Spheres of Glass

I wandered, lonely, escaping from the Seattle Sheraton, from the giddiness of social encounters and a plethora of conference talk, escaping Chihuly. Chihuly ornaments and glass sculptures are nested in every niche of the Sheraton, commanding attention from every shiny polished vantage point. Almost every hotel in Seattle (and many other hotels around the world) exhibit Dale Chihuly glass works, but his great popularity is centered on the garden installations. I saw “Gardens of Glass: Chihuly at Kew” in 2005, but was neither charmed nor seduced. As a tourist and gardener and sometimes critic, like others of my ilk I would always rather be seduced than not. On the other hand I’d rather be intrigued than charmed (but of course you cannot always choose the things that move you, you cannot orchestrate those moments when the air turns cold and you shiver, or when a hot feverish breeze gets under your skin, or when perplexity renders you speechless; for all that a certain kind of taste is trained into your body, you cannot always predict how you will react). So now, visiting Seattle for the first time, Chihuly Garden and Glass is on my bucket list. I’m intrigued to see how these glass works work in their native setting, hoping my mind can be changed.

After all, the conceit of these garden installations is potentially intriguing: the insinuation of fantastical glass sculptures in amongst real plants. They are mostly, though not entirely, gigantic, these sculptures, bearing names like garden grass, reeds, blue herons, sun, French Blue Ikebana with orange and scarlet frog feet, green trumpets, red orange reeds. They imitate and mimic. As you wander through the garden you encounter vegetative landscapes, living matter, interspersed with signs of the synthetic, squishy materials juxtaposed with brittle surfaces, warm and fleshy with glassy coolness. Of course no garden is entirely natural, but if all gardens are to some degree designed then grand public gardens like Kew are meticulously curated (and so too, one imagines, the “original” Chihuly Garden). As a viewer ambling through a series of interconnected gardens or galleries, one’s curiosity could be tickled, one’s sense of assurance about which goes with what. Mimesis in this mise-en-scène possesses the potential to provoke the irreality of the garden itself.

But the garden and museum fell short of conceit.

So here I am, escaping the extravaganza, walking back to the downtown conference along 5th Avenue. Walking segues into trudging. It seems as though I have been hiking for days through rough terrain. A sliver of anxiety worms its way up, up from heavy footsteps into my stomach and buzzes there, a caged mosquito, looking for blood. An old familiar feeling, a feeling that hasn’t visited for months. Perhaps, I tell myself, it is not somatic at all, just disgruntlement, the massive gaudy Chihuly glass works—luridly pretty, drained of affect—weighing heavily upon my fragile psyche. Suddenly a wave of home sickness ripples through me, a yearning—to be home, curled up in bed with Elvis and Roxy, or in the garden picking fava beans, or in with the chickens, cooing, stroking their silkiness.

Lonely as a cloud.

When all at once I see a crowd, a host, of spectral chickens. Dead, plucked and headless chickens, impaled, fluttering and dancing in a shop window. Two washing lines slice the window vertically. Meat hooks hang from the cord lines, piercing the elongated yet rather fat necks, all skinniness concentrated in the legs which dangle in the air, feet splayed open like hands stretching, feeling for solid ground. In between the legs and the necks plump appurtenances, rounded if rather lumpy breasts. Is it a shop, a restaurant, an office? There is no lettering, no description, no invitation.

My dragging footsteps freeze.

Behind the chooks hangs a large Chinese paper lantern, once scarlet now faded to puce, and in the right foreground, on a dusty cluttered desk, a jar of bright lively daffodils. Golden. In contrast the chickens are pasty and pale, a grimy faded yellow. The sickly yellow of birds-eye-custard, dished up in my childhood at the end of every vile boarding school meal, smothered over every horrible pudding, the horribleness only exacerbated by this fraudulent cover-up. Or is it whiteness turned old and musty and tinged with the ochre of decay? I step closer, nose against the glass. There is something odd about these chickens, they are too smooth, too drained of blood, too dusty, their necks—inauthentically fat—are hollow. There is something about them that makes me want to reach out through the glass to feel their textural duplicity.

