The line between art and science blurs when one considers the painstaking observations and critical timing Alexander James uses to create his work. “A scientist is as close a kin to an artist as you can get,” James says. “Science is an important part of what I do, so if I am to start a new project, scientific research is profoundly important.”
London-based James recently completed a new series of photographs titled “Transparency of a Dream.” The collection includes remarkable one-off transparencies printed only as a single edition photographs. Building upon his 2010 “Swarm” series, in which he placed butterflies underwater in temperature-controlled comas and then revived them, James has captured butterflies and their offspring on the same plates in this astonishing new collection.
Explaining that one of his primary goals as an artist is to “preserve a memory before it fades; to frame its tragic baroque beauty in as pure a form as I can possibly endure.” James was captivated by the idea of two generations of butterflies “dancing with each other.’
The inspiration for “Transparency of a Dream” came when James learned of his estranged father’s death two years after it happened. “It is a very personal subject,” he explains, adding, “I only work on a deeply personal basis. I treat my studio as my church — it is the place where I can deal with the many losses I have had in my life.”
James is passionate about the art of traditional photography, and he says that the idea of “capturing something beautiful that will make people think” motivates him to get “out of bed in the morning singing and dancing” even when he has only had a few hours of sleep.
The immediacy of social media sites has changed the way we think of photographs, James maintains. “Between Photoshop and Instagram, when was the last time we really looked at something important? I want photography to be important again.”
James is also passionate about the environment. He has used water as his medium for 30 years, and he feels water is symbolic of many of the struggles we have on our planet. “We fight wars over oil today,” he points out, “but disputes will inevitably erupt over water as a resource.”
Butterflies are another symbol of our fragile environment, Stunned by the millions of Morpho (the deep blue specimens used in this series) species butterflies are harvested every year that are captured and killed throughout the world for use in what James terms “junk jewellery,” the artist calls butterflies the “most hunted species on the planet.”
“We travel as tourists on this world,” he says, “but we are here for the briefest of moments, we do not need to destroy it during our time here – reducing or at least being aware of our personal footprint is a very important step, we do not have to destroy our environment in order to live here… We need to take an active role in defending our environment – not as a fringe movement but as group of capable individuals. We all can do something to reduce our impact, but the problem is we are all having the wrong conversations.”
As an artist, James feels it is his responsibility to start and only engage in the right conversations. “Perhaps as an artist, my role is not to be part of the conversation but to raise the flag that there is something that needs to be discussed.” the role of an artist can not be considered with the same social provenance as say a surgeon or social worker; but if you remove the function of an artist from society, then the very fabric of that society will suffer and start to decay.
James has plans to travel to Siberia within the next year to work with butterflies again. “I am preparing for something important,” he says, admitting, “I just don’t know what it is yet. Perhaps I will be able to create an environment where they can live where previously they could not.”
A self-described workaholic, James worked seven days a week and often 20 hours a day for two years on “Transparency of a Dream.” He even set up special sensors to waken him when the butterflies went through their metamorphosis, so that he could care for every detail of their brief lives. “Every moment was an absolute privilege,” says James. “It is really important that people take a look. Let’s get photography important again.’
The entire “Transparency of a Dream” collection can be viewed at www.DistilEnnui.com