"Glass is the most magical of all materials. It transmits light in a special way, and, at any moment, it might break."
- Dale Chihuly, 1992
It's electrifying to enter the "Chihuly Over Venice" installation-exhibit, where artist Dale Chihuly has suspended 10 enormous glass chandelier-sculptures in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's 44-foot-high entrance atrium.
Huge, brightly colored clusters of blown glass and cubes first displayed at the Venice Biennale "Open Glass" celebration last fall, the "chandeliers" look like freestyle glass balloons that could float off at any minute. Consider the deep-cobalt blue "Rio Delle Torreselle" chandelier made in Finland with a team of Finnish glassmakers. Like a giant octopus with long, slender tentacles reaching out, the piece swells at the top and tapers to the bottom. It is at once monumental and evanescent.
Chihuly is widely considered the world's premier glass artist. His work is included in more than 125 museums from the Louvre in Paris to the Japan Institute of Arts and Crafts in Tokyo; it can also be seen in many public installations, and he has had solo exhibitions in more than 60 museums worldwide.
When, exactly, Chihuly conceived the idea of hanging glass "chandeliers" over the canals of Venice is open to question. It certainly could have begun in 1968 when he studied as a Fulbright scholar at the Venini Fabrica on Murano, Venice's glassmaking island. Chandeliers are part of the city's palazzi and homes, and the light of the canals mesmerized him early on.
In February 1994, he began making sketches of his "chandeliers" hanging over Venice's waters. But he took his vision, which is both sculptural and painterly, one step further. Already using the Venetian glass teamwork method at his Seattle studio, "The Boathouse," he decided to make the Venice project chandeliers in countries where glassmaking was already an art. The Chihuly team worked with artisans in Nuutajarvi, Finland; Waterford, Ireland; and Monterrey, Mexico, to create the fantastic glass sculptures now at the Corcoran. Future collaborations will include France (the Vainne Factory, just outside Bordeaux) and Japan (site not yet determined).
The title "chandelier" is intended by Chihuly to be evocative rather descriptive. Moreover, it is only in the Corcoran's brightly lit cavernous spaces that the sculptures have been suspended as originally intended. In Venice itself, local regulations prevented the chandeliers from hanging from cables stretched between houses as originally planned. "We couldn't put one nail, one cable, to a palazzo. We had to get permission from civic organizations like the fire department," Chihuly recalls. He finally erected three-story-high steel quadpods to hold the chandeliers.
In Waterford, Ireland, Chihuly and his team collaborated with Irish glassmakers at the Waterford Crystal Factory, then moved to Lismore Castle - a nearby sprawling, 500-year-old castle that was loaned to them for a month - to hang the gigantic (12-1/2-foot-high), grand etched white crystal "Campiello Remer" chandelier.
Part of the pleasure of viewing this, and other sculptures such as the hot red, bell-like "Giardino Sammartini," made in Mexico, is that visitors at the Corcoran can see them both from above and below. The museum's first-floor, 22-foot-high gallery winds around the atrium's middle level, allowing viewers to look sideways and down at the chandeliers, which are suspended at different levels.
Light is a crucial component of the chandeliers, according to Chihuly. "This is the first time I've been able to light them as I want to, and there's both ambient and natural light at the Corcoran," he says. Sometimes, he'll use neon with the chandeliers, to light them from within, as with some of the turquoise pieces made in Finland, and the red ones fabricated in Mexico.
He has two full-time lighting designers who travel with the show to light the pieces to full advantage. In Venice, as can be seen in the handsome "Chihuly Over Venice" book accompanying the exhibit, the sculptures were dramatically lit at night.
The chandelier forms and shapes vary considerably. And water is never far away as an inspiration for Chihuly, whose Seattle studio - a converted racing scull factory - is on the waters of Lake Union. His work seems to grow from the sea.
His first experience with glass was in the waters of Puget Sound, when growing up in Takoma, Wash., he found bits of colored glass on the beach. Later, he worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska to put himself through graduate school. As head of the sculpture department of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I., he rented a house on nearby Block Island, and liked its wildness best in winter.
Marine biologist Sylvia Earle once wrote of his work, "I am looking at ... Chihuly's glass, remembering encounters with deep sea creatures who, if they could meet their glass counterparts, would sigh with envy or move in closer to get better acquainted."
The glass blown at the Nuutajarvi Factory was first "displayed" by throwing each of the bulbous and elongated forms into the canal where they gloated into a nearby lake. In the Corcoran's many blue-hued "Chiostro Di Sant' Apollonia, made in Finland in June of 1995, the forms seem to have coalesced into a great sea creature.
* The exhibit remains at the Corcoran through Sept. 2 before traveling to the Portland Museum of Art, Oct. 25, 1997-Jan. 18, 1998; and the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 9, 1998-Jan. 3, 1999; other venues will be scheduled.
To learn more about Dale Chihuly, visit the artist's Internet site: (http://www.chihuly.com), or wait for the PBS documentary about the chandelier project, which debuts this fall. Previous Monitor articles on Chihuly can be found in online archives: www.csmonitor.com