People Who Live in Glass Houses: Why Chihuly Matters

A Glass Act

Hence, a permanent installation devoted to Chihuly in his native region (and the place where he continues to produce his works) is not a mere vanity project as some have suggested. Chihuly studios has been an incubator for many artists, but the same might be said of Seattle at large—and not in a positive way. The lack of even local recognition of artists leads many to eventually migrate from our green pastures to concrete jungles. To suggest that we should not want to honor our own homegrown talent, even when they have so deeply influenced and shaped the community as Chihuly has done, is not a good message to send to anyone, least of all the arts community.

I must admit that following the announcement, I bemoaned the loss of potential green space…until I realized that it would require a massive, voter-approved levy, which seemed certain to fail. The Garden and Glass did not cost taxpayers a cent and it will bring more revenue to the city than the green space would have, so at the very least it was a strong civic investment. Yet, I was concerned that the footprint would be inadequate to create a compelling space. I was half right. It will provide a great sampler for tourists and schoolchildren, but it feels unfinished in some places and cramped in others.

My criticism of the exhibit can be summed up in two ideas: access and excess. Chihuly grabs people’s attention with beauty and craft and unexpected forms, providing an entry point into art for blue-collar viewers (as Chihuly once was) and literate but undeveloped minds (as I once was). Chihuly’s objects live among and give life to other objects, and the collection is often presented in ways too austere, which will only galvanize those who suggest that this is just a shrine to one man. This austerity prevents most of the interior from achieving the spectacle for which Chihuly is known (and which is achieved outside in the Garden). I have some simple suggestions that would not break anyone’s bank, but which might help Chihuly break down a few walls (without demolishing any in the building).

Part of Dale Chihuly's enormous basket and blanket collection displayed in the boathouse

In the Chihuly Boathouse, a well appointed room showcases part of the artist’s enormous collection of blankets and baskets alongside his glass. The Garden and Glass recreates a pale version of this in the front room.

The first display of Chihuly’s early Glass Forest work is forgettable and looks a little cheap in its mirrored recess. It could be redone to better effect, but it should not be made a priority as it just hasn’t space enough; it is a glowing welcome sign and that is that. The next room contains samples from his baskets placed among traditional woven baskets and Pendleton blankets that inspired the designs. It feels a bit like a commercial showroom, and there is little sense of authentic connection between Chihuly’s works and the inspirational material. This would be a prime place to put a video display showing the glass creation process. I’d be happy if they put such a display in every room. The creation is such a graceful and complex process, and seeing it would reinvest these static objects with the motion apparent to Chihuly and his team, but not to first-time viewers. Alongside images of weavers weaving, to witness the rolling of the glass in shards and threads would provide the connection that the room is currently lacking.

The next room has a similar problem with stasis. Though they are immaculate, Chihuly’s sea life sculptures do not present well on pedestals like sacred artifacts, especially when placed at a height that is (intentionally?) inaccessible to younger audiences. These pieces are called “drawings” in the literature for the museum, and perhaps they would never capture the attention of younger audiences, who will be more interested in the central installation: a towering mass of blue tendrils supporting starfish and other simple sea life. The presence of rippling light or real water could really help animate these works, which almost look ready to wriggle away in the right context but presently seem ready to go belly up under the static spotlights. The Chihuly team could do more to make the space engaging, a destination, a defiance of the conception that museums and galleries must be grave and worshipful places. Certain critics will always say Chihuly is vulgar; why not go for broke? Making each room a little more its own world will benefit the audience greatly and better justify the price of admission. It does not need to be a funhouse, mind you, but two rooms in, one feels like one is still in the lobby, waiting to enter the real exhibition.

Unfortunately, that feeling follows one into the Persian Ceiling room—the nadir of the exhibition. A similar arrangement was the center of attention at Chihuly’s show at the MFA in Boston, where natural light filtered through the pergola ceiling and the assembled glass, a kaleidoscopic canopy of light between the viewer and infinity. Here, the sense is claustrophobic, with oppressive beams dividing the canopy into blocky, poorly lit chunks. Structural codes in our tremor-prone zone demand that so much glass overhead be solidly supported, but the experience is one of being trapped under a pile of multi-colored rubble.

