Smashing stuff! A surreal glass fantasy at the V&A blows Hugh Pearman away

Hugh Pearman
Sunday Times (London)
June 17, 2001

The fusion of arts and crafts has always been the point of the Victoria and Albert Museum. And now the V&A has found a contemporary artist/craftsman to transform its spaces for the summer and beyond: the American glass artist Dale Chihuly.

That's "glass artist" as in Venetian glass—the blowing, colouring and shaping of glass three-dimensionally, primarily for its own sake. This means sculpture, the way Chihuly makes and assembles the pieces; sculpture that often verges on architecture, too, putting him within shouting distance of, say, Sir Anthony Caro.

This may seem a perverse observation. Caro does tough, allusive, scrap material sculpture. Chihuly's ornate and intensely coloured work—imagine art nouveau reinterpreted by all the organisms within a coral reef—is fragile and rampantly pretty. But they are both inspired bricoleurs, working in real time, with real, industrial-sized portions of stuff, to completely different effect.

Chihuly enjoys enormous public appeal precisely because his work is so accessible. A child would like it; would probably try to eat it. As the advance guard of the Chihuly studio unpacked and started to assemble the vividly coloured pieces in the V&A, the old museum began to resemble nothing so much as a huge surreal, Roald Dahl-inspired sweet shop.

To be so popular as an artist is to invite critical suspicion, particularly when the output becomes a successful business. Where Caro works with a handful of assistants, Chihuly works with a studio of 150, sometimes 200, in his base in Seattle. They are all glass-makers, glass-blowers, glass artists of one kind or another. Chihuly acts as a master of ceremonies, a director of all this activity. Trained and inspired by the Venetian master glass-blowers of the island of Murano—who can turn out cheap tourist trinkets and high-art pieces with equal aplomb—he was part of an initially hippieish movement that helped to re-establish the art glass movement in America in the 1970s. Now he runs an art factory. Does this matter?

It was Alan Borg, Mark Jones's predecessor as director of the V&A, who commissioned Chihuly to create a writhing Medusa's head of a chandelier to hang beneath the dome of the V&A's main foyer. The chandelier was meant to convey the impression that the museum held true to its arts-and-crafts tradition, but was also thoroughly contemporary. Unveiled in 1999, it somehow wasn't quite right and didn't have quite the expected impact. Despite being 16 ft. from top to bottom, it looked a bit too small, a bit too much like a mutant bunch of grapes.

Then the foyer was cleared of its clutter, the space looked much better, and Chihuly was invited back for this exhibition, which runs right through the spine of the museum from front to back, inside to out, culminating in a towering, typically hirsute and vivid piece standing in the great fountain in the museum's courtyard. But the first thing Chihuly did was redesign and enlarge the existing chandelier. Now it is 27 ft. tall, weighs 4,000 lb., has perhaps 2000 individual pieces in it, and may well be the largest chandelier in the world. But "chandelier"—a turn-off word—doesn't give the feel of this piece at all. It doesn't have lights in it, anyway.

What it does do is energize the space, now much more effectively than before. Better still, visible right behind and above it on a mezzanine gallery is the glittering, gorgeous and recently restored Hereford Cathedral choir screen of 1862, by George Gilbert Scott. Scott gave us London's Albert Memorial, so you know that his credo was the antithesis of less is more.

For Scott, as for Chihuly, more is more. The screen fell victim to anti-Victorian prejudice in 1967 and was removed from the cathedral, eventually finding its way in rusted pieces to the V&A, since when it has been hidden away in the vaults like a guilty secret. Now it is back after an £800,000 restoration. Its madly ornate, organically inspired ironwork anticipates art nouveau just as surely as Chihuly recalls it. Making the two pieces visible through each other as you enter the museum is a brilliant contrapuntal arrangement, and it is permanent.

Those who disliked the way last year's Ron Arad exhibition (of his chairs, mainly) colonised the "medieval treasury" space at the heart of the museum will probably not be amused by Chihuly, who also commandeers this sacred zone. He drops in a temporary gallery that you walk right through. The smaller pieces hover in the bottomless black-glass voids of the display cases on each side, and equally dramatically overhead, visible through a glass ceiling. It is as if you were gazing at some tropical seafloor from beneath.

It is impossible to describe the multitude of objects: you're as likely to encounter a small glass cherub wrestling with a squid as with a large flattened jellyfish form. The ensemble effect—which Chihuly leaves to his assistants to arrange as seems best to them, with no preordained pattern—is joyful.

So it all is. Chihuly is reputed to be difficult and demanding to deal with, but the result of his endeavours is wholly optimistic and upbeat. The best pieces have a mysterious, subtle beauty, drawn from nature. The worst are those where he tries for a touch of austerity and produces cylindrical forms fused with shards of glass, some dusted with gold. One looks a dead ringer for a tumblerful of bourbon on the rocks.

The Romans knew almost everything there is to know about such glass-making, and what little they did not discover was mostly in place by the 19th century, as a glance at the museum's deservedly popular Glass Gallery—run by Jennifer Opie, the curator of this show—quickly reveals. Chihuly has invented no radical new techniques, nor does he pretend to have done so. What he does—and this is what makes him without doubt an artist first and a craftsman second—is to think on a completely different, architectural level in the application of his work.

Never mind that he is indecently successful by British standards, or that his art is batch-produced at a crafts factory. Chihuly has made the V&A rather an interesting place to be this summer.


©2001 The Sunday Times

Chihuly at the V& A