The Mind-Blowing Gift of a Master
The Telegraph (London, England) June 28, 2001
Byline: Richard Dorment
WHATEVER you think about the place in which Dale Chihuly's glass is being shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum (and, as you will see, I have strong views on the subject), the exhibition itself is sensational.
It starts with the spectacular sight of the V&A's own chandelier, commissioned from the great contemporary American craftsman in 1999 and now part of the permanent collection. When you walk into the main entrance from the Cromwell Road, it is hard to miss this great blue, green and yellow explosion in glass suspended from the ceiling of the central rotunda. It is not actually a light fixture at all, but a massive sculpture that looks like some sort of living organism - a giant squid with writhing tentacles, perhaps, or maybe a swarm of bees, or an upside-down Christmas tree.
Unlike conventional works of art, the V&A chandelier isn't exactly "finished" - Chihuly just stopped adding baubles and curlicues and wiggly bits to it. Because its shape is so amorphous, there is no aesthetic reason that I can see why the glass-maker should not continue to ornament the work for the rest of his life, or for as long as the laws of physics allow him to.
Indeed, when the chandelier was first installed two years ago, it was a lot smaller than it is now. Because Chihuly rightly decided that it needed to be bigger, its glittering mass now fills the central rotunda, leading your eye up to the equally spectacular Hereford Screen on the balcony above the entrance. I wouldn't call it beautiful, exactly, but it is wonderfully dramatic in its effect, a real coup de theatre.
And theatrical is the word to describe the exhibition that follows, one of the most imaginatively presented I've seen at the V&A or anywhere else. Chihuly has built a narrow corridor lined with glass vitrines running from the entrance, straight through the Medieval Treasury, to the Pirelli courtyard at the heart of the building. As you walk through it, you see works from every stage of Chihuly's career and can thus watch, step by step, as a talented but fairly conventional glassmaker develops into one of the most original and inspired craftsmen of his time.
One of the things I like about Chihuly's glass is its exuberant, unapologetic vulgarity. Seeing his work in great quantities, as here, is an overwhelming sensual experience. Aware of this, Chihuly never allows you to look at a piece in isolation, but piles shell-shaped bowls and undulating vases, bulbous jars, clam-shaped vessels and bottles with weird protrusions, one on top of the other, to create phantasmagoric, hallucinogenic, eye-popping explosions of light and colour.
Never before have I been in an exhibition in which some of the work was displayed on the ceiling, but Chihuly shows his series Persians - based on anemones, jellyfish, starfish, crustaceous creatures and iridescent thingies - in a glass vitrine over your head. The effect is a little like walking through one of those spectacular public aquariums that are such a feature of Seattle (where Chihuly, now 60, comes from) and other cities on the north-west coast of America and Canada.
The climax of the show, like the Catherine wheel at the end of a firework display, is the 30ft high Tower of Light erected in the fountain in the middle of the Pirelli courtyard. Made out of squiggles of yellow, orange and red glass, to me it looks like a pillar of frozen fire, or maybe a sculpture made out of those skinny balloons magicians bend into funny shapes at children's parties. Other works in the courtyard - a series called Reeds which look like giant red, purple and burgundy-coloured candles on a birthday cake, and a series of sleek shapes in black glass called Seal Pups - are less successful, if only because they are so much more restrained than everything else in the show.
With Chihuly, who works with an army of technicians, everything depends on visual excess. He is the most baroque of modern artists - or more accurately, his art belongs to the tradition of the Churrigueresque, the extravagant sub-style of baroque architecture and ornament found in Spain, Latin America and Portugal.
Now. As in last year's dreadful exhibition of the furniture of Ron Arad, the Chihuly show has been installed in the middle of the Medieval Treasury. Because the glass vitrines that form the "corridor" are backed, they do not intrude on the medieval works on either side in the way the Arad furniture did. It is still theoretically possible to visit the Medieval Treasury without being disturbed by the Chihuly glass, but only theoretically, because in reality the glass is so spectacular and colourful that it's hard not to be drawn to it. And after about 30 seconds in front of Chihuly's work, it is just not possible for your eye to adjust to the subtleties of, say, a medieval carving in ivory.
Though I accept that the V&A has done its best to minimise the disruption the Chihuly show causes to the permanent galleries, it is nevertheless a fact that the exhibition blasts the medieval sculpture out of the water. It would have been better to move those great objects to another gallery altogether than to kill them by this unfair juxtaposition of new with old.
But I have an even more profound objection to the placing of the show. By installing the exhibition here rather than in a larger space intended for temporary exhibitions, the curators have done Chihuly a disservice. This is because so much of the interest of his art is its relationship to historical glass, which should ideally be shown near it to illustrate the sources of his inspiration.
When I wrote earlier that Chihuly is vulgar, you should place that observation within the context of glass-making throughout the centuries. Because the truth is that many of the greatest objects in the V&A's collection of historical glass are vulgar - in the sense of being colourful, fanciful and wildly over the top.
After you've seen this exhibition, go into the glass galleries to look at the 18th- century Venetian glass goblet with opaque red and white flowers sprouting out of its stem, or the Spanish 17th-century green glass vase with octopus-like tentacles for handles, or almost any lampshade by Louis Comfort Tiffany. It's only then that you see how Chihuly fits into a long and distinguished tradition of glass-making. It is this dimension of his art that the show fails to address.
I just don't understand why, if an exhibition is worth doing, it isn't worth doing in such a way that it draws attention to less-visited areas of the museum's permanent collection. The installation is spectacular where it is, but it should have been given more space to do this wonderful artist full justice.