Kew Gardens, in and of itself, is one of London’s best reasons to get just outside of the city. Now though, amongst the pristine lanes and manicured lawns, the flowers and the trees, you can find 32 artworks by Dale Chihuly (b. 1941), an American artist who’s one of today’s leading glass blowers in Kew Garden’s ‘Chihuly: Reflections on Nature.’
When you enter the gardens, the first work you find is a sphere of spiky blue glass rods perched on a base called Sapphire Star (2010) – you start to realize, if you aren’t familiar with Chihuly he doesn’t go in much for inconspicuous names. Sapphire Star floats above the grass against a backdrop of green trees, it’s spires catch the sun light in an ethereal manner reminding you that the star is made of hand blown glass. Each frond is individually placed on the sphere every time it’s installed, as are all of Chihuly’s works. In fact, for this exhibition, 11 shipping containers were required to transport the individually wrapped pieces of glass for each sculpture.
If you’re brave, you continue into the gardens without a map on a scavenger hunt for the large-scale installations, but you can also grab a map if you’re more oriented on finding the artworks. Spread over 12 sites, the works primarily revolve around the Palm House Parterre, Temperate House, and the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.
Some works, like Cattails and Copper Birch Reeds and Paintbrushes (2016), are reeds of coloured glass that protrude from the ground while others sit atop their base creating a globe of colour and frenzy like Summer Sun (2010). Within Temperate House, the largest surviving Victorian glass house that was recently restored, guests are greeted by Chihuly’s works at the door. Inside, is a massive organic chandelier suspended at the centre of the glasshouse that was made specifically for the exhibition. What is so fantastic about this work is that the structure that the glass pieces are mounted to isn’t completely hidden. The chandelier seems light and delicate, but the steel underworking tells a different story. In each of the four large flower beds at more works to compliment the space. Walking through the exhibition of works by Chihuly in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery shows another side to the artist. Instead of large-scale chandeliers and installations, visitors are presented with an up close and personal view of free-form bowls that resemble sea creatures, large organic vases, abstract sculptures, and a video of how Chihuly works. In addition to works of glass, there are also 2D works made by the artists including studies for sculptures rendered in charcoal, paint, graphite, and other materials.
The exhibition, which set out to show off the evolution of Chihuly’s more than 50-year career, shows the breadth of Chihuly’s abilities in working with glass. His intrigue and curiosity, near playfulness comes through in the pieces shown in the exhibition. What isn’t clear is the supposed evolution as the exhibition isn’t in a chronological order, and how could it be when the gardens have become the gallery? However, the span of Chihuly’s works seems to make up for this and even begs the question of why evolution need be mentioned.
Overall, the exhibition is well worth the trip to Kew Gardens whether you’ve visited them before or not. It is a bit of a time commitment – a few good hours are needed to see all the works – but don’t let that scare you away. You could even nap in the grass if needed. ‘Chihuly: Reflections on Nature’ runs through October 27th and is included in the ticket into Kew Gardens.