The Jerusalem Wall of Ice


By William Warmus


This essay first appeared in Artfocus magazine, Winter/Spring 2000


Dale Patrick Chihuly remains a controversial artist. Even his strongest supporters recognize that his art is unusual. The late Henry Geldzahler, who while curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art championed the career of Andy Warhol, was an early supporter of Chihuly, acquiring three cylinders for the Met and writing that “Chihuly’s work is American in its apparent vulgarity, its brazenness, and its fearlessness to move farther out west even if there is no farther west to move to.  There’s a kind of pioneering spirit to it.”  Geldzahler was fond of drawing parallels between Chihuly and the lives of pirates, who are always at sea and determined to lead a nomadic life. He would have been enchanted by the artist’s recent wall of ice, set down as if by magic just outside the precinct of the ancient city of Jerusalem. As if to underscore the pioneering spirit of the installation, Chihuly brought the ice from Alaska, linking the promised land of the bible to the last of the great American wild lands.


How did Chihuly get to the ice extravaganza in the Middle East? As a young man, he experimented in a basement studio with blowing bubbles of glass, and was immediately taken with the magical qualities of the way the material works: the breath of the artist almost literally gives life to the glass. But he never saw glass as specifically a craft medium, he always saw its sculptural, artistic potential. In many ways, he worked (and continues to work with) glass as a minimal, or post-minimal, art substance. For example, in the late 1960s he began to hang glass forms from the ceiling of his studio, a move he made before the post-minimalist artist Eva Hesse, and one perhaps derived from watching his father at work, a butcher by trade. And by the early 1970s, he was exploring (sometimes in collaboration with the artist Jamie Carpenter) other unconventional media, such as ice and neon, culminating in 1971 with 20,000 Pounds of Neon and Ice. Chihuly and Carpenter froze U-shaped neon tubes into molds filled with water, producing about 60 blocks of radiant ice that weighed in at  300 pounds each. The piece melted over 10 days, the resulting puddles of water mirroring the neon tubes, turning their straight line geometry into wavering lines of watery color and inspiring the art critic Donald Kuspit to write (much later) that  “Chihuly and Carpenter brought together primal elements—fire and ice—in a hi-tech way, in effect raising the question of Robert Frost’s poem: ‘How will the world end? Will it freeze in ice or sizzle like neon?”


For most of the 1980s and half of the 1990s, Chihuly pursued and refined the tabletop scale blown glass series---Basket Sets, Macchias, Sea Forms, Venetians, etc.—that established his popular success and gave him a degree of financial independence. But by 1996 he had returned to large scale installation work with the Chihuly Over Venice project: a series of 14 large sculptures mounted over the canals and in the palazzos of that water-driven city. Chihuly had perfected a form—the Chandelier series—that increased the scale of his work dramatically, much as Tiffany’s windows had increased the scale of his artwork. And Chihuly had a well organized team of assistants capable of mounting these sculptures in demanding settings, half a world away from his Seattle studio, on relatively short notice.


The Jerusalem project, Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000, is the largest of these recent installations, and it includes two structures over 40 feet in height, one of which—the Blue Tower—comprises 2000 glass arms attached to a mammoth metal armature.


It was within this context that Chihuly decided to create his second major ice project, the Chihuly Jerusalem Wall of Ice, in October 1999. Several years ago, after delivering a lecture in Alaska (where he had shown slides of the 1971 ice project), a member of the audience told Chihuly about an Alaskan source for incredibly pure and clear ice called Arctic Diamond that is used for ice sculptures—it is said that you can read a newspaper through 30 inches of the stuff. When Chihuly conceived the design for the ice wall in Jerusalem, which grew out of his desire to produce an artwork that might symbolize the thawing of tensions in the region, he immediately decided that the ice for the wall had to come from the source in Alaska. Besides, it was unclear if the resources existed locally to produce the 30 blocks--each measuring 6’ long x 3’ deep x 4’ high. And the area was experiencing—still is—an extended drought. So the ice from Alaska might also become a symbolic gift of water to the parched slopes of the ancient city.


So the ice, quarried from its pond during the previous Alaskan winter, was shipped by rail and by barge to Tacoma, Washington, then again by rail across the American continent, where it was loaded aboard a ship bound for southern Italy, and transferred to a boat headed for Haifa, loaded unto trucks and finally craned into place outside the old city wall near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem.


