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On the Wall: Mery Crystal Ra, Relayer of Light

As an artist, she goes by the name Mery Crystal Ra, though you may also know her as Meeli Kõiva. Looking through her countless designs of luminous architectural glass, I asked if the last part of her name referred to the ancient Egyptian sun god. It would make sense, considering her artwork is inextricably linked to light.

"Light of the Energy Fields", from the 2012 Estonian Oil Shale Museum exhibition

The inclusion of the word “Crystal” is a visual connection to the glass she uses. But beyond this, the name has primarily been a way to make it easier for non-Estonian speakers to pronounce her name when she exhibits her art around the world.

Much acclaim surrounds her art. Mike Barlow, author of the book Smart Cities, Smart Future: Showcasing Tomorrow has described how, “Her featured works include moving lasers, quartz glass sculptures and objects formed from light… She has been recognized as a pioneer in the field of 3-dimensional light-glass sculpture.”

Over 50 creations of hers have shed light on many high-profile spaces in Europe and North America. In 2006, she staged a 15 metre-long river of reflective glass and blue and yellow LED lights right through the main building of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. This artwork, titled Reactive River, was soundtracked by composer Margo Kõlar.

Her exhibition Light for Peace led the 2016 closing ceremony of UNESCO’s International Year of Light in Mérida, Mexico. A chamber with a tall ceiling was bathed in cool blue light, with heavenly auras of brighter light shining below to the screen that was the centre of the interactive exhibition. As described by American arts organization CODAworx, “visitors enter the gallery and type their wishes onto a keyboard mounted onto a pedestal on the gallery floor. The wishes are sent to a wireless printer mounted on a higher floor of the gallery. The printed wishes flutter down over the visitors. They’re also projected onto a screen, which is part of the piece…”

Her 2016 project Parasite Beach brought her art underground. In this synthesis of live animation, glass panels, and vivid colours, she ushered away shadows in the heavy ambience of the Estonian Mining Museum in Kohtla-Nõmme, Ida-Viru County. She juxtaposed the idea of energetic light with the role of oil shale mining in producing energy for Estonia.

In each of these pieces, and her accompanying speaking engagements, she emphasizes the power of creative cooperation and dialogue. I find that there is also a hidden layer of life that she reveals, in the sense that light determines everything we see. This she reveals instantaneously—with the first impression of each artwork.

These values have always been part of her. Early on, Mery Crystal Ra went to an art school; drawing and learning painting from the very best in Estonia. At this time, she composed and sang folk music in a band, as a soloist, and in Tartu’s Vanemuine Theatre Opera Choir. By 1996, she was living in Manhattan and exhibiting internationally.

Just five years before, she and musician Erkki-Sven Tüür were collaborating at the Tallinn Exhibition Centre, upon Estonia re-gaining independence. Her thoughtful and charismatic nature has continued to enable projects like these, especially with musicians, whom she believes there is a special understanding with. In this exhibition, the sharp lines of glass structures were paired with a flute composition. She says, “there’s a connection between musical and visual realities… the two worlds feel the same.” To make impressions with light, shadow, and physicality, Mery Crystal Ra emphasizes the use of her hands in making designs, rather than computers. Only later on does she convert that into new technology, which she says “could be more powerful than drawings or paintings.”

In fact, when she was still an art student, she started to collaborate with physicists to explore the possibilities of glass fibres, light conductive materials and the property of photoelasticity, in which applying pressure to transparent materials can split a ray of light into two. Mery Crystal Ra has applied this to thin quartz glass rods. At one point, these designs of hers were used at the Tallinn TV Tower.

Describing how she gets to this final product, she says, “It is a long process. The first step is painting. Step two is making smaller models. Then I do a lot of tests in the studio. When I did a sculpture for Glaston Corporation [one of the world’s leading glass companies, based in Finland], the testing time was two and a half years long.”

It’s worth the wait. Pieces like Flying Sheets of Paper, which was a 2015 CODAvideo Awards public choice winner, have a piercing glow. They shapeshift in dreamlike ways, such as an emulation of the curious directions of a piece of paper flying through the air.

Renowned New York City gallery owner Rosemarie Montague-Tiesler, who featured Mery Crystal Ra’s art in SoHo in the 1990s, states that she is “an art world Tesla”, while Finnish-American cinematographer and film director Eric Saarinen has said, “Mery Crystal Ra understands the human spirit and knows how to communicate in a very basic way, which resonates with all people on the planet. She uses light, sound, and color to inspire us all to be better people… and to stand tall. She is very creative and technical at the same time – using modern technologies to help her tell stories on an emotional level. Meeli is a highly experienced ‘Princess of Light’”

Mery Crystal Ra and her latest glass window artwork
Mery Crystal Ra and her latest glass window artwork

She has also innovated within long-standing traditions like stained glass, creating windows for the Estonian Supreme Court building and a new temple structure. Her art feels representative of a new era, of new philosophies, but are part of institutions that stand the test of time.

Mery Crystal Ra gives architecture more emotion and spirituality, turning away from brutalism. But to bring her creations to the public, which are somewhere between conceptual and architectural art, she communes with engineers, glass manufacturers, and other professionals outside the typical places where art is displayed.

Lately, she moves between her residences and studios in New York City and Helsinki, where the top fabricators for her artwork are, but is regularly back in Estonia. In each of these places, her architectural productions of glass and light create the possibility of transformation, to all viewers who are open to it.

To see more of Mery Crystal Ra’s art, visit her website at merycrystalra.com .

This article was written by Vincent Teetsov as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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