These are imitation carcasses, synthetic chickens, plasticcy. Relief and hilarity. The sense of laughter, however, isn’t just provoked by the discovery of the hoax, rather it’s to do with the uncanny persistence of irreality, an undecidabilty that persists in the scene before and after discovery, for now I’m part of this scene that I stumbled upon. The sense of unease, shadowed by the intimation of disease returning, the horror provoked by this exhibition of dead and naked chickens, the unasked-for juxtaposition of my silky girls and these synthetic mute corpses, is somewhat alleviated by the certainty that they are merely imitations. I’m off the hook, “my chickens” whose heads I would never chop off, who I would never pluck and hang and eat, are OK, they remain in the realm of the real while these phantoms are merely incarnations of a spectral brutality. But then the scene I witness—as though in a museum, as though this is an exhibit, as if it were a still frame from a movie—insists on including me in its mise en scène, on incorporating the dissociation from which I suffer. Cognitive dissonance shot through with strains of the uncanny. When I see ducks hanging in Chinese butchers, gleaming and velvetty in their soy basting, I can’t wait to taste and to experience in the mouth the crunch of their crispy skin. Even chickens, I never hesitate to eat chicken, I enjoy the cooking of chickens and chicken parts. “Chickens” in general. Not particular chickens. Not my chickens.

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door.

Freud, writing here about the uncanny presents us with a scene conceptualized as a frame within a frame. He is jolted, subjected to a shock. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer and the image. Enter the chickens as a third term, a mediating twist.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance, of the personal and the social, of no man being an island:

 The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance.

How bizarre to come upon this apparition on an ordinary street, while ambling along, to encounter thus the uncanny echoing or correlation of living and dead, natural and artificial, self and other, chickens and daffodils. Somehow this view into another world (office, butcher’s shop, Chinese restaurant?) wakes me up, looks back, interpolates. The austerity of the frame, string strung across the window asymmetrically, the sickly color-co-ordination, the insinuation of springtime and gardens, of a host of golden daffodils, into this macabre composition is provocative in a way the Chihuly is not.

It would be wrong to say that on glimpsing those daffodils my heart with pleasure danced. But a lightness did indeed enter into my leaden feet, as I imagined a dance macabre between those denuded plastic chickens and my feathery cooing girls.

You have to walk through the Chihuly museum in order to reach the garden. Which means your experience of the garden is overdetermined by the sense of aesthetic homogeneity indoors. Actually the transition between the two realms is striking. It is called the glass house, and although modeled on the great glass houses of the nineteenth century such as the Crystal Palace, it is a very simple structure, bare and austere. In contrast to the nakedness and transparency in which you find yourself a huge sprawling floral abundance hangs from the ceiling: glass flowers, larger than life, fashioned in red gold and orange, drip lusciously, suspensed in space, suspended forever. As you stand under them it is almost impossible not to imagine the whole gigantic structure crashing, splintering, dispersing into a thousand pieces. It’s a gloriously extravagant composition, this mixing of glass textures, this invocation of an aesthetic of timelessness through an illusion to practices of preservation, to ways of keeping things alive in artificial environments. Like glass houses, like museums, like tombs.

In the glass house a space opens up in which to meditate upon scale and materiality.

But after the glass house is the garden and before the glass house there are galleries, endless iterations of frilly floraciousness. The psychedelic underwater worlds are interchangeable with the flowery abstractions. The garden is just another gallery, a medium of display, a staging for the performance of anxiety: to elevate glass blowing from a craft to a grandiose art. Such production requires factory conditions and many workers. Nothing new in this, but the process of effacement in the name of a single genius artist serves to efface process in general. I so wanted the installation to yield a tension, a gesturing to something outside itself, to the multiple imbrications of nature and art, to the materiality created out of breath and fire. What I found was an abundance of precious cheerfulness but little sense of the uncanny, or of the fragility of glass, how close it is to splintering. Nor much sense of how the social is inscribed in the material world. Wonder is a word often used to describe the Chihuly effect, but for me wonder served to efface the complexities of process.

Wonder is also the predominant response elicited by another famous and popular display, the Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, in the Harvard Museum of Natural History (often acknowledged by Chihuly as an influence). This collection is composed of 3,000 models of ‘Glass Flowers’ constructed by father and son Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, over five decades from 1886 through 1936.In fact all kinds of plants, not just flowers, make up the collection which was commissioned in order to teach students of botany. The models are disturbingly life size (too large to be miniatures, too small to be sculptures) and remarkably accurate in anatomical detail and color.

