World renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly has installed his monumental glass creations amidst the canals and palazzos of Venice (Chihuly over Venice, 1996), in an ancient citadel guarding the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem (Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem, 2000) and, in keeping with his lifelong fascination with gardens and glasshouses, in a series of botanical settings around the world. Now, in the artist’s first major garden exhibition in Asia, visitors to Dale Chihuly: Glass in Bloom will be able to view 140 of the artist’s works, including 25 large-scale sculptures, set within the lush landscapes and abundant blooms and foliage of Singapore’s Gardens By the Bay, from 1 May to 1 August 2021.
Nature has always been a rich source of inspiration for artists – and gardens, in particular, have played an important role in artistic development and innovation through the ages. From the time that the humble garden first encouraged hunter-gatherers to make the leap to become settled farmers around 10,000 years ago, the human impulse to design and create green spaces has been imbued with rich cultural meaning. Trace the history of the garden, in its myriad forms and glories, and one can often identify parallels between its development and the impetus and inspiration for creative change and innovation in art history.
Like many artists before him, the seeds of Dale Chihuly’s love for gardens and glasshouses were planted when he was only a young boy. Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, one of his favourite outings was to visit the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory, a glasshouse in Tacoma, where he and his mother, Viola, would admire the lush seasonal floral displays and explore rooms full of exotic plants. His mother’s love for plants also meant that the garden of their home, while modest, was always filled with colourful flowers like azaleas, hydrangeas and rhododendrons.
Since the beginning of his long and illustrious career, Chihuly has been known for situating his glass masterpieces in unusual settings, moving them far beyond the confines of the traditional gallery or museum space. While each of these settings has been unusual and spectacular in its own way, his brilliantly colourful blown glass forms – which appear both organic and natural, yet, at the same time, otherworldly – seem to somehow belong among the grasses, reeds, flowers and trees of the botanical garden or glasshouse. Encountering them as one wanders through the Gardens by the Bay, the viewer is at once surprised to see these forms emerging from among a thicket of trees or sprouting up from a bed of vibrantly coloured flowers, but also immediately entranced and captivated. The natural beauty of gardens provides a setting for Chihuly’s creative vision and artistry that is difficult to rival.
In the above installation, for example, two of Chihuly’s glass forms, Herons and Icicle clusters, are artfully combined in a composition that integrates naturally with the surrounding grass, gravel, rocks and trees at the Serene Garden at Gardens by the Bay. The undulating and sinuous dark green and black Herons work well with, and complement, the sharp spikiness of the pale green and yellow Icicle clusters. Together, they look as if they had sprouted magically from the earth, as much a part of their surroundings as their natural counterparts, enhancing the beauty of the whole.
The Red Bamboo Reeds below, on the other hand, stand out in stark and dramatic contrast to the cluster of bamboo trees surrounding them. The rich, deep red glass tubes glimmer and glitter as they catch the light, emitting an otherworldly luminescence. Yet their long and slender tubular forms echo the shapes of the bamboo forest they are set in, creating a natural resonance that is pleasing to the eye.
(The process of creating these tall glass forms is particularly dramatic and arduous – it requires one glassblower to stand on an elevated platform high above ground, blowing through a pipe to stretch the molten glass, while another, on the floor below, pulls it towards the ground. The strength, skill and dexterity that is required of the glassblowers is impressive indeed.)
Chihuly’s series of exhibitions within botanical settings, known as the Garden Cycle, started in 2001 at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. With each exhibition in the series, Chihuly expanded on the original set of ideas and central themes he had formulated for that first exhibition at Garfield Park Conservatory, exploring the creative possibilities each new garden offered and developing new works in response, resulting in a different and exciting new experience with each iteration.
While Chihuly’s deep-seated appreciation for the natural world continues to serve as an important source of inspiration for him, he has emphasised that the organic and free flowing glass forms that are so characteristic of his oeuvre are not mere attempts to mimic what can be found in nature. Rather, they arise from a wide range of interests, influences and experiences, as well from groundbreaking glassblowing techniques that Chihuly and his team have experimented with, developed and perfected in the course of his decades-long career as a glass artist.
“People have asked what inspired me to do the Mille Fiori [Italian for “one thousand flowers’]. I wasn’t so much trying to replicate plants as I was trying to work with all the techniques we’ve learned over the last thirty-five, forty years. So as you look at the Mille Fiori you’ll see other series of my work in there somewhere.”
For example, the asymmetrical shapes that Chihuly’s glass creations often take are the result of a purposeful break from traditional glass blowing conventions and techniques, which tended to shape molten glass into perfect, symmetrical forms. Instead, Chihuly experimented with allowing molten glass to spin off-centre during the glassblowing process, leaving it to gravity, centrifugal force and the material itself, to assume its own final shape organically. Mark McDonnell, former Chairman of the Glass Department at the California College of the Arts, suggests:
“There would almost seem to be a synergy in the way that Chihuly’s forms evolve and how nature grows when left to its own devices. I suspect this helps to explain why his installations integrate seamlessly with their natural surroundings.”
When an exhibition is installed within a man-made structure, lighting and other variables can be planned for and controlled with precision. Mother Nature, however, is a capricious mistress and working in dialogue with her presents unique challenges. Over the course of the several months that the exhibition will run at Gardens by the Bay, plants can be expected to grow taller and change shape, as new branches, shoots and leaves sprout. Buds will blossom, wither and die, following the natural cycle of life. In the outdoor spaces, the play of light and shadow as the sun moves across the sky will change how the artworks appear with every passing hour.
“Glass is the most magical of all materials. It transmits light in a special way.”
I am certain that the exhibition team at Gardens by the Bay, together with the Chihuly Studio team, have worked meticulously to design and plan every detail and aspect of this stunning show to ensure an optimal visitor experience. However, it is perhaps the very things that cannot be completely predicted, planned for, or controlled – the way that Chihuly’s glass installations respond to shifting and ephemeral light conditions and their ever-changing surroundings – that will make spectacular magic for viewers, ensuring that no two visits will evoke the same sensations, emotions and experience.
Feature image credits: Dale Chihuly, Ethereal White Persian Pond (detail), 2018, 8 x 26 x 20’, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew London, installed 2019. Photograph by Scott Mitchell Leen. Artworks ©Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved
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