Not all went as planned. The wall had initially been envisioned as regular geometrical tiers of exceedingly clear crystal. But when the sub-zero refrigerated containers were opened in the 90 degree plus heat of the port, a tremendous cracking sound was heard. The blocks had fractured! In addition to obscuring the clarity of the ice, the fractures increased their fragility: the ice was acting just like glass! Several blocks split in half as they were being craned into position. Chihuly adapted immediately to these unexpected events, transforming the wall into an instantly venerable ruin that had far more human warmth than the ice queen of the initial sketches.


The wall had a commanding presence during the three days it took to melt, visible far across the city, and brightly lit throughout the night by a changing spectrum of colored spots. At first, people didn’t know what it was, but soon large crowds gathered, and the wall acquired a cult status. Some took pieces of ice home to pray over for rain. Children collected and arranged  ice shards on cardboard box tops and carried them up through the nearby Jaffa gate into the old city, displaying them like relics.


For me, the wall had a threefold significance. From behind the wall (a view limited to a few people for safety reasons) only the ice and the blue sky were visible. This was the cocoon effect: one could have a fantasy of being in the Antarctic, despite the intense desert sun, transported to a world trapped in frozen time. From the front, the wall became all about time, a time machine, as the heat and wind eroded the blocks and the ice surfaces came alive with streaming sheets of water. You had only to glance at the fast progress of this ice wall, and then up to the ancient walls of Jerusalem directly behind it, to perceive time simultaneously in two jarring scales: ancient (glacial slow) time, and modern (ice) time. By the second day, as the sun rose higher, the blocks began to fall, tier by tier, not resoundingly but with a musical tinkling sound as they fractured into thousands of shining fragments. The third significant aspect of the wall was the reaction of the audience. They rapidly appropriated the wall as their own, sometimes calling out for us reporters and photographers to stand aside because we were blocking their views! But mostly people stood mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the wall.


The nice thing about the ice wall was that it sidestepped a crucial issue that occupies those working in glass. As art, glass cannot avoid kitsch because it is all about beauty, a term I define much as Elaine Scarry does in her book On Beauty and Being Just. Beauty is sacred, unprecedented, lifesaving. In Augustine’s words, “a plank amid the waves of the sea.” But beauty is intimately linked to kitsch, the faking of beauty. Kitsch is formulated beauty. A great deal of studio glass is kitsch, and Chihuly delights in at times veering in that direction. But that is only because success in making something truly beautiful is won with such difficulty that the attempt to repeat the winning formula is overwhelming.


The problem with beauty is that you can’t easily write about it—you must experience it. It is possible for me to point out a beautiful object—for example, a Chihuly basket set whose elements are scaled together, with coffee colored melted bits that project blood red onto a flat surface and a lapis lip wrap that is like a Pollock “lariat” frozen into three dimensions. But those are just words. You, the reader, must decide for yourself if Chihuly is an artist and capable of creating beautiful artworks, by looking at the work.

I can understand why critics are uncomfortable around beautiful objects. There is something vaguely embarrassing about beauty, as if too much flesh were exposed. It makes us uncomfortable at first, until we have had it around long enough to ignore it. Glass is especially problematic because it is so fragile: glass won’t let us alone, lest we forget it is there, and risk breaking it. Artists who work mainly with glass tend to be cranky because they experience so much breakage. And then there is the somewhat depressing sentence an abstract painter once spoke ( appropriately enough, at a birthday party for that arch-formalist critic, Clement Greenberg): “Glass is so beautiful, the problem is how to make it more beautiful.” One could say something similar about a gleaming chunk of ice. Most critics lose it when confronted with a surplus of beauty. Chihuly is among the few artists who have taken the confrontation with beauty to heart. And with the Chihuly Jerusalem Wall of Ice, he appears to have found a way to tame wild beauty without turning it into kitsch.



William Warmus







Lowering the ice, fresh from Alaska, into position outside the walls of Jerusalem.October 2-3, 1999.
















The Ice Wall as it looked at noon on October 3, 1999. The wall of the old city of Jerusalem is behind it.












The wall at 6:20 PM on October 3. It was lit from behind with electric lights tinted with colored filters.
















People help give a sense of the scale of the wall. The ice attracted thousands during the three days it took to melt in the desert heat.





October 4, 9 AM: Sunrise over the walls of Jerusalem.






Water streamed down the faces of the ice blocks as they absorbed the intense desert heat.



October 4 at 9 PM: The wind whipping around the wall has caused fissures, destabilizing the blocks. And you can see how much water is dripping from the ice.








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