The wonder that these “flowers” elicit is complicated by a range of emotions and epistemological speculations, as evidenced in the richness of critical writing that circulates around them. Much of this writing hovers between description and defiance of description. How unlikely that these scientific models should be made of glass rather than other substances so much more amenable to modeling (they are constructed primarily though not exclusively of glass) like wax or papier mache. Their materiality, in practical and imaginative terms, is of the utmost importance. While extremely thingy they are also chimerical. Wonder is generated in the play between seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing: you know they are made of glass and yet ….. “They look real enough but as if the real is from another realm,” says Jamaica Kincaid. It is she who captures the uncanniness of the artificial perfection, and nails the relation of these objects wrought in glass to the garden.

The glass flowers and their many stages of being are in a state of perfection stilled. It is always a gardener’s wish to have perfection and then to have it forever. It is also within the gardener’s temperament to first desire forever and then to do everything possible to dismantle and smash forever. If the flowers encased in cabinets stored in the museum make up a garden, they are not the exception to this latter sentiment. Though it seems as if they will last forever, every cabinet bears a legend warning of their fragility. The people taking care of them give assurance that they will last forever. But as every gardener knows, forever is as long as a day.

Glass matters here, but other materials matter elsewhere. Plastic and yarn, for instance, can be exploited for their mimetic potential. What matters is scale and texture and the way that the materiality of the sculptural object is able to gesture outside its own perfection (its mimetic perfection, or formal coherence) to chisel a crack in the cognitive dissonance that glues everything together.

Think of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s glass poem, Wave/Rock. The poem is constructed not on the page but on a thick sheet of glass onto which the words Wave and Rock, many times over, are sandblasted. The letters of the word wave “break” on the rock constructed not on the page but in glass. The form of the words mimics their meaning, enacts their materiality. Waves break, and simultaneously the process of waves breaking is frozen, the cycle of nature is eternal, and at the same time fragile, vulnerable to destruction particularly in and by human hands: the one who sculpts, composes, the one who reads and sees and knows and does not know. Wave/Rock dislodges an habitual cognitive dissonance. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer, looking at and through the glass, and the image.

Enter the chickens, proposing a third term, a mediating twist. For me the chickens in this instance represent an ecological dimension that Finlay Patterson most likely did not intend, but that the work now speaks.

Glass in the end is not the most important thing (though glass contains a particular potential). It is the materiality of the process incorporated into the sculptural object, the “work” in the “work” which gestures towards something playful and also potentially destructive. The wave, this one wave which is also many waves, all waves, breaks over and over again but is itself vulnerable, and perhaps after all not so eternal.

Take “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs.” This is a project initiated by the Institute for Figuring, run by Christine and Margaret Wertheim. The Wertheim sisters, inspired by a type of mathematical modeling called hyperbolic geometry, put out a web call to invite women to join them in crocheting a coral reef, following some simple mathematical rules for generating a certain kind of spatial configuration and dimensionality (interestingly embodied by reefs and reef creatures). Women from all over the world responded to the invitation, contributing individual items and elements. The Institute for Figuring initiated workshops, crocheting workshops which incorporated an ecological component, a learning about reefs, about the threats posed to their existence particularly from the onslaught of plastic detritus.The artists, as well as using more familiar materials such as wool and yarn, incorporated into the sculptures recycled materials, such as plastics. Leslie Dick, from whose fabulous essay I learnt of this project, writes of a “mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)” which is “mirrored by the relation of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs to their real-world counterparts, particularly the Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific. Leslie Dick contends that the project, drawing on so many practitioners, produces a new kind of artist (and thus art work), one immersed in reverie, in a project that enables a rich variety and combination of imaginative explorations. She invokes this kind of artist:

While she may have confidence in her expertise, her work avoids grandiosity, remaining at a manageable scale (until it joins the larger combination). This artist particularly enjoys the invitation to sink below the ocean, to enter its dreamlike darkness, an alternate reality of color and shape. She enjoys making phallic shapes, using her hook and yarn to build leaning towers, star shaped fortresses, a landscape drawn in lumps of color. She enjoys making vaginal shapes, fuzzy, curly edged openings, soft to the touch, fronded and weird.

