Dale Chihuly


There are many reasons I came to Jerusalem and the Tower of David Museum to make a major exhibition. First there was my stay at Kibbutz Lehav in 1962-63. I remember arriving at the Kibbutz as a boy of 21 and leaving a man, just a few short months later. Before Lehav my life was more about having fun, and after Lehav I wanted to make some sort of contribution to society — I discovered there was more to life than having a good time. It's difficult to explain how this change came about, but it had a lot to do with going out on border patrol during the night with guys my own age who had more responsibility and maturity than adults twice their age in the States. After the Kibbutz experience my life would never be the same.

The best and most famous book about Venice is by Ruskin, called the "Stones of Venice." All of Venice is stone with the exception of the canals, which are lined with stone. I think it's for this reason that Jerusalem, which is also built entirely of stone, reminds me so much of Venice. And they are both such historic cities — especially the Old City of Jerusalem, which has changed so very little over the centuries. Both Venice and Jerusalem allow you to experience them as if you were in a previous century. Both are such beautiful, magical places with a very special quality of light and atmosphere. Two of the most unique cities in the world that are both beyond comparison and without envy.

Another exciting and thrilling component of "Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000" is the Holy Land, where glass was invented some 4,000 years ago, somewhere along the shores of the Mediterranean. Legend has it that there was a shipwreck, and the sailors who got to the beach built a bonfire and used some blocks of soda that had been part of the cargo for seating around the fire. During the night a block of soda fell into the fire, which acted like a flux, which lowers the melting point of sand. When they woke in the morning they discovered they had made a batch of glass. Whether or not this story is true, archeologists are certain this is the area where glass was invented, undoubtedly by accident, and the people who did it were bright enough to realize the importance of their discovery.

Not only was glass discovered here, but some 2,000 years later, just before the birth of Christ, glassblowing was invented, probably by accident as well. This extraordinary discovery turned out to be even more important than the invention of glass itself. Now there was a way to make inexpensive containers that would hold liquid, not be porous, never leak, and in which one could see the contents. An extremely functional and beautiful vessel that immediately became highly sought after. The craft of glassblowing quickly spread throughout the area, and because of its immediate widespread success it is difficult to pinpoint its exact point of invention. One can only wonder what kind of genius thought of blowing human breath down a metal tube, forming a bubble inside a molten blob of glass.

And to think that this molten blob of glass is made only of silica or sand, the most common material in the world, that can be transformed from a solid to a liquid to a solid from just fire. For me it's the most mysterious and magical of all the inventions or materials that mankind has invented or discovered. Since I was a little boy I always loved glass. And 34 years ago I put a pipe into some stained glass that melted in my basement, and blew a bubble. Since that moment I have spent my life as an explorer searching for new ways to use glass and glassblowing to make forms and colours and installations that no one has ever created before — that's what I love to do.

The Jerusalem project started with a lunch on my kitchen table about two years ago with Izzika and Yaffa Gaon. They had visited Venice when I hung chandeliers over the canals and we all thought a special installation project would be great for Israel, and the Citadel of David came up as an extraordinary location for such a project. When Izzika died shortly after, I flew to Jerusalem for his memorial service and met Shosh Yaniv the Museum director, and she gave me a tour of the Citadel. I was totally overwhelmed with the Citadel and Jerusalem, which I had visited once before in 1962. Shosh and I were determined to find a way to do this project in Izzika's memory.

Initially we set the budget at 250,000 dollars and I thought I might build three towers in the courtyard of the Citadel in honour of the three main religions in Jerusalem. I visited Jerusalem and the Citadel two more times before the project and with each trip I tried to increase the size and scope of the project. It ended up with fourteen installations and a retrospective exhibition in the Crusader's Hall.

In the end "Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000" cost over one million dollars. Of course, as the budget size and number of installations increased so did the need for a larger installation team and support group. We also felt that we could no longer fabricate in Seattle all of the intricate and complicated armatures of steel that would be needed for the Crystal Mountain, the Blue Tower, the Moon and the Persian Seaform Ceiling. Our site engineer would go to Jerusalem to work for two months prior to the installation team in order to design and erect the structure. We then planned on the team to have three weeks to build the installations. In addition to the 30 people from the Boathouse, we felt we would need an additional 30-40 Israelis to help us mount the installations and a large crane to move some of the structures into place. In the end our calculations turned out perfectly, and we finished the Crystal Mountain the day before the opening on July 1, 1999.

Many people have asked me what was I thinking and why — how did I go about creating the pieces — do they have a meaning? I guess the answer is that I think from my gut more than my head. I walked around the Citadel many times, trying to get a feeling for the architecture — understanding the space or the "room" that developed over the centuries. The colour of the stone, the ground, the sky. What felt right for the space? How many pieces? What colour and what form? I knew that Jews, Moslems, Christians and tourists from around the world would visit — as many as a million people would now see the Citadel in an altered way. I wanted my work to enhance their visit to the Citadel. Some pieces would be obvious and others would be discovered. Some very colorful and others subtle. Some going upwards and others down into the excavations. Some very beautiful and others more unusual and raw. Colours and form are seen first, and I wanted to have a variety of colours but not have it feel like I picked one of each colour, so I used white, pink, and blue for the major pieces in addition to the red and yellow spears. After these pieces were installed we placed the smaller groups, many of which had brighter colours. One of the most exciting things about the Citadel was the many vantage points from which to view the exhibition. You could see the installations from every level and almost every angle, which is totally different than the experience one has in a museum where the viewpoints are controlled.

The most complicated piece in the exhibition is the Crystal Mountain. It was a new idea for me in almost every way, and it was built for the first time in the Citadel. The steel structure for the mountain weighs over 34,000 kilograms and has 18,000 welds and nearly five kilometers of metal building rods. It was engineered and took about six weeks to fabricate on location in the Citadel. We then added 2,000 polyvitro crystals to the end points of the rods which weighed over 1,000 kilos. It turned out nearly 15 metres high and over 11 metres in diameter, built on top of an ancient Islamic tower base. I chose a gold pink color for the crystals because it is bright and light and joyous on top of the heavy steel structure. This piece, more than any of the installations, was made for the Jerusalem sun and light and works at its best at sunrise and sunset.

Most of my installations in the past were designed for museums and indoor applications and rely primarily on artificial lighting. And although we did ship and install some 200 lighting fixtures for night viewing, the primary viewing in the Citadel is of course during day light hours. The sun is much brighter than any artificial sources so the colours seem much different. Certain colours look fantastic in the bright sun — the Red and Yellow Spears, the Blue Tower, the Silver Star and the Saguaros. I chose pieces that would take the strong light and many colors won't. In the end the installations came from five countries: the US, France, Finland, Japan and the Czech Republic. We also created a small installation of local Heberon glass made in the ancient tradition.

So here we are, some two years later, watching the dream unfold. It is a tribute to Izzika Gaon, but in the broader sense it is a tribute to 4000 years of glass making here in the Holy Land — and even more important —a tribute to a unique site in a unique city in a unique country and at a unique time. As we stand on the threshold of the new millennium here at the ancient Tower of David, this is my own personal tribute — Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000.

Published in Chihuly Jerusalem 2000, Portland Press, 2000 Originally published in Ariel:The Israel Review of Arts and Letters, Vol. 111, 1999