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