I have only seen images on screen but these marvelously thingy things look so incredibly life-like, so reefish, it’s uncanny. And dissonant too, the way “alien” materials are almost seamlessly crocheted into the sculptures. There is a cognitive dissonance at large in our world now: we revel in the beauty of underwater worlds, of forests and canyons, of places like the Great Barrier Reef, and we are filled with wonder at art that mimics that beauty and preserves for eternity a Platonic perfection. Peeking into the world of “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs” jars that perfection, chisels into the glue of cognitive dissonance, invites reverie and wonder and playful engagement but also a cognitive recalibration, a reimagining and respinning of a conceit that intertwines the natural and synthetic worlds.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance – as we were making our way back from the spectacular San Juan Islands where we spent a night on Orcas island, a catastrophic event occurred in beautiful Washington State, one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history. As we hiked around Cascade Lake and climbed to the top of the tower on the top of Mount Constitution, marveling in this world seemingly so pristine, a community in Stillaguamish Valley in the foothills of the North Cascades were suddenly without warning buried under mud. A natural disaster? Unforeseen, said the emergency manager of the area. Timothy Egan wrote a week after the event that in fact there had been warnings, most notably a report in 1999 that outlined “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hillside that just suffered a large catastrophic failure (although it seems the inhabitants of the endangered community were never told of these official reports). Egan reports visiting the area 25 years ago and being shown a mudslide occurring on a hillside above the river, a hillside in which old growth forest had been clear felled, leaving nothing to hold the hillside in torrential rain. Just like the hillside above the small, disappeared community, of Oso.

Egan says, “The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance… A legacy of settlement is the delusion that large-scale manipulation of the natural world can be done without consequence.”

Scale and texture. A continent, an ocean, a garden, a shop window, forests, mud, glass, yarn, plastic, plants, the real and the imitative, the beautiful and the catastrophic.

I return to San Diego where rather than rain there is a drought, and the river if it can be seen at all, is skinny. I make a routine visit to the hospital on the UCSD campus and am astounded by the number of new buildings, massive grandiose medical buildings mostly, being developed on the very edge of canyons. Mesas have been sliced into and rearranged. Glass and concrete structures teeter on air. We have no old growth forests here, just coastal scrub and chaparral. But they too hold the earth down. What, I wonder is the cognitive dissonance we suffer from here? I imagine a performance art project enacted by chickens let loose on the medical campus, or even an installation of dead, plucked and headless chickens, hanging from the canyon walls, dangling over freeways, reaching for the daffodils.

 Notes

“I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment…” …. Sigmund Freud, in a footnote to his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny” in Art and Literature. Trans. James Strachey. Comp  & ed Angela Richards. 1919. The Pelican Freud Library 14. London: Penguin,                    1985. Freud situates his essay as an investigation into aesthetics: “understood to   mean not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling”     (339).

 The “taming” of this continent Timothy Egan, “A Mudslide, Foretold,” The New        York Times, 29th March, 2014.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/opinion/sunday/egan-at-home-when-the-earthmoves.html?action=click&module=Search&region=searchResults%230&version=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fquery.nytimes.com%2Fsearch%2Fsitesearch%2F%3Faction%3Dclick%26region%3DMasthead%26pgtype%3DHomepage%26module%3DSearchSubmit%26contentCollection%3DHomepage%26t%3Dqry485%23%2Ftimothy+egan+mudslide&_r=0

accessed march 29th.

 

“They look real enough…” Jamaica Kincaid, “Splendor in the Glass,” The Architectural    Digest, June 2002.

http://www.architecturaldigest.com/ad/archive/artnotebook_article_062002

Accessed 15th March, 2014.

“mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)…” Leslie Dick, The       Institute for Figuring and Companions: Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs. Track 16             Santa Monica,” X-tra, Summer 2009, volume 11 number 4.

http://x-traonline.org/article/the-institute-for-figuring-and-companions-       hyperbolic-crochet-coral-reefs/

accessed 12th February, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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