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Chihuly Sculpture at Aish Center: Water Bursting Into Flame

by Brian Blondy

Jerusalem Post – October 6, 2009

Dale Chihuly's new glass chandelier, “Fire and Water,” which is featured at the recently redesigned Aish HaTorah building's atrium, is arguably one of the most significant works of glass art to be permanently exhibited in Jerusalem.

Similar to the Chagall Windows that were installed at the synagogue at Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem in 1962, Chihuly's piece defines strongly the identity of space and has the power to blend art, humanism and religion together for a common higher purpose.

The installation is said to derive from the story of the Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva, who at 40 years old, saw dripping water corroding a rock. In a moment of epiphany, Rabbi Akiva observed to himself that if the soft water could make a hole in the hard rock with the passage of time, then the Torah, which is often likened to water as well as to flame, could certainly make an impression on his own heart. From the moment of his realization, he decided to devote his life to studying the Law and ultimately became one of the greatest Torah scholars in Jewish history.

Chihuly, 68, who resides in Seattle, Washington, is the most successful and talented studio glass artist in the world. He is considered to be on the forefront of the movement due to his decision to work with a team of expert glass blowers in order to create one-of-a-kind multi-dimensional, abstract glass installations.

His iconic glass art sculptures can be found across the globe – in most American modern museums of art, in special travelling exhibitions showcasing his organic glass pieces among botanical gardens, and even installed privately at locations such as the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and the Palm Hotel in Dubai. The Chihuly chandelier at Aish HaTorah was made possible through a donation from Lillian and Elliot Hahn of Miami, Florida.

Chihuly Describes

During a telephone interview with the Jerusalem Post, Chihuly described his process of designing the installation as originating conceptually through his rough yet colorful abstract designs, which act as the central theme and blueprint he works from.

"I have two main studios in Seattle, one which we blow glass in and the other which is my own studio that I design from. I make the drawing of what I want to do with the glass... I might have an idea I work on instantly or let it stew for awhile."

From Chihuly's drawn-up plans and ideas on paper, the pieces are then executed usually "in teams of 7-8 people, up to 15 people, and then normally, we build the piece as we blow it."

Regarding the realization of his designs, Chihuly said: "I can tell the blowers what I want and then bang bang, I have the parts that I want… Glass is a very exciting medium to work with... the ability to blow it, it is the only material in the world that can be blown to form."

Speaking specifically about the chandelier, he added, "We put it together, and at a certain point, we knew that it was just enough… This piece went pretty smoothly. When I finished it, I knew I created something just right."

For Chihuly to say that the installation – which took four months to create and was delivered to Israel in hundreds of boxes – was "just right" upon completion, is either proof of his modesty or a nod to the fact that he is leaving the visual surprise of his creation for the visitor to discover.

Either way, Chihuly's lack of a defining hyperbole and his coy silence in labeling the piece was wise. Simply put, the installation has the power to leave its spectators in awe.

"I have a degree in interior architecture. I've always worked in scale; I like working big. Working together with architecture – it allows me to work with large glass pieces and work with space," he enthused.

And, indeed, Chihuly was merely scratching the surface by describing the power of his piece through its scale. Two stories tall, “Fire and Water” is simply an enormous and powerful sight to behold.

At first glance, the exhibit appears to be a frozen gaseous explosion hanging before one's eyes. And it's hard not to believe that at any second it won't simply soar upwards into the sky like a combusting Phoenix of iridescent fire. The installation's energetic tentacles spin, twist and reach for individual purpose and attention.

Sizing up the piece from top to bottom, it does indeed seem to metaphorically represent Rabbi Akiva's upward spiral, from his former life as a shepherd to his latter incarnation as a rabbinic scholar… although, it just might represent something more.

Could the installation also be a poignant metaphor for the Jewish people, a bright rising of the Israeli present and an abstract revelation with a respectful reference to the historical Jewish past? Ranging from vibrant shades of red, orange and yellow, which blend into more subdued and deeper tones of purple and blue, “Fire and Water” could also appear to be rising or descending in the atrium – depending on one's own view of spirituality and the world.

Spiritual Material

Despite the inevitable plethora of artistic interpretations and its unique colorful energy, “Fire and Water” brings a strongly-centered humanistic focus to the Aish HaTorah building.

While the piece is suspended proudly and brightly with nary a threat of artistic competition in sight, the surrounding minimalist interior of the Aish HaTorah building, rather than being overshadowed, is actually enhanced by Chihuly's artistic presence.

Aish HaTorah, committed to inspiring Jewish learning and identity around the world, provides opportunities for Jews of all backgrounds to discover their heritage through learning and cultural activities.

Said Chihuly: "I think glass is a very spiritual material. When I was 10 I went to church; we had a beautiful stained glass window; I think it had a big influence on me. In a cathedral, you might be 300 feet away from a ruby red window. There's no other material in the world that is so colorful from so far away."

Not himself Jewish, Chihuly has long had a connection to Israel. In 1962-63, he volunteered on Kibbutz Lahav for several months and has described the experience of arriving at the kibbutz "as a boy of 21 and leaving as a man, just a few short months later," after which, he said, his "life would never be the same."

This is not the first time Chihuly has had his glass art in the city. In 2000, he showcased his pieces throughout the Old City in the exhibition "Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000." His pieces were scattered strategically throughout the Jewish Quarter, giving visitors a fresh interpretation on the ancient archaeology.

Chihuly described the uniqueness of the Aish HaTorah piece, saying, "The light going through it makes a color that is impossible to get anywhere else." Indeed, with the combination of the rising sun and an amazing view of the Temple Mount through the generously sized windows, the atrium is a one-of-a-kind sight.

The light that refracts through the glass lends the sculpture and the room an almost mythical quality, contrasting Jerusalem's old and new in the space of a single glance.

View an amazing time-lapse video of the Chihuly sculpture being installed.


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