Untitled Document

Chihuly at Kew

Giles Sutherland
Chihuly at Kew

The 2006 American Craft Council Gold Medal, for consummate craftsmanship, was presented to the artist Dale Chihuly at a dinner hosted by the Council, January 15 at the Brazilian Court Hotel, Palm Beach, Florida . Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, and holding degrees from the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin and the Rhode Island School of Design, Chihuly became focused on glass while a Fulbright Fellow traveling in Europe in 1968. A year later he established the glass program at RISD, where he taught until 1980, and has been closely associated with the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, of which he was a cofounder in 1971. His works in series, beginning in 1975 with Navajo Blanket Cylinders, and later those titled Seaform, Macchia, Soft Cylinder, Persian, Venetian, lkebana, Niijima Float, Chandelier and Fiori, are represented in leading museum and private collections around the world. He also has created site-specific installations, among them Chihuly Over Venice, in 1995. His first glasshouse exhibition, at Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago, opened in 2002; a major garden exhibition, the first in Great Britain, is reported here.

To North American audiences the work of the glass artist Dale Chihuly needs little introduction. In Britain, audiences have had less occasion to become acquainted with the flamboyant and truly popular nature of Chihuly's work. Until “Gardens of Glass” at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew opened in London (May 28, 2005-January 15, 2006), only one major exhibition of his work had taken place—in 2001 ,at the equally prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum, also in the nation's capital. But the Kew installation was more significant for a number of reasons, not least that it allowed Chihuly to break free of the pillared, quasi-ecclesiastical confines of the V & A.

Kew 's vast 300-acre site with its world-famous collection of plants and trees adjoining the river Thames is surely the ideal setting for Chihuly's dynamic, color-laden forms. Few artists have had such an opportunity to display their work (all of which was made for the occasion) to such good effect, and even fewer have seized the chance with such passion and succeeded so brilliantly. Exhibiting at Kew is a daunting prospect, one imagines, and rising to the occasion must have taken every last ounce of will power for Chihuly's team and the artist himself.*

The demands (and by implication, the rewards) of the venue are immense. A series of vast, predominantly Victorian glasshouses, full to bursting with plants from all corners of the globe, presents particular challenges for the artist. Anything less than large-scale work that is at least as visually interesting as some of the more exotic plants would be drowned out immediately. Fortunately, Chihuly's sculptural forms were often as large, colorful and visually complex as the botanical specimens they sought to complement and interpret.

Entering the gardens, the visitor first experienced Chihuly's work not inside the glasshouses, but outside, on a pond in front of the Palm House. Here the artist sited a series of what he calls Walla Wallas (small floating sculptures) and Thames Skiff, full to bursting with an array of mainly spear like objects. The skiff is a traditional shallow-bottomed rowing boat with a utilitarian history, but here Chihuly facilitated a conceptual metamorphosis. The mundane became the extraordinary.

The origins of his skiff go back to the Chihuly Over Venice project, which began in Nuutajärvi, Finland, in 1995. The artist and his glassblowing team would toss discarded fragments into the nearby Nuutajoki River and children in small wooden boats would collect them. Later, Chihuly filled an abandoned boat with glass forms, and since that time, the boat has become a recurring motif. Thames Skiff was intended to be impermanent, and this attribute calls into question (as does the work of Andy Goldsworthy) the value and meaning of art when it can only be recorded, not preserved. These are interesting philosophical and spiritual issues, but one suspects that Thames Skiff will be saved for posterity in some form or other, perhaps finding a home at Kew .

The Walla Wallas, attached by stalks to the bottom of the pond, moved and bobbed like mysterious waterfowl or exotic aquatic botany. The blurring and fusing of form, the visual ambiguity, is surely Chihuly's intent, and it was a theme running through the entire exhibit. At one level it demonstrates the artist's interest in the natural world, but at a deeper one it passionately proclaims that art, nature and science can be part of a unified way of describing and responding to the world around us. That institutions such as Kew are thinking like this gives cause for optimism. The decompartmentalization of thinking across the disciplines—a holistic vision—is surely one path to a better world.

Inside the Temperate House, forms and colors grabbed the senses. While many of these were beautiful and exotic plants from around the world, many were Chihuly's works. Often the two seemed indistinguishable, and this visual merging could catch the visitor unawares. Spheres, spears, orbs, “flowers” and all manner of other shapes were placed at ground level among vegetation, beside water or dangled overhead. Finding and looking became an adventure and a joy. A work such as Kew Palm House Star —an explosion of glass icicles emerging from a central core—was suspended near a plant whose leaves echoed the sculpture's spiky shapes. But Star also drew attention to the world outside and to the cosmos, reminding us that we are part of an interconnected totality.

One of the most memorable pieces was Multicoloured Polyvitro Chandelier. Multifarious glass spheres articulated around an invisible stalk reach precariously skyward. Light shimmers and reflects from these pods of life. The piece itself precipitates a cascade of ideas and feelings. Any art critic will tell you that people-watching at an art event is part of its attraction. A person's reaction to art is writ large in body language and facial expression. Dale Chihuly's work provokes smiles and gasps of joy because it is engaging and inclusive—the opposite of much currently fashionable conceptual art. Yet some of the ideas inherent in the work are far from simplistic. Respect and enjoy our planet, marvel at the wonder of life, the work seems to shout. This is, perhaps, the most important message we humans need to understand.

Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Giles Sutherland is the author most recently of With the Grain: An Appreciation of Tim Stead. He is currently writing on the Scottish glass artist, Eric Hilton.

Published in American Craft, Febuary / March 2006.

2006 American Craft Council. Reproduction by written consent.