Transcript from interview first published 18th August 2014
Artist Alexander James
BY JOSH SIMS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PIERS CUNLIFFE
Alexander James produces gorgeous, vivid, dreamy images that suggest that their subjects have been shot underwater, creating an otherworldly effect.
To call Alexander James a photographer would, he suggests, be to miss the point. “To spend a year on a piece and then define it by the final fraction of a second can be galling,” says the London-based artist. “But the photo is merely documentary. I’m not embarrassed by the term ‘photographer’ because that’s my heritage, but the camera is the dustiest piece of equipment in my studio. Apart from me of course.”
It is easy to see why his work may be misunderstood. A set of gorgeous, vivid, dreamy images suggests that their subjects have been shot underwater, creating an otherworldly effect in the process. It would be easy to assume that much software has been at play.
The facts present his works in a very different light: not only is no trickery involved but his almost entirely analogue process involves making everything seen in the image, bar his models. If there is a lush costume, he has made it; if there are flowers, he has grown them — in some cases propagating rare species; if there are butterflies, he has not only reared them, but developed a process of shooting them underwater without harming them (it involves inducing temporary coma); the floating, hollow halo of 24-carat gold in his Ophelia was, yes, made by him.
Even the giant velvet-lined water tanks in which these ‘props’ are placed are of his design, so may well be the lighting of the works in a gallery. The back story — the many skills learned along the way — is as, if not more, incredible than the resulting images. There is nothing still about these still lives.
— “I’m confused by people who feel the need to go to college to learn art; it’s history, maybe, but practice is all about spending time in the studio and nothing else.”
What gives these their special quality is what James calls the ‘KFC element’ of the process, which is a closely guarded secret: just how does he make his subjects live within their watery environment, such that the light from them is enhanced and mystified, without them in some way being diminished by it?
Water is his medium. “I’ve always been fascinated by its ability to purify, its elemental nature, its womb-like calming quality, it’s bringing life wherever it is and, increasingly, its political dimension: powers fight over oil now, but in 20 years the dialogue will be about water,” he says. And, indeed, he started out as a dive photographer: he would return beach flotsam to the sea and arrange it on reefs, for a very select audience. But James manipulates water and composes within it with the skill of an ‘old master’, and certainly his images, with their deep suggestion of ennui and loss akin to 17th century vanitas works, have been mistaken for paintings.
“You have to have very high standards of uniqueness,” he insists. “If not, why bother at all? If you think you’re improving on something then that’s all you’re doing. Everything is achievable if you put your mind to it. I f______ hate growing flowers and had a terrible year of success and failure in growing them. But to just go and buy them seems mundane. I’m confused by people who feel the need to go to college to learn art; it’s history, maybe, but practice is all about spending time in the studio and nothing else.”
He has been doing this, in one form or another, since he was 16, leading to some 106 solo shows, some of which have been guerrilla events in car parks, others, such as the recent exhibition at the Triumph Gallery in Moscow, prestigious. Some have even seen him knocked unconscious with the butt of a shotgun — authorities of one unnamed country didn’t take kindly to a show that pointed out the ludicrousness of its policy of destroying coral reefs in order to give beached tourists smoother waves. “The show was open for precisely seven seconds,” he half jokes. “I was a naive young man then.”
But there is a sense that, now, approaching 50, he is no less passionate. He points out that he has no wife or children, that he barely leaves his studio, all symbolic perhaps of his dedication. And his life is certainly one of an itinerant: every couple of years he moves his studio around the world in order that his work might respond to a fresh milieu. “Being in one place is limiting. It’s easier to adopt a new visual language and think in new ways in new places,” he says. “And making art and then shipping it around the world is lazy.”
Later this year he will relocate to the site of a one-time Siberian gulag and then again to Los Angeles for his next major show. For this he is constructing an 8,000-gallon, 38-tonne tank (his largest to date) to use cars as his subject. “It’s a subject something everyone in LA understands,” he says. Cars, it might not need pointing out, do not float well. James will no doubt find a way around this.
There is, indeed, a feeling that James makes life hard for himself, brings tortures to his life that befit the stereotype of the artist, but that indicate an absolute commitment seemingly rarely found in artists today. “It all takes a great deal of personal dedication,” is how he puts it. And also a sense that providing he can keep on doing what he does and see progress in it. James sees his work of a decade ago now as akin to a Charlie Chaplin movie, his more recent work as Blade Runner. He doesn’t much care about either the costs or what people think.
“I can only present what is honest and earnest. I know how special the processes are that have gone into the work, but people take it as they find it,” he says. “As for selling the artworks? I don’t give a shit really. I’m very blessed to be doing what I do. And also very cursed.”