Chihuly Over Venice

Robin Updike
Seattle Times
8 September 1996

Venice is a splendid courtesan of a city. Filled with dazzling architecture and a ridiculously rich cache of some of the world's most glorious art and sculpture, Venice is a city of extravagant aesthetic delight. It got dressed up in queenly silks and satins 500 years ago and never took them off. It is the birthplace of Titian, Tintoretto and Tiepolo, to name a few of the titans of Western art that fecund Venice has spawned; their work is as common in Venice as billboards in New York City.

Given its bewitching beauty and its centuries of practice in the seductive arts of pageantry and the carnival, not to mention its history as the birthplace of decorative glass, Dale Chihuly's plan to install a dozen or more of his glass chandeliers around the city like so many glass bouquets might strike some as sheer audacity. If you string pretty baubles around the throat of one of history's great beauties, will anyone notice the necklace?

Chihuly hopes so. For the last three weeks, he and his Seattle crew have been busy installing chandeliers over the canals and under the archways of Venice. Six 40-foot crates of disassembled chandeliers were shipped from Seattle to Venice in July and August, and now they are being reconstructed in public places, such as piazzas near the Rialto Fish Market and the Guggenheim Museum, above small canals (though not over the Grand Canal as has been widely reported) and in private gardens.

The two-year project, which Chihuly calls Chihuly Over Venice, will culminate sometime later this week with the installation of a chandelier in Doge's Palace, one of Venice's most beloved landmarks. Chihuly doesn't know how long the chandeliers will stay up; most likely a couple of weeks. A few pieces will be left as gifts to the city; most, after many rounds of photographing and filming, will be packed up by Chihuly's crew and sent home.

In an image that only a Northwesterner could dream up, Chihuly also wants to float some beachball-sized glass pieces he calls Walla Wallas down a Venetian canal. The floats were made in his North Lake Union studio and have long glass tails making them resemble Eastern Washington's famous sweet onions. It's hard to imagine how the city's gondolieri will feel about dodging a floating salad of giant Walla Walla sweets.

A man who has built a career by shattering traditional notions about glass and art, Chihuly seems surprised that anyone would consider Chihuly Over Venice particularly nervy.

"You asked what was I thinking when I came up with this idea a few years ago. Well, a lot of times I don't think much about it," Chihuly said recently. "If I can have an idea as abstract as this, visualizing some chandeliers over canals, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, in a city that loves glass, then you start thinking about how you really can do it. Then you do it. It just doesn't seem like such a stretch to me."

A buzz over Chihuly

Plenty of people are treating Chihuly over Venice, and Venezia Aperto Vetro, an international show of contemporary glass art happening at the same time, as a big deal.

Among glass art cognoscenti in Western Washington and the U.S., the buzz all summer has been about which important glass art collectors, gallery owners, dealers, artists and curators are going to be in Venice this week, where they will be staying, and which social events will offer the best networking.

Among those attending are Seattle art dealers Kate Elliott, William Traver and Michelle Burgess, assistant gallery director of Meyerson & Nowinski; Douglas Heller, of the prestigious Heller Gallery in New York, one of the nation's most established glass art galleries; and Charles Cowles, a former Seattle Art Museum curator who is now Chihuly's New York dealer. The comedian Robin Williams, who owns several Chihulys, is on the guest lists of all the Venice parties, although no one is sure if he'll really be there.

Because they are included in the Aperto, which will take place in several Venice museums through early November, Seattle artists Ginny Ruffner, Flora Mace, Joey Kirkpatrick, Pike Powers and Richard Marquis are going. Work by Seattle artist Mary Van Cline also is in the show. Marge Levy, Pilchuck's director, and Tina Oldknow, a Seattle art historian who just completed a book on Pilchuck, will be in Venice this week, along with a who's who selection of Pilchuck's wealthy trustees. A KCTS-TV crew will be there recording it all. It seems you won't be able to cross Piazza San Marco without bumping into someone from Seattle or Tacoma.

Gold dust for Tacoma?

Chihuly was born in Tacoma, and Tacoma wants him back. Or at least they'd like a little of his gold dust to rub off on his hometown. The Tacoma movers and shakers behind the proposed Tacoma glass art museum, planned partly as a tribute to Chihuly, have traveled to Venice. George Russell, chairman of the Frank Russell Co., an international pension fund management company, is co-chairman of the board of the as yet unbuilt International Museum of Modern Glass. (Museum supporters have raised about half of the $30 million needed to build the museum. They say it will open on Jan. 1, 2001.)

Russell and his wife, Jane, are hosting two of the most eagerly anticipated social events of the coming week. One of their parties will be held in a private garden along the Grand Canal.

Other parties include a reception for the release of the new Pilchuck book, which won't be on sale in the U.S. until October; galas in Chihuly's honor given by New York and California collectors; and opening parties to honor the 111 international artists included in the Aperto. Of the 111, Chihuly is one of 26 specially invited master artists. Along with starring in his own Chihuly-takes-over-Venice extravaganza, Chihuly is getting top billing in the Aperto—and the Aperto wasn't even his idea.

