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

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.