At Kew gardens, perfection in glass: A sculptor finds his ultimate space
The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, southwest of London, are teeming
with many rare new species. Bright red reeds have sprung up among green
bushes, while twisting blue and green tendrils cling to pillars of glasshouses.
Elsewhere, flowers and gourds are sprouting at foot level.
These new breeds are sculptures by the American glassblower and artist Dale Chihuly.''I have always loved greenhouses and conservatories, but Kew stands out in terms of age and size, and because the Palm House is a beautiful building,'' Chihuly said. While he has installed his work at Garfield Park in Chicago and in Atlanta, the debut in Europe of this type of project is a culmination for the artist.
Kew, a World Heritage Site, is for Chihuly ''the greatest glasshouse in the world.'' Kew provides Chihuly, who was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, with fitting company, because many would consider him the greatest glassblower in the world. Trained in America and at Murano near Venice, the traditional glass-making capital of Europe, he has introduced new techniques, such as using gravity to allow hot glass to bend naturally, and inserting opaque glass between layers of transparent glass to create patterns of translucence and color. The most far-reaching innovation was his transformation of the discipline from solitary artist with pipe to whole studios and teams working on large pieces with hundreds of components.
For the botanists and administrators of the gardens, Chihuly's work, which is abstract but highly reminiscent of vegetal and floral forms and colors that have inspired him, provides an opportunity to galvanize the uninformed visitor. Peter Crane, the director of Kew, explained that, in general, ''in conservatories some visitors' eyes glaze over.'' Chihuly's work, however, encourages scrutiny as people compare and contrast: ''People look harder, at both the sculptures and the plants.''
An example of the stimulating similarities between the sculptures and plants would be the red mangrove tree from Florida, in the Prince of Wales Conservatory. Its tendril-like exposed roots are reminiscent of Chihuly's chandeliers that are made from hundreds of individual pieces of twisting glass. These similarities have taken on a new directness with Chihuly's recent works that explicitly look like flowers. In the center of the flowers, at the base of the ''petals,'' are pieces of glass that look broken or insufficiently molded. These bumpy lumps read as stamen. Other sculptures make more generalized and serendipitous connections to the natural habit of Kew. From a small pond within one conservatory emerge Chihuly's ''Blue Herons,'' named because of their similarity to the birds. Long, thin poles of colorless and blue glass curve elegantly like swan's necks. Toward the end of each pole, there is a swelling and a tapering off redolent of heads and beaks, and the fine ribbing of the glass in this context suggest feathers. These sculptures may be pleasing to the eye, but they benefit here from their proximity to the real ducks that preen themselves at Kew's lake, which the visitor will have passed before entering this conservatory.
Chihuly has spent two years thinking about the Kew project, visiting three times and ''looking at the garden and deciding what to put where.'' Having matured from thinking of his work as individual sculptures to sets of works in an architectural installation, partly due to a car accident that caused him to lead a team rather than blow glass himself, he has become adept at orchestrating different types of contrast and harmony with the surroundings. Some installations are brash, even competing with the plants, such as purple reed-like forms framed by areas of green vegetation.
The most striking example is the Chilean wine palm planted at Kew's Temperate House in 1846. This huge tree, which was moved to the center of the building as it grew to make use of the higher part of the banked roof, is not used to being upstaged. Now it has met its match. Next to it is a what looks at first like a gigantic bunch of helium-filled circus balloons. This ''polyvitro'' chandelier hanging from the ceiling is made up of dozens of spheres in eye-catching colors: chrome with blue spirals, marbled yellow and brown, or Jackson Pollock-style drip marks of raspberry. Just a few meters away are sculptures so subtly installed that they are easily missed. Colorless, transparent glass reeds are obscured by a bush. It is only the occasional glint and the sense of smoky distortion that stops the visitor from walking straight past.
A triumph of subtlety and surprise is the Kew Palm House Star, a new piece designed for the current show. It has especially pleased Chihuly. There appear to be no Chihuly sculptures inside the Palm House, and only someone inspired by the plants themselves would be drawn along the densely planted aisles to the fan-like leaves of the traveler's tree from Madagascar. On turning a corner to look up at the tree, the Star suddenly becomes visible just above head height — a shock that stops visitors in their tracks. This surprise gives way to a sight of remarkable harmony. The Star is not brightly colored, which would attract attention through the foliage, but is made from brown and colorless glass as well as dulled chrome which reflects nearby greenery. Moreover, its shape of palm-like curved triangular fronds emanating from a central point echoes the form of the traveler's tree; indeed, on stepping back, the sculpture sits exactly at the center of the tree. The sense of harmony is completed by a diagonally curving branch crossing the whole tableau, which has the added interest of coming from the encephalantos altensteini, the oldest pot plant in the world, which dates back to 1775.
But the exhibition goes well beyond relationships with plants. Kew's lake is full of floating glass spheres that may lack floral forms but certainly bond well with their environment. Inspired by the floats attached to the nets of traditional Japanese fishing boats, these sculptures, responding to their surroundings, turn gently with the water. The curved stripe patterns may be bright, but also evoke waves. This spectacle continues with an old rowing boat in the lake that has been loaded with more sculptures in red, yellow and blue. They are framed by a fountain behind it in the lake, so that the jets of water echo the tendrils and rods.
Chihuly is perhaps best seen at this point as a landscapist or as part of the ''land art'' movement. The distribution of sculptures across several glasshouses and the terrain in between them provides an added advantage over previous such installations. As Crane says, ''It draws people around the park.'' Occasional visitors should hence see a great deal of the gardens. It is hoped that new visitors will come to Kew specifically for the attraction. Crane hopes the exhibition, which runs until Jan. 15, 2006, will ''broaden audience appeal.'' Chihuly sees ''an opportunity to bring people in who don't look at art much and just like plants.'' But this initiative is unlikely to be repeated at Kew since few artists would fit in so well. ''This is a one-off,'' says Crane — all the more reason to see it.
© 2005 Copyright International Herald Tribune