Alexander James: interview
Alexander James (b1967) is a photographer with a difference. Rather than capturing the moment spontaneously, James creates intricate sculptural compositions submerged in huge tanks of purified water as the object for his camera. The effect of light passing through, heightened against a darkened background, gives the resulting images a painterly appearance, recalling Dutch vanitas still lifes. This blurring of boundaries between photography, painting and sculpture renders James’s works uncategorisable as well as eerily beautiful.
James found time to speak to Studio International about the process of relocation and creation, just after the opening of his exhibition, Rastvorennaya Pechal (Dissolved Ennui).
Anna McNay: What made you decide to move your studio to Moscow?
Alexander James: Driving seven tonnes of studio rig out here was all part of my initial reason to come to Russia; a western artist’s dialogue using his own studio to create an in situ dialogue with Russia and, of course, the Russian people – this had not been done by a British artist for more than 30 years.
AMc: Had you already got a project in mind – namely that you wanted to develop the themes you had explored in your earlier body of
AJ: Yes, I did reference earlier works that were completed in 2012, but the preparations for this particular show date back 10 years in my mind, and there are some early sketches and physical preparations from nearly two years ago. These included preparatory trips to research and find spaces, galleries, etc.
AMc: How do you feel that being in Russia has influenced the project and the works?
AJ: Every facet of these works is infused with Russia, through the use of local yarns and fabrics (hand-sewn into garments by myself and my Russian team), to the props and models. Even the water had its own special flavour optically. It was very important to me that the pieces should create a dialogue from something that all Russians are knowledgable about: art history, myths and legends.
AMc: When you arrived in Moscow, were things already set up for you, or did you have to organise workspace and accommodation for
AJ: The only thing organised was the gallery I would show the works in. Triumph Gallery is highly respected. It has previously held only two other major British artists’ solo exhibitions on this scale: Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers.
AMc: How was your transition, adjusting from living and working in London to living and working in Moscow?
AJ: Living through winter in an underground studio without any facilities was certainly trying. Russian winters are everything you imagine: I had icicles hanging from the walls. The change for me was profound but I have done it this way many times before, and not for a single moment did I not enjoy the process and every facet of the experience; this was my decision, now get on and do it. As an artist, I believe it is important to be known for carrying out my word. There was a time when people did great things, but now it seems that all anyone does is talk about great things. This is not for me. After all, I have only three things of value to offer: my hand, my word and my work. I consider all three to be deeply embedded in my practice.
AMc: How is your Russian – then and now?
AMc: How did the idea of working with objects suspended in water come about?
AJ: This process has been developing for more than 30 years. I cannot begin to explain my fascination with the painterly effect water has on
AMc: You are displaying one of the tanks in your exhibition in Moscow. It is the first time you have done this. What made you decide to do
AJ: Russia is a new audience for my work, so it was important to show a complex piece such as the Veiled Crucifixion vitrine case. It weighs exactly one tonne and is all handmade from stainless steel, with a hand-sculpted skull and crown of thorns beneath a fabric woven from silk thread from silk moths I breed in the London studio. Every facet of my process, no matter what is needed, is created by hand in the studio.
AMc: How did you find models who were willing to be suspended underwater? How long did they have to remain suspended underwater
AJ: I had a queue of people outside the door willing to participate in this project. Word hit the street very fast about the crazy Brit bunkered in at Red October, and you should have seen their faces when they first walked in: priceless!
AMc: Can you describe the process of producing an image, from initial concept, through planning and installation, to photography and
AJ: Each piece is carefully planned from initial drawings and illustrations – both on paper and digitally – with reference shots placed over the top of sketches for digital distribution to the team. Props and garments are handmade to be absolutely authentic, which is a great deal of work. But many pieces fall at the last hurdle; they simply miss and fall away in the hang. With any artwork, it either hits or it misses.
AMc: Are you working with analogue or digital?
AJ: I only use digital as Polaroids. All final works are exposed on film. All film up to 10 x 8 sheets is processed by hand in the studio – as it should
AMc: Did your assistants travel with you from London?
AJ: For this project, I employed a completely local crew.
AMc: Did you encounter any problems along the way?
AJ: That is a very long and often funny conversation to be had over a decent bottle of red.
AMc: You have referenced Dutch artists of the 17th century as influential, and claimed to live according to their principals. In what way?
AJ: If you were an early Flemish vanitas painter and you wanted to paint a scene involving a fish, for example, you saved up no matter what and went to the market every day until you found exactly the right fish; took it back to the studio; painted it; then invited all your friends round to eat it in celebration. This obsessive dedication of everything you have to the creation of that piece clouding your mind, this was a recurring theme during this period. My life is very simple really; I have no interest in ever owning a Ferrari. All my time, money and spirit is dedicated to the studio.
AMc: What is the significance of vanitas to your work?
AJ: My work is a direct reflection of my life. Loss is a terrible thing unless you know how to celebrate it. All negative things for me must be
AJ: The correct translation is actually “Dissolved Sadness” but modern Russian places it at “Dissolved Ennui” – both are wonderful to me.
AMc: Your work blurs boundaries between sculpture, photography and painting. What is your own training?
AJ: Thirty years of training and still learning this complex dialogue.
AMc: Will you be glad when you can come back home again?
AJ: I have very strong and mixed feelings about leaving. Within western media, there is so much absurd propaganda about Russia. I am not a political
AMc: What will be the one main thing you are taking away with you from your time in Russia?
AJ: A burning desire to come back … Unquestionable …
AMc: And what one thing do you hope to leave behind as your legacy?
AJ: Memory. Memory of why I came here, what I created here. And the wonderful friendships I have made. That is legacy enough for me.
AMc: What are you planning to do after this project? You’ve worked abroad a few times before, so do you have any future destinations in
AJ: I am planning my next show in Los Angeles, which will be another big project with the largest tanks I will have ever worked with – 600 tonnes of water. The subject for this show will be deeply rooted in American culture.
The works can be viewed at www.DistilEnnui.com