Things improve dramatically in the next room: the Mille Fiori. Here, Chihuly’s practice of more-is-more comes to the fore to good effect. The looping, swerving, glass flora atop a reflective dais are a swampy jungle made of poisonous candy—intoxicating to the imagination. This is the sort of display that will charge younger minds. So might the next room: the Ikebana Boats. The two boats seem a little sparse, however, after the preceding room. Chihuly may be inspired by the Japanese aesthetics of minimalism and wabi-sabi, but I have already stated why his works don’t succeed that way. Minimalism with Chihuly is often either jarring or disappointing. It will be especially so for anyone who walks back through these rooms after seeing the café, which is loaded to the brim with Chihuly’s collections of bottle openers, masks, accordions, and vintage paraphernalia. That delightful excess, that overflow is provided in the commercial spaces. Why not in the displays themselves?

It is easier to curate an existing hoard of objects than to generate and display new work, but here is another idea: Chihuly’s breakage rates are famously low, but cracks happen. Broken pieces are pulverized and discarded at the points of origin, but what if they had a home in the Chihuly Garden and Glass? The fragile nature of glass is part of its stigma, so why not embrace it? Why not load some of these spaces with broken pieces to add to the spectacle and the contemplation of the unbroken objects? The wabi-sabi aesthetic is about accepting imperfection (that Chihuly’s clients would not accept), so a boat of broken pieces floating alongside the perfect ones (or even covering the wall behind) could actually honor the core of wabi-sabi by acknowledging that what is broken can be appreciated with what is whole, what is exquisite can be equal with what is homely, and the distinctions are in the eye and heart of the beholder, as everything has flaws upon closer examination, is incomplete.

The penultimate chamber in the main building also suffers from being too bare and too little. A collection of chandeliers hang yards apart, looking rather inert in a grey void. Those that once hung over the canals in Venice made a great impression and pushed boundaries about glass art as installation, so it’s a little depressing to see them in something more resembling a crypt. The room definitely needs something; the blank walls would be a good home for some of Chihuly’s paintings or sketches (also seen in the café), which ooze and splatter and explode like these finished sculptures.

The final room contains about a dozen of Chihuly’s gorgeous Macchia bowls atop high pedestals. It is gorgeous but again not very kid friendly, and accessibility should be of prime consideration in this place. The lighting from above illuminates the cloudy effects on the exteriors, but all I could think about was first seeing these Macchia in a greenhouse in Atlanta and how much better they looked there, at various heights among the flora. It may be impractical to put a small conservatory in this space, but let’s just say there is potential for growth.

And from there one enters into the courtyard, atrium, and gardens—by far the highlight of the exhibit and a successful curation of art and nature—the way Chihuly should be, in my estimation. The atrium is an acoustical nightmare with a large crowd, but it is absolutely gorgeous and the massive, twining garland of flowers running the length of it is an ambitious and wonderfully executed work. It provides what one might hope to see in the Persian Ceiling with an additional sense of order and sophistication. The gardens are a small wonder that I hope will only grow lusher with maturity. Even now they are a breath of fresh air, and the spherical centerpiece to the gardens, “The Sun,” is a fantastic application of the tendrils seen in the chandeliers. It shows that his tried-and-true forms may still find fresh uses. It is also worth noting that the barrier between the garden and the exterior walks is not an imposing rampart, but a free form fence that allows other visitors to enjoy glimpses from the outside. It really does beautify the area like the other paid attractions: the Science Center, the Needle…not the EMP, but whatever. One does feel a little concerned that the pieces are rather unprotected from vandals lobbing stones over the fence, but the defiance of this, the optimism in spite of the pieces’ breakability, is a deeply positive message in itself. We hope for the best, it says, because we all live in a glass house.

The Garden and Glass is said to be a finished project, but I beg to differ. It does not meet the potential of the space, and I think Chihuly, his team, and the Seattle Center will see that in time and finish what they started. For now, it is already a worthwhile addition to Seattle’s cultural landscape. Hopefully, youths and dilettantes (like my younger self) will be stirred by the works toward a wider appreciation of art. His accessible abstractions, his imaginative use of a pariah material, and his unabashed playfulness remain a catalyst for burgeoning minds. Furthermore, his studios and Pilchuck are world-class training grounds for the next generation of glass artists. That is enough for one man to accomplish. Any scold who says otherwise, who declares while looking into the dim mirrors of the displays that we should put away childish things, not waste time with such trifling works, and get back to vivisected animals—any such person is missing the point. Chihuly may not be War and Peace, and he doesn’t need to be when he is so good at being The Little Engine That Could, the sort of story we want to tell our children and grandchildren before we send them into a world of people throwing stones.

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