Looking through glass

Maya Ahuja-Hofheiz


Dale Chihuly, hailed the ‘worlds most celebrated’ contemporary glass artist recently held an exhibition of his work in Kew Gardens, called “Reflections on Nature”. The exhibition was comprised of a series of works scattered through the gardens themselves in an ‘artworks trail’ (a classic exhibition format for Kew, but a departure for Chihuly), as well as a gallery-bound collection of Chihuly’s more transportable works including excerpts from previous large installations.

As with much of Chihuly’s installation work, visitors are pushed to question the difference between literal gallery space and transforming or augmenting outdoor areas or spaces that aren’t intended for conventional viewing of art. By putting artworks that are responses to their surroundings in outdoor spaces, the space becomes pulled into the experience and therefore into the artwork.

Chihuly, in discussing his exhibition “Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem” spoke about actuvely responding to the grandeur of his surroundings and integrating his pieces in a way that did not detract from the history of the place, rather augmenting it. Similarly, the artworks throughout the botanical gardens became simply a part of the Kew experience, included in the entrance fee. Thus they were subsumed into the Kew Gardens zoo of flowers – often hidden amongst the leaves. Conversely, entrance to the gallery space was at extra cost, and there the light and viewing experience was rigidly controlled.

The physical and spatial contextualisation of the artworks evidently affects the way in which we comprehend it. Having gone to Kew specifically to see Chihuly’s work, the controlled gallery context asks us to look at blown glass as specifically art, rather than simply beautifully crafted objects. A subtle difference, but significant in its suggestion that there is a right and wrong way in which to experience them.

Spaces like the Temperate House became more explicitly gallery spaces. On the other hand, we might argue that in placing artworks amongst the plants, the collection of rare plants and flowers are posited as art themselves. Viewers are asked to contrast Chihuly’s highly fabricated mimicry of nature with the quote-unquote “real thing”.

The medium of glass presents some interest here. Chiluly’s pieces are very work intensive, fabricated and often made by a team. This is not dissimilar to the ready-mades of Duchamp, or Andy Warhol’s factory which were the cause of much controversy; art often made thus solely by virtue being conceived of by an artist and its contextualisation in a gallery.

The question again raised then, is the difference between art, craft, and beauty. Many glass objects are beautifully crafted, but would not be considered art due to their contextualisation within a different tradition of work. Chihuly’s use of glass to interact and play with light, and space and explicitly respond to his surroundings posits his craftsmanship as artistry. And as such, Chihuly’s work moves into the sphere of art, regardless of where they are seen. The pieces carry with them their artistic provenance. 


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