Raising the status of glass

Organized by Dan Klein, a London curator and glass art expert, in collaboration with the cultural offices of the City of Venice, Aperto organizers hope that it will be successful enough to hold every other year. If that happens, it will alternate with the prestigious Venice Art Biennale, generally considered the world's premier show of contemporary art.

Glass enthusiasts want to raise the status of glass art, still something of a stepchild in the world of fine art, and the cachet of a Venice glass biennial might help. Though the studio glass movement started more than 30 years ago, and though many museums around the world are now collecting glass art, it still carries the stigma of craft. Some collectors and museums that routinely plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars for top-quality paintings and sculpture still think of glass as a functional, if at times exquisite, craft. Therefore they ignore it.

The famous glass factories of Murano, an island off Venice, helped shape the idea of glass as craft. By the late 13th century, Muranese glass was prized around the world, and by the 15th century Murano was Europe's principal supplier of expertly crafted, sumptuous glass chandeliers, fanciful goblets and shimmering glass bibelots. The most talented young Muranese men were trained as master glass blowers and their skills were considered so valuable that if they tried to leave the island they were killed.

Murano's reputation for glassmaking has endured into this century. In 1968, when he was 27, Chihuly, then a freshly minted graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, won a Fulbright Fellowship. He used it to study glass blowing at the feet of the masters at the Venini factory on Murano.

Yet when American, Scandinavian, Japanese and Eastern European artists started turning out critically acclaimed glass sculptures in the late '60s, '70s and '80s, Muranase factories stuck to their elegant goblets and rococo chandeliers. Insiders of the glass scene see the Aperto, and to some degree, Chihuly's grandly scaled glass installation, as a wakeup call to the Venetian glass scene.

"What's long overdue, and significant, is that the Italians have finally recognized that there is a studio glass scene," said Heller, of the Heller Gallery in New York. "So with the Aperto and Chihuly's project, it's not so much bringing ice to Eskimos as bringing something very needed to a scene that has become provincial and inbred.

"Maybe there will be a little jealousy by the Venetians," Heller said. "I think some glass blowers there will look on all this with a cynical eye. They have always felt they are the beginning and end of what glass should be. But aesthetically, the Venetian scene has been moribund for years."

As for Chihuly's installation, he says he thinks it will be "very grand and ambitious and kind of terrific."

High-profile chandeliers

Chihuly's 1,200-pound chandeliers, which more resemble huge bunches of grapes or wasps nests than traditional chandeliers, should at least cause discussion among the Venetians and the many visitors who will be in Venice this month. Chihuly originally planned to install his chandeliers next spring, but changed his mind once he heard about the Aperto. Chihuly loves an audience, and the crowd in Venice is high profile.

The star-studded Venice Film Festival ended yesterday. The Aperto officially opens Friday. And on Sunday the important Biennale of Architecture opens, an event that attracts architects from around the world. Chihuly in recent years has made a mission of wooing architects in order to promote the use of glass—his in particular—in architecture.

Chihuly needs to get his money's worth, publicity-wise, out of the Venice happening, which is the grand finale of an expensive project. By the time it is over, Chihuly Over Venice will have cost Chihuly $1 million.

That sum includes the cost of sending crews from Seattle to Finland last summer, to Ireland in the fall, to Mexico over the winter, and now to Venice. His entourages have varied from nearly 50 in Ireland to about 25 in Venice, but, whatever the size, each expedition has been costly. The glass factories in Finland, Ireland and Mexico that hosted him bore additional costs. Altogether, including the tabs picked up by the factories, Chihuly's excellent adventure will have cost somewhere from $1.5 million to $2 million.

"People said, `Can you really afford to do this?' But I didn't really think about it," said Chihuly. "It's been great. We've developed a lot of new work. We've been exposed to a lot of cultures. It enriches my work. I'd actually like to go back to each and every country and do it again."

A fragile undertaking

If past chapters of Chihuly Over Venice are any indication of what is likely to happen this week, it's a good guess that there will be lots of glass moved piece by carefully carried piece all over Venice. As of mid-August, Chihuly still hadn't gotten written permission from city officials about exactly which sites he could use, though he said officials had verbally agreed to all his favorite spots.

Problems could arise. He's worried about vandalism, and talks of posting crew members at the chandeliers around the clock. Then there's the possibility that the engineering won't work. Chihuly abandoned the idea of suspending the chandeliers from cables anchored to Venice's aged buildings. Instead, his crew built steel tripods that will straddle the canals and support the weighty chandeliers. Or at least that's the plan.

In between directing the installation he'll also be chatting up collectors (he'd like to sell a few more chandeliers to help defray costs) and working with his own film crew, which is independent of the KCTS-TV crew. Chihuly still hopes to produce and distribute a documentary film based on the project.

And how does he think the Venetians will react to his dazzling glass grapes? As a group, the city's residents have become understandably blase about artists, filmmakers and others using their gorgeous city as a backdrop.

"Initially, I always had an image of a chandelier hanging over a bridge and a couple of Italian ladies stopping to talk on the bridge," said Chihuly. "Then they might talk about it and tell other people about it. I imagine them liking it. I hope they do."


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