In the Glasshouse
Telegraph on-line (Gardens), June 4, 2005
Byline: Tim Richardson
Those of us who admire plants are quite used to nature astounding us. Art inspired by nature has to work much harder to be anything like as engaging as the real thing. But a new exhibition at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, successfully melds art and craft with a deep intuitive understanding of the unstoppable creative forces at work in the natural world.
Dale Chihuly's exhibition at Kew includes floats, tentacles, reeds and stem shapes
As of last week, and until the middle of January 2006, the Temperate House, Princess of Wales Conservatory and the lake in front of the Palm House will bear the traces of an invasion by Seattle-based glass artist Dale Chihuly's astonishingly colourful and exuberant pieces of glass art.
Chihuly is a phenomenon: an internationally acclaimed artist-craftsman, he also has a large popular following (his work can be found in 200 museums worldwide). Since 1965, when he first started experimenting with blowing glass, he has developed an immediately recognisable style: eye-poppingly bright pieces, often on a large scale, that writhe with movement and echo the unpredictable variations of organic forms in nature. His work has been exhibited at museums worldwide, including the V&A in South Kensington (in 1991), where a huge Chihuly ''chandelier'' still graces the entrance hall, and also at several botanical institutions in the USA - dress rehearsals for the Kew show.
The heart of the exhibition is the Temperate House, designed by Decimus Burton in 1860 and home to a collection of tender woody plants, arranged geographically. Here, the glass pieces have either been placed right in among the plants, or presented more formally on black metal platforms. Among Chihuly's most recognisable forms are the spear-like reeds, colourful globular floats, macchia (like clamshells), chandeliers of entwined tentacles, towers (which are upside-down chandeliers) and ''ikebana'' displays of twin stems emerging from vividly coloured vases.
Despite their obvious artificiality, the glass pieces complement the plants extremely well. Chihuly has been evolving these series since the 1970s, continually varying them and experimenting. Their botanical setting brings to mind the habits of plants in the wild: grouped in clusters or spread as if self-seeded, with small mutations and differences in size and shape, and as violently coloured as nature in the tropics. There are other similarities: glass objects, like flowers, are usually much tougher than they look; Chihuly's many studio failures die like plants in the wild, while different types of light can transform them. The frozen liquidity of glass as a material also seems appropriate in the fecund setting of the hothouse.
Chihuly explains: ''I love to juxtapose the man-made and the natural, to make people wonder and ask, 'Are they manufactured or did they come from nature?' "
One of the most beguiling exhibits is a cluster of slender vertical lavender reeds set in the shade of giant tree ferns: there is the contrast of texture between the shaggy stems of the ferns and the perfectly smooth glass, but it is the gorgeously unusual colour combination of lavender in dusky green light that is most affecting.
Elswehere in the Temperate House, the surface of a pond is adorned with orange-yellow discs that look like thin, translucent slices of fruit, some turned up at the edges, a scene that is prefaced by a magnificent group of bright-white arum lilies.
Another wonderful moment is the discovery of a set of red-orange reeds amid the massive red-brown stems of the banana Musa basjoo, shaded by its vast, graceful leaves. Nearby is a cluster of clear glass tendrils that thrust above the delicate white star-shaped flowers of Arthropodium cirrhatum, while another section of the Temperate House is graced with a vivid-red chandelier that seems to be exploding overhead. Elsewhere, glass forms that look like extra-terrestrial octopi - a mass of yellow tentacles and green, silvery and blue bulbs - clasp or encrust the four vertical columns.
The hothouse plants (in this case the purple trumpet-flowered climber Calystegia affinis) are already beginning to entwine the glass pieces, as if in acceptance.
The exhibition continues outside, where the most dramatic intervention is several score of multi-coloured, onion-like floats (which Chihuly calls Walla Wallas), scattered on the lake in front of the Palm House. Their incongruity is amusing enough, but one vista from the far side of the lake makes this piece into something of a folly itself, in keeping with the temples (and pagoda) that William Chambers added to Kew in the 18th century. A giant tree (Taxodium distichum) frames a view that takes in a boat in the foreground, crammed with coloured gourds and grasping tentacles, over the floating Walla Wallas, then progresses on to the tall scarlet and orange towers that flank the entrance to the Palm House.
It is unusual for an artist of this calibre to become involved in a sculpture in the garden initiative but, for Chihuly, Kew has double appeal: there is the botanical setting, which his work clearly complements, and also the fact that it is the home of the Palm House, the world's most famous glasshouse. Chihuly's interest was piqued by the idea of putting his glass sculptures inside a glass building, amid the tropical plants that have such an affinity with his work. An added bonus is that the pieces are atmospherically lit after dark, and visitors will be able to appreciate this in summer on a series of special night-time tours, and as the days shorten, during normal autumn and winter opening hours.
Gardens of Glass: Chihuly at Kew, May 28 to January 15, 2006. Private views at dusk on July 27, August 31, Sept 28 and December 8 (to book tickets ring 0870 150 5415).
Children's activities will be happening daily from July 23 to September 6 on a first-come, first-served basis.