NeoNatural: Botanically Inspired Glass
Hot sculpted glass installation at the Garfield Conservatory
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA.
The hot sculpted glass flowers in this installation are models of plumeria, the traditional flower of Hawaiian leis and one almost exclusively planted in the cemeteries of my homeland. The flower has a long history of symbolism that crosses many cultural boundaries. It is used to commemorate significant events, as a sign of welcome and to both memorialize the dead and provide a symbol of eternal life.
This piece was inspired by the transplanted nature of the species in this conservatory. Many of these plants have been there for decades. However, since many are tropical species they could not survive even a single Indiana winter without the protection of the 100-year old greenhouse.
There seemed a rich furrow here, a wealth of metaphor and interpretation. Consider the title. For me the word wraith suggests wreath, which, at its root, refers to a twisted thing. Here we have the use of a “fake” exotic flower to mark the life/death of living exotic plant—a lei of crystal flowers around a living tree. It is a beautiful reminder of mortality in a place dedicated to a conservation of species.
The demands of exhibiting in an unconventional setting creates an interesting visual problem. Sculpture that might do well in the sterile cube of the white-walled gallery can get lost or strike an incongruous note when installed in situ. Even more challenging was the driving concept behind this group exhibition—“botanically inspired glass”.
Unless very well executed, work that is too representational suffers when displayed alongside nature, which (for all it’s mundane and banal character) easily achieves a depth of detail and exuberance of form envied and copied by artists for millennia.
This has always been the issue with the glass installations that Chihuly has arranged in various botanical gardens and arboreta—as popular as they admittedly are. The work seems mere spectacle, and it can be argued that it makes a mockery of its setting by trying to upstage it. Glass seems the perfect material to outdo the flamboyance of natural color and form. However, there is something insidious about spectacle: it can simultaneously excite interest while dulling intellectual curiosity. Witness the phenomena of Hollywood summer blockbusters.
The unspoken challenge inherent in NeoNatural was to work with the “natural” surroundings in an honest manner that would create a moment of pause along the damp, shaded paths of the arboretum, to neither upstage nor dismiss the surrounding species but to focus them more clearly by initiation of a visual dialogue between artwork and environment.
Upon reflection, hasn’t this always been one of the goals of art?