This month's museum pick...

The Magician In The Garden

By Adria Mallin Posted on Nature



The Garden

The Garden, all 83 acres of it, is not only a place of intense beauty but a living museum. Created only a little more than half a century ago from raw land and a dream, it explores, explains, and conserves tropical plants. Among its wonders? A world center for palm studies with over 700 species of palms; cycads dating back to the age of dinosaurs and representing each of the ten genera and most of the 160 known species; a giant African baobab tree planted by Dr. Fairchild himself; the fact that this garden is the only place in the United States where tropical and subtropical plants can be grown outdoors all year; a new Tropical Fruit Pavilion housing the world’s most exotic species; a Herbarium with over 165,000 specimens representing the West Indies, Bahamas, and Florida; a botanical illustration collection with more than 1,000 technical botanic examples; and horticultural and botanical libraries housing over 18,000 volumes.

Playing a key role in preserving biodiversity, Fairchild is active in research and is a storehouse for germ plasm, so that living tissue here offers a bulwark against the disappearance of species, and the institution sends seeds all over the world to remote villages, research centers, and protected areas in the tropical world. Fairchild inspires 400 volunteers to work at the garden and to do extensive educational outreach. There are about 150 classes in everything from bonsai to orchids for adults and children, undergrad and graduate courses in tandem with Florida International University, international conferences, a Plantmobile, plant and seed shows and sales, an Orchid Festival, a Mango Festival, Butterfly Day, a Ramble, and a silent tram tour on the full moon of each month. It’s a loved and well-tended garden.

The Artist

Dale Chihuly, who attended his Fairchild opening in early December with hundreds of his hand-blown pieces created specifically for this exhibition, was born just as Fairchild began to take roots. Chihuly came of age in the 1960’s, extended or jumped every boundary of glass art, and today his work is represented in over 200 museum collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs of the Louvre, and the Corning Museum of Glass."Forest Tumbleweed"Fairchild Botanical Garden

It was Dale Chihuly who approached Fairchild to celebrate the tropical world, so it is perhaps as a mature artist, with the full advantage of mastery and understanding of glass and of the teamwork concept in glass installations, that Chihuly’s love of elemental form and the interplay of translucence and transparence comes to rest directly in nature.

He is not a stranger to this energetic marriage of glass and landscape. Whether it is the abstracted forms of his mother’s garden in Tacoma or the abstracted forms of the sea that borders the state of Washington, Chihuly has taken the enticements of his childhood, translated them into glass of extravagant proportions – the tower, the temple, the bridge -- made possible by technical innovation, and run with them, transmitting light and radiating color.

In the 1960’s he first experimented with installations incorporating plate glass, neon, and ice in outdoor settings. Later, he hung glass forms from trees and floated them in water. In 1996, he and a team of Italian, Finnish, and Mexican glassblowers hung the canals and piazzas of Venice with glass. The enormous and complex chandeliers Chihuly hung showed how glass can take on architectural dimension and transform outdoor space; in fact, by festooning the canals with fixtures normally designed for the palazzo, Chihuly magically reversed interior and exterior. Next, Chihuly assembled Light of Jerusalem, and then, in 2001, he dispersed over thirty glass installations in Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory, entwining them in branches and trunks, suspending them in space, and floating them in artificial ponds.

The Exhibition

And so, to the Fairchild Garden. By daylight, my walk takes me easily from Chihuly’s huge “Citron, Green, and Red Tower” at the garden’s entrance, an upward-striving mass of curling glass tendrils -- much like the “White Tower” tendrils at the edge of the Glade Pool and the “End of the Day Tower” tendrils at the Conservatory which all resemble the Scadoxus multiflorus that blooms here in summer -- to the Arid Garden, where red and amber glass reeds rise, impossibly tall and straight, from the same desert earth that feeds saguaros and other dull green water-retaining plants.

As wondrous as these red and amber glass reeds are, they do not prepare me for the spectacular wooden boat afloat in the lake, near mangrove roots and bending branches, laden with Chihuly’s glass balls and swan-like extensions, his tumbleweeds and walla wallas that threaten to fall from the boat. Everything beckons for my touch if only the wind would blow. Everything delights me with riotous color, transparency, and organic form. I cannot make sense of what I see, but I know that it makes me joyous to be alive in its presence."Carnival Boat"photo by Clio Alexandra Mallin

On two large ponds – one vast and one not – amidst the reeds and the world’s largest lily pads float Chihuly’s two-foot glass balls, reminiscent of giant Japanese fishing floats, or niijima. With their fantastical topknot twists, they are Hershey’s Kisses, they’re the Taj Mahal, they’re an onion patch. They’re real. They’re surreal. They’re unreal.

And as fanciful as they are in the morning when their colors and transparency throw back the morning sun and also reflect in the water so that they seem to double themselves, it is at night, when the Fairchild closes for the day and then reopens for the Thursday walk in the dark, that these floats, on 10-foot invisible tethers and lit from within, take your breath away and don’t give it back.

The garden path, if you can find it in the dark, then moves into the rainforest, where, in 1959, Fairchild’s prescient director germinated palm seeds from an expedition to New Guinea and found that they flourished among the oak trees because of the filtered light. Orchids, elaborate ferns, aroids and bromeliads were added, along with a watering and misting system.

The rainforest has grown since then so that when I enter, the path is narrow and the canopy is high. Nature’s abundance and variety are striking, and the “new growth” from Chihuly’s glass studios is, in the day, like finding yet another treasure of the rainforest. But on the night visit, when tangles of vines reach down from the dark 100-foot canopy into the deep, overlapping jungle greenery, and the sounds of rushing water emanate from unseen falls, to suddenly come across neon blue fronds or glass tiger lilies, or glass fiddlehead ferns among the living ferns, or four-foot swirls of orange and yellow glass growth, resembling nothing so much as Cleopatra’s asp, head up and ready to strike, I grow wildly alert and all is surprise. After a few minutes, I forget to question the “how” of Chihuly’s internally lit pieces and become, simply, a child in Eden.

Beyond the rainforest, people walk in hushed and respectful silence, searching for the path and for the next heady surprise. Suddenly, there is a small reflecting pool where minimally lit glass forms suggest blue herons. In the brochure, they are titled “Cobalt Herons,” and in a willing suspension of disbelief, I say they are blue herons. After all, this is South Florida, and in South Florida, I have seen an alligator next to my canoe, and in ordinary parking lots, I have seen pink flamingos, blue herons, and white egrets, and I have even seen them walking proudly or standing stock still on car hoods, as if they were oversized hood ornaments.

I walk on, and unexpectedly, I feel a glow and look upward to find, suspended about 30 feet above me from a tree branch, a mass of tendril-like cones, a polyvitro chandelier called “Chartreuse Hornet” which I had not noticed at all by day but which is now vibrating with a pure gold light and seems to hallow and sanctify the ground on which I tread in the lush and sweet tropical night air.

I am not quite ready to emerge from this magically lit darkness for the normal lighting of Fairchild’s huge conservatory, but I have been told that I should not miss it. The conservatory concept grew in the 19th century as the spirit of exploration brought exotic blooms from faraway lands to Western civilization, and people indulged romantic fantasies about nature and the world while meandering in glass conservatories, orangeries, and winter gardens.

Chihuly’s installations in the Fairchild conservatory resurrect the easy union between the muses of culture and horticulture. He had already experimented with the art-glass-in-the-glassed-in-tropical-garden of a conservatory in Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory. Now, at the Fairchild and simultaneously at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom, again he scatters glass reeds, fronds, vines, blossoms, ikebana forms, snakes and the zoomorphic amid the living botanicals.

More than once, I am brought up short by a living specimen that is so outrageous in form that I mistake it for a Chihuly. Or a Chihuly that I swear is so organic and dynamic that it must be listed in botany texts. In Chihuly’s hands, the natural merges with the supernatural, extending every boundary between art and nature, between sculpture and architecture. Is this what Coleridge meant by Xanadu? A shimmering spectacle so organic that it would altogether elude a Disney. Every natural living wonder is intensified and made marvelous, sublime, transformative, and still, somehow, spontaneous as Chihuly’s forms dance with the natural ones. And who can tell the dancer from the dance? Chihuly is the alchemist, the magician in the garden.

Curiously, I note that in the mere three weeks since the installation, even the insect world has acknowledged Chihuly, so that spiders have already woven their webs on the Chihulys in readiness for the next spider generation.

At the end of the conservatory’s winding path, I join the others in climbing the steps to the exit, and as we climb above the grounded beauty inside the glass walls and ceilings, and there is an urge to plant oneself right here and wait for Florida’s morning sun, under which we will all stretch and grow.

But of course, we cannot. And in the end, on May 31, 2006, like all living forms, this one -- in which Chihuly, who has brought the molten liquid of glass, transformed into a solid, to “live” in harmony and heart-stopping beauty with the natural and the pliable -- will remain only in photographs and in the memory folds of the mind.


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