There’s nothing wrong with being a people pleaser. And Dale Chihuly’s one of them. Final proof, if proof were needed, of this view is provided by In the Light of Jerusalem, a film playing in the confines of the Shirley Sherwood gallery: the small indoor section of a big outdoor show devoted to Chihuly that spreads over a good portion of Kew’s 300 acres.
The film shows the artist, famous for his fantastical glassworks, in the throes of building one of his most famous outdoor sculptures: a wall of big ice blocks, stacked in front of the Citadel Tower, and under the hot Jerusalem sun, marking the turn of the millennium in 2000. In his colourful shirts and eyepatch, Chihuly rhapsodises over the “beautiful golden sun”, the “glorious height” he wants his work to attain, the “extraordinary structure” of the Citadel, his overall “amazing” experience. He’s relentlessly cheerful, and his work is too.
People like cheerful things. Chihuly’s Jerusalem installation was seen by around 1m people overall - and there seemed an (almost) equivalent number in the confines of Kew on the sunny Saturday I visited. Each of the dozen or so large-scale glass installations - both indoors, in the Temparate House and outdoors, scattered around the gardens - was thick with surrounding visitors, all trying to find the best angle for their cameras. I joined in, snapping away on my phone, and loved the results, the bright glass, striated with speckles and other imperfections when you look closely, contrasting gorgeously with the gardens’ plant life.
But the gallery, featuring a comprehensive survey of Chihuly’s drawings, small-scale glass forms, and that Jerusalem film, brings us closer to the man. He’s profoundly democratic, even down to the earnestly descriptive titles of his works: Sapphire Star is radiant, spiky and blue; Chartreuse Hornet Polyvitro Chandelier, suspended spectacularly from the roof of the recently-restored Temparate House, is, respectively, greenish, made of glass and replete with conical forms that bring to mind a hornet’s thorax.
Despite the heat and the crowds, my critical faculties eroded. He’s impossible to dislike, and easy to love. And my Instagram feed looked great that day.
Chihuly: Reflections on nature is at Kew Gardens (London). April 13 - October 27 2019