The story of Mille Fiori, written by the American artist in glass, Dale Chihuly, begins with sand and fire. Like an alchemist, he brings these elements together and transforms them into glass. For a glass-blower, there is nothing essentially remarkable about the production of glass from heated sand. On the other hand, if this transformation leads to such a diversity of form, such glorious colour, such a complex interplay of opacity and transparency as is the case with Chihuly, one is actually tempted to speak of a miracle. With his glass installations, Chihuly is creating a world of his own.
His work has always been marked by its engagement with nature, and he has brought the two worlds together in various projects, perhaps most impressively in the glass houses of botanical gardens, 2001 at Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, 2003 at Franklin Park Conservatory in Ohio, 2004 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and 2005 at Kew Gardens in London. These encounters between two worlds were staged with great care, and it is interesting to observe how the glass objects settle into their plant environment, as though they have grown there naturally, while at the same point creating distinctive counterpoints and also benevolently breaking through the systematic order with which a botanical garden tames its tropical vegetation.
The old theme of the competition between art and nature raises its head here, but yields little fruit, because this work is concerned not with questions of imitation but, as we have said, of autonomous worlds of organic forms and colours. None the less, the spatial environment in which the artworks are installed considerably influences our perception of them. Chihuly has always sought out the challenge connected with this. Earlier in his career, he freed his individual glass objects from the constraints of the craft object eking out its isolated existence on a plinth, and combined them into space- and site-related installations. Since the 1990s his installations have become bigger and bigger, and the organic, gleaming glass arrangements have formed an effective contrast with their generally architectural context – such as the Union Station Federal Courthouse in Tacoma, Washington, the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas or the Citadel of Jerusalem in the gigantic project Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem in 2000. But the high level of demand required by the works’ decorative qualities also contains the risk of seeing the artwork itself as subordinate to the architecture.
Chihuly’s Mille Fiori installations reveal an analogy with this refined process: countless individual elements, each with a high level of perfection and, despite being typecast, its own individuality, are assembled into a whole.
This may explain Chihuly’s return to the classic White Cube of the gallery or museum space, as seen in a number of remarkable installations from 2003 onwards. They are not only manifestations of a self-sufficient artwork, but they also ennoble glass as an autonomous artistic medium. On a low, mirror-smooth free-standing black platform, a piece of mysterious glass vegetation unfolds into a magical garden in which time seems to stand still. The precise lighting of the environment supports the qualities that glass alone possesses, of having both body and transparency, and thus both reflecting the light and allowing it to pass through. Hundreds of individual glass objects are combined into an overall composition which – in musical terms – forms a polyphonic, harmonious body of sound. The reflective surface of the platform extends this fairy-tale world into the depths and gives it, supported by the lurching, tentacular forms, the appearance of an underwater garden. Chihuly calls this form of installation Mille Fiori: a telling title, with a literal significance, and at the same time a specialist term for an ancient technique for the treatment of glass, which was taken up again and perfected in Murano in the 16th century. Strands of glass are pressed, melted together and cut into slices, before being used as mosaic-like components to form brightly coloured flowers, stars or other ornamental patterns. Chihuly’s Mille Fiori installations reveal an analogy with this refined process: countless individual elements, each with a high level of perfection and, despite being typecast, its own individuality, are assembled into a whole. A wasteful superfluity, an overdose of magnificence, the sole purpose of which is to raise itself to a level of absolute beauty.
Chihuly has worked with this medium since the 1960s, and has participated in many of the developments in recent art history, but the critical reception to his work has always been ambivalent. Even today, art critics have trouble with the medium of glass, which bears the ‘stain’ of craft. Chihuly’s major projects also call for a form of production that takes its bearings more from the big workshops of the Renaissance and Baroque artists than the concept of originality of modern art, and its commandment that works should be made by the artist’s own hand. But today there is a conviction – and not only in art – that only collective production and the collaboration of various highly specialised disciplines are capable of achieving outstanding work. Thus Chihuly’s works generally prove to be the fruit of a team which can, according to the task at hand, incorporate the most innovative international glass-blowers, and also light specialists, sculptors, metal- and woodworkers, photographers and an efficient administration. A highly creative enterprise, then, driven by Dale Chihuly’s unbridled creative impulse.
Chihuly’s works and installations are received enthusiastically by an enormous public. Their affirmative character places them in opposition to avant-garde art, which often works with self-referential, intellectual concepts and codes, and exposes them to the accusation of being unreflective, unfractured – in short, kitsch. But attempts at ideological distinction are inadequate here, the boundaries and hierarchies between the systems have become permeable, and in a purely factual sense we can reply that the change from a sense of well-being to boredom that is inseparably associated with kitsch simply doesn’t occur with Chihuly’s work. The ambivalence that can create excitement lies in the ‘uncanny materiality’1 of the glass, in its hardness and, at the same time, fragility, its latent capacity to shatter and the associated potential for danger, in the uncertainty about whether it is opening or closing. Thus we feel both attracted and intimidated by the Mille Fiori installation. The precisely arranged lighting brings out the coldness of the glass and, at the same time, an overall atmosphere of warmth – well-being, with a hint of gooseflesh.
This enchanted glass world has as much to do with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz as it does with the great Renaissance and Baroque festivals that sovereigns arranged to entertain their courts and subjects.
Touching people through the encounter with beauty is Chihuly’s clear ambition. He has found a universal medium for this, which even hardbitten art critics are unable to escape – I take Barbara Rose as a representative example: ‘My Dale Chihuly is a mischievous, cunning, inspired shaman—a magician, a contemporary Merlin, a Ken Kesey Merry Prankster who produces the psychedelic experience of a magical, glowing, and sparkling, brilliantly alive panorama without drugs. This enchanted glass world has as much to do with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz as it does with the great Renaissance and Baroque festivals that sovereigns arranged to entertain their courts and subjects.’2
The greatest transformatory art in Mille Fiori perhaps lies in the fact that despite formal references to nature, the installation outlines a counter-world and presents it directly. A sealed-off, protected world, which touches us to the core through our senses and emotions, and strikes a chord within us. This world is not an illusion, because it refers to nothing but itself. It surrounds us in the exhibition space, and we are grateful to Dale Chihuly for allowing us to linger on this island of pure beauty.
- Cf. Todd Alden, “When Is a Door a Jar? Dale Chihuly’s Uncanny Materiality”, in: Dale Chihuly, Chihuly at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Seattle, WA: Portland Press, 2005, S./pp. 9-19.
- Barbara Rose, “Dale Chihuly’s Paradise Regained”, in: Dale Chihuly, Chihuly Projects, Seattle, WA: Portland Press; New York: Abrams, 2000, keine Paginierung/no pagination