British artist Alexander James tells us about his work in Moscow
British artist Alexander James drove to Moscow in a lorry six weeks ago to set up his entire studio in the former Red October chocolate factory. His latest creations feature live models photographed under water and are reminiscent of the famous pre-Raphaelite paintingOphelia by Sir John Everett Millais. James made a quick trip to London from Moscow this week, when VoR’s arts editor Alice Lagnado caught up with him.
James creates huge sculptures of the models which he photographs before destroying.
His show is called ‘Dissolved Sadness,’ and is at the Triumph Gallery in Moscow, opening on April 17.
What was the long trip to Russia by truck like?
“It took me a while – I got stuck at the border. I bought a 7-ton truck and loaded my studio into it. We didn’t have much money and the truck, bless her, she’s been named Betsy – I couldn’t lock it! The locks didn’t work, so I actually had to sleep with the truck for the 11 days of the journey and Latvia at minus 20 was no fun, but if you’re going to make the journey, don’t complain about it!”
And why did you need to bring so much with you?
“My process is very complicated. It’s very technical – [using] vast volumes of water for this show. One of the tanks holds 148,000 litres of water, so these are quite large apparata.
“I don’t use post-production. All of my work is sculptural pieces that I create by hand, that are then recreated under water, and then I use a paintbrush to interact, and then there’s this Goliath ten by eight camera that I use, analogue, and they’re all rather large and cumbersome, so the truck and I are very good friends now.”
Tell us about the room you are using as a studio in the former Red October chocolate factory in Moscow.
“The space hadn’t been occupied for over 60 years, and when I saw it my heart froze a little bit, because I realised this was a decision that would break many a spirit. But again, if you say it, do it, if you think it, act it! There’s no point complaining.
“The space has a wonderful aura. It’s dangerous as hell, but there’s something about it, the work that will be created there will be very much influenced by the surroundings.”
James says that his work takes a long time to complete because of the attention to detail and authenticity. The dresses on his models, for instance, and handmade and the flowers are grown specially.
How will you grow fresh flowers in the Moscow winter?
“I shouldn’t really confess this, but I sort of stole quite a lot of leaves from the Queen’s property the night before I left for Moscow. So if anyone saw a strange man with bin bags coming out of the back of Buckingham Palace, that was me. But yes, beautiful Canadian maple leaves.
“There are no butterflies or flowers – we’re midwinter and the studio has no heating. So I’m quite fortunate that it’s figurative work.”
What’s your connection with or attraction to Russia?
“There’s something that people who own a television, that read the press – they have this preconception of what Russia is. They haven’t got a clue. We’re being bombarded with nonsense.”