' in his work Organic Recurve

Thinking about this notion of exploring, I thought about one of my favourite works of his, Organic Recurve, a series of floating spheres which shift about and chime in musical tones as you walk amongst them.  “I think, because of the way you work, and what you do, your most successful pieces are the ones that are whimsical and interactive, but also beautiful and thought provoking. Like Organic Recurve.”  Glyph nods and tells me a bit more about that work, “They are a musical cellular automata… sometimes it a bit hard to get them to self propagate.”

“They self-propagate?” I observe. “Another argument on the gender neutral front.”  This is one of his many works that offers visitors a notecard, which explicates in his usual unaffected scientific-yet-humorous language. Here is an edited excerpt:

What is it?  Well… it’s an interactive/reactive mobile element audio/colour sculpture… one that, with a modicum of persistence, produces unique (each time) self propagating musical patterns. It’s also a cellular automata …of sorts.  It’s different from almost all in that it is asychronous (ie it dosent update all at once) and it doesn’t have a fixed pattern of neighbours; the physical location of the elements depends on the avatar(s). It is that latter quality that allows it to produce unique patterns each time. So it’s sculpture, a cellular automata or…  if you like, a colony of affectionate funny looking organisms that get off making music for you.

In fact, that is perhaps my favourite aspect of his work – it is multi-layered, and multimedia.  Visually stunning, often with textual aspects, and of course, sound.  Many of his works have sound which, according to Glyph, “is played note by note depending on what’s happening with the wind.”

As you pass close to the works, they ring and chime in a way that makes me think of  Tennyson’s Aeonian music from In Memoriam (95):

The deep pulsations of the world,
Aeonian music measuring out
The steps of Time – the shocks of Chance –
The blows of Death.

Although deeply embedded in science, these works evoke the same kind of metaphysical encounter Tennyson describes.  And he has captured what, at least for me, these objects should sound like.

We spent quite a long time walking around his exhibit and talking about his work, far too much to reprint here.  His work is vast and varied, from the glowing and playful works already described, to more dark, disturbing ones, such as the slightly sinister heads which turn quite suddenly and hover, peering down at you, looking slightly threatening.  While confronting one of these, Glyph says “funny most people find them creepy… I’ve always thought they are cute.”  I can sort of see it.  Sort of.

Going head to head with a Glyph head.

After staring at the head for a bit, I realized I was deliberately moving about, provoking it to see what it would do. “Your pieces are so fun to play with.”

“Yes… they are also very involved technically, but I feel that should never be the point of the piece.”

“What should be the point then?” I wondered.

“Play is good… if I lose points for not being ‘serious,'” he shrugs (I think), “I have other pieces for that.”

We circled the now somewhat cute heads some more, then he turned to me and said, “Oh it has to speak to the person who makes it, and hopefully to other people too… art is interaction whether you just looking at a painting in a gallery, or playing with it.  It’s always interesting to watch people become emotionally involved with ones like this.”

He has other works that taunt and play with you, from a rather annoying (and funny) Ruthed shadow that latches on and haunts you, to the rather beautiful Curtains of Prejudice which follow and surround you in a textile of light and sound.

Curtains of Prejudice

Perhaps one of Glyph’s most intriguing works is the award-winning space he made for the Brooklyn is Watching project, Gallery B-Context Dependent.  A rather unassuming brick building from the outside, one enters to find an unadorned art gallery which, after just a moment, shifts into what I can only described as a ‘Glyph space’.  Then, a second person enters, and the space shifts again.  By way of explaining this work, Glyph made a very astute observation which I have often tried to make clear to my own art history students:

“While the art in a gallery stands by itself, what is actually seen depends on the labels and prejudices that people carry around with them… the background of the people looking at the art, so each person sees something different to each other.  What I see when I look at Rene Magritte may be different depending on the associations I have with the elements of the work. So this gallery shows or attempts to show that.  What is seen depends on how many avatars are in it at any one time.”

I had been in here the day before with White, and was keen to see the further permutations of the space.  So we called up some friends, and within a few minutes, I had none other than Ragamuffin Kips and Gracie Kendal (Ekphrasis forthcoming!) popping in to help us out.

The shifting space of Gallery B-Context Dependent

I think this work is exemplary of Glyph’s oeuvre: transient, interactive, innovative, atmospheric.  I encourage everyone to visit a Glyph Graves installation at every opportunity.  “Glyph Graves: Incomplete Recollections” will close on the 5th of April, so this is the last week to see this massive not-a-retrospective.  There are also many other places to see his work, such as his ethereal Wind Sculpture, and of course Strangers also Dance at the UWA.

As we ended our afternoon walking through one of his amazing gardens he built for the NPIRL garden, he grinned (I think) and made what was perhaps my favourite, and most poignant, comment on his own work: “Avatar, eat your heart out.”

New to Ekphrasis?  Catch up on the previous posts here:


  1. Hey Rowan

    This is a lovely write up I really appreciate it
    Thank you.

    I love the approach you took .. cleverly done.


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