Chihuly at Kew
27th April 2019
‘I want people to be overwhelmed with light and colour in some way that they’ve never experienced.’ – Dale Chihuly
If you live in London or are visiting anytime over the next 6 months, you simply must get to Kew Gardens to see Dale Chihuly’s breath-taking glass sculptures. Installed throughout the gardens and specifically showcased within the Temperate House, discovering Chihuly’s works amongst this stunning backdrop is an overwhelming delight. His works are magical and surprising, a veritable buffet feast of space and shape, colour and form.
Cattails and Copper Birch Reeds
I discovered Chihuly in 2005 at his first exhibition in Kew Gardens and I’ve been enamoured ever since. He’s one of those artists whose work speaks to me on an elemental level, in ways I can’t always express. While I don’t love every piece, his work is simply astonishing. Sculptures of blown glass – some so gigantic and intricate they seem impossible – that blend and melt into the landscape in ways I’d never before even imagined could be done with a medium as delicate as glass. I’ve never seen another glass artist come close to what Chihuly creates. From a Medusa-like sun to a spiky Sapphire star and a towering Icicle – this is hand-blown glass that defies imagination.
Dale Chihuly: Reflections on Nature
‘I want my work to appear like it came from nature. So that if someone found it on a beach or in the forest they might think it belonged there.’ – Dale Chihuly
As soon as you enter Kew Gardens by the Victoria Gate, you’re met by the Sapphire Star – the first of the 32 artworks that have been installed along a circular route through Kew’s open spaces as well as within the Temperate House and Sherwood Gallery.
This huge luminous sculpture sits on its own in the centre of a small grassy meadow below the Temple of Bellona to the left of the entrance. But before you rush over, stop at the Victoria Gate Plaza information desk for a walking map for the exhibition.
I didn’t actually do the circular walk as indicated on the map, though that’s probably the most economical way of getting to see all the pieces. From Victoria Gate I went straight to the Temperate House and then walked a Figure 8 (sort of). What follows are my highlights.
Iconic Glass Art for an Iconic Glasshouse
Flowing Cattails and Copper Birch Reeds straining towards the sky greet you as you head towards the Temperate House. These delicate-looking glass fronds are taller than I am. They fill the grass verges on either side of the path, with cherry blossoms and tulips in full bloom behind them.
Cattails and Copper Birch Reeds (2)
This was one of my favourite works of the entire exhibition. I really loved the seemingly liquid nature of the glass as the individual reeds grow and flow towards the sky. It’s almost as if they are living things.
Cattails and Copper Birch Reeds (3)
Inside the Temperate House itself is an extraordinary fairy-tale of a sculptural garden, with large and small glass sculptures peeking from the undergrowth…
…emerging from the lush greenery…
Yellow Herons and Reeds
…and shooting towards the lofty ceilings.
With every step there is a delightful new discovery. Chihuly’s work has always evoked the natural world for me. And his works seem as much at home here in this setting as all the botanical wonders amongst which they sprout.
There’s also a gasp-inducing floral ‘chandelier’ suspended from the very centre of glasshouse ceiling. It’s so enormous that the people on the upper walkway appear tiny in comparison.
Though not one of my personal favourites, the intricate details and deep colours in this huge piece are just gorgeous.
Niijima Floats in the Japanese Garden
From the Temperate House it’s a short walk to the Japanese Gateway and the Niijima Floats. Chihuly introduced the first Niijima Floats in 1991 and has been adding to the series ever since. The name derives from a Japanese island where glass artisans once made green floats for fishing nets. As a boy, Chihuly used to find such floats washed up on the beach near his home in Tacoma, Washington.
In his first exhibition at Kew Gardens in 2005, these floats glided individually on the pond in front of the Palm House and in a wooden boat anchored near the shoreline. For this exhibition they’ve been placed in the gravel in the Japanese Garden in front of the Chokushi-Mon (Gateway of the Imperial Messenger or Japanese Gateway). With the apple and cherry blossoms in full bloom it’s a magical spot, quiet and serene.
Some have likened these colourful spheres to celestial bodies and this gravel garden does feel like timeless space. Definitely one of my favourite parts of the exhibition, perhaps even my favourite.
Niijima Floats (2)
Colour and form at the Sherwood Gallery
For whatever reason I rarely go into the galleries dotted around Kew Gardens. But the exhibition of Chihuly’s smaller works in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art is without a doubt one of my highlights. Here in the gallery you can see the astonishing range of different forms he creates, encounter a mind-blowing kaleidoscope of colour and discover some of the recurring themes that run throughout his body of work.
His Baskets take their inspiration from the sagging forms of the American Northwest Coast Indian baskets. He often groups these vessels in sets with small pieces nestled within a wide-mouthed form.
Many of these are Seaform Baskets – explicitly or implicitly evocative of the sea.
For more than 40 years, Chihuly has been creating an ever-evolving range of Cylinders that are inspired by Native American textiles. The technique he developed revolutionised glass art – by rolling a bubble of molten glass over a glass thread design laid out on a surface, the design is fully integrated into the form rather than laid or inlaid onto the surface.
Rotolo – the Italian word for ‘coil’ – are glass sculptures that intricately twist and curl towards the sky. The pieces in the gallery are deceptively small and light. There are some that are 4 feet tall and they can weigh over 100 pounds.
You’ll also have the chance to purchase your own limited edition Chihuly Studio piece. This one is a smaller creation from his Macchia series and was my favourite – the rich colours pulse and glow, and the shape shifts with the light. It felt like some rare shell I might find in the depths of the ocean. I really craved this piece, but at almost £6,000 (around US $8,000) it was sadly out of my price range.
Basket Rose Blush Macchiata
A rare treat
For more than 50 years, Chihuly has been pushing the boundaries of his chosen medium. He has continually developed new ways of working with glass that achieve his unique and evolving artistic vision. His inspiration is the natural world, using colour and shape to capture our imaginations, creating an astonishingly different experience of form and nature.
In many ways, I love Chihuly’s work in the same manner as I do the work of Christo. Both create unexpected experiences in unlikely places. Both confront the viewer with ambitious public displays that relate to the landscape in startling and often bewildering ways.
If you’ve never heard of Dale Chihuly or seen his work, you’re in for a rare treat. If you know his work already, you’ll have the pleasure of experiencing his work in a new environment. You can find out more about his life and work on the Chihuly website where there’s an abundance of information and some extraordinary video of work in process.
This is sculpture as we rarely have an opportunity to see it and this is just a taster of the delights that await you. So, get yourself to Kew Gardens by the end of October and be prepared to immerse yourself in the lush beauty of Chihuly at Kew: Reflections on Nature.
There are loads more photos in my Chihuly at Kew Photo Album