Art of glass

A breathtaking exhibition of Dale Chihuly's work.

As chandeliers go, Dale Chihuly's offering in the entrance hall of London's Victoria & Albert museum is pretty distinctive. The vast twisting construction of pale green and blue glass climbs upwards towards the vaulted ceiling in a seemingly gravity-defying display.

A similar piece currently hangs in the window of the Halcyon Gallery (144-146 New Bond St, London), welcoming visitors to an exhibition of Chihuly's work; curated to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the International Studio Glass movement.

From start to finish, it is a masterclass in the art of glassblowing. Chihuly studied at the Venini glassworks in Venice as a young artist in the late 1960s, in order to learn the skills of Italy's master craftsmen. He then promptly turned tradition on its head; taking techniques such as the 'lip-wrap' (a historic rim-strengthening method that is now Chihuly's trademark) and combining them with his individual brand of vibrant, irregular glassmaking.

He favours a collaborative process, acting as grand master to a willing team of artists. Indeed, a video loop shows Chihuly at work - wearing his distinctive eyepatch - encouraging a young team as they remove clear bulbs of molten glass from industrial ovens and spin them into fantastical shapes. It's mesmerising stuff.

Set over three levels, the exhibition strives to capture the essence of Chihuly's work. There are chandeliers, patterned glass orbs, an array of mis-shapen vases - even paintings, although these lack the skill of the artist's glasswork and feel like a poor man's Pollock. A series of wall-mounted shell-like plates in greens, blues and yellow cast dappled light over the walls.

Commissioned especially for the Halcyon Gallery, Mille Fiori is unquestionably the standout piece here. A 24ft long 'garden' on a reflective black base, it is an enchanting sea of scarlet sceptres, blue trumpets, striped conches, green anemones and a giant yellow chandelier. The effect is akin to a dazzling coral reef - to stand at the end of the gallery space, peering through the multi-coloured miasma, is nothing short of breathtaking.

It's also thoughtfully and precisely lit - with beams dancing across the suface of the glass. Chihuly says that light is one of his most important mediums; his work is as much about tranfiguring light as transforming spaces. "My installations are singular in scale, composition and form. At times they sit peacefully in nature, sometimes they hang from the ceiling and spring forth from walls. In any setting, the colour, form and light unite to create something magical."

The piece also plays on the juxtaposition between the man-made and natural, which Chihuly rates as "a very important part of my work." Indeed, previous exhibitions have set some of his more outlandish designs amid the flora of Kew Gardens, over the canals of Venice and along a river in Finland, from where the artist hurled his works into the water with abandon.

This is a window on to the lifelong passion of one man obsessed with glass, pigment and form - and doesn't suffer for being limited to the gallery's four walls. But the visitor leaves with one unanswered question: how on earth do they go about polishing it all?

Dale Chihuly is at the Halcyon Gallery (144-146 New Bond Street, London, W1S 2PF until March 31, 2012

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit