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Looking Glass

Reflections on Dale Chihuly's exhibit at Phipps Conservatory

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I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill. ...
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.

-- Wallace Stevens

1) Dale Chihuly's traveling Gardens & Glass exhibit first took root in Chicago five years ago. But since coming to Phipps Conservatory last May, it's become a Pittsburgh phenomenon. Phipps says 220,000 visitors have already come to see the artist's strangely organic glass sculptures surrounded by equally exotic plants. (The show's run has been extended through Feb. 24.) The show has also been the signature event in the 2007 "Pittsburgh Celebrates Glass" promotional campaign, and it's easy to see how city boosters chose the theme. Pittsburgh was once the center of American glass production; its glassmaking history is both older than its legacy in steel, and easier to embrace. No one thinks of glassworks causing pollution or labor strife. It's a Pittsburgh industry that somehow doesn't seem industrial.

2) Chihuly's art isn't entrancing just because of how closely it emulates nature; it also reminds us of how closely nature can approximate art. His forms are otherworldly, but then so are those you find in the natural world.

3) Along the garden paths of Phipps, of course, the distinction between artificial and natural is almost impossible to make. Phipps itself is an artificial construct, of course, made of glass and climate-controlled. Many of the plants inside it are manmade too: Chihuly's sculptures in the orchid room are surrounded by "garden origin" plants whose creation was every bit as artificial. Both glassmaker and botanist work with raw natural elements -- starting with sand or soil, respectively -- and trusting their creations to a combination of skill and chance.

4) And Phipps only shows us the process writ small, on the order of the model railroad trains in one of its outdoor displays. Over at Monsanto, they're reconfiguring not blossoms but genetic codes. And across the globe, we reshape not just plants but whole landscapes. Just beside the glass marvels in Phipps' newish Tropical Forest Conservatory, one can read about the wholesale disappearance of forests in Thailand. Chihuly is lucky he didn't seek to master the art of carving teak.

5) We set out by making art in the image of the world. These days, though, we're busily remaking the world in the image of our artifice. The world is a hothouse, more so ever year. And soon the artifices may be all that survives. Zoos expand while wilderness contracts. Oceans are depleted of fish, while landlocked cities like Pittsburgh build aquariums. Someday, maybe, we'll build the complement to Phipps: a giant snowglobe where we'll go to remember a Pittsburgh winter. Someday, there will be a Rick Sebak special about the weather we used to have.

6) People tote cameras everywhere through this exhibit. Back when pictures were harder to come by, and costlier to develop, anywhere a camera pointed became a momentary piece of sacred ground. No one set foot inside it until the click of the shutter. But there are too many cameras for that now. As we bottleneck on garden paths on the fringes of other people's photographs, Phipps staff urge us to keep moving. We crash through each other's frames.

7) It's as if our lives have become so mediated, so saturated by images, that we can't look at a flower or a work of art except through the lens of a camera, or even a cellphone. I'm not sure whether we're trying to capture the real or trying to ward it off. What do people do with all these pictures? Are they any more vivid than our unfiltered memories would have been? Once we download that much of our memory, do our lives really become any easier to recall?

8) We aspire to counterfeit creation more than serve it, to create more than to preserve. On the one hand, that impulse helps allow us to be entranced by glass sculptures inspired by nature. On the other hand, it probably also makes it easier to dump beer bottles in the forest. The desire to improve on the real is what brought us up from the mire -- and perhaps what will someday drown us in it. It's our genius. And our curse.

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