Experiences of a studio Assistant

 
 

To enter the studio of Alexander James is to enter an awe-inspiring world of the beautiful, the strange, and the glories of nature contrasted with the vanities of life. Alexander immerses himself in this reality, which my fellow studio assistants and I have had the pleasure of experiencing during the production of ‘Intersection’. We were surrounded by gloriosa’s, poppies and exotic magnolia’s, Georgian candelabras, drying fruit and flowers, rustic keys and old sheets of music; a prop table of beautiful chaos. In the corner of the studio is a 1 tonne vitrine containing a beautiful cast of a human skull, dubbed Elaine, a new incarnation of a piece from Alexander’s previous show, forever watching the movements from within the studio. If she could speak, she would have a tale or two to recall. Flying above our heads and around the studio were the live butterflies; the caligos, the Iranian species with an electric red thorax, every so graceful and delicate. Although I will not tell a lie, they did make me feel a little nervous with their sporadic movements. But it was an irrational fear that I overcame. Also lining the walls of the studio are previous works of Alexander’s such as the Blue Amathonte and Glass works.

caption; Shakira Malkani & Karolina Pajak, studio assistant to artist Alexander James

But the fundamental piece of equipment in the studio of Alexander James is of course, the tanks which are enormous; this is where the artwork is simultaneously brought to life and destroyed within a short time frame, the concept that defines James’ work. I began working for Alexander just as production for ‘Intersection’ was coming to a close, which I feel lucky to have caught and feel I have experienced something that I had neither expected nor taken part in anything like before. I was thrown straight into the job, helping to source props for shots, arranging scenes, looking after the butterflies that circled my head which both excited and terrified me at the same time, and working in and around the tank. A major challenge for me was actually overcoming the sense of being overwhelmed. Working with the dead animals, that too was a challenge. I was present for both the production of ‘Transient in Dowsed Lights of Magnolia’ and ‘Immortal at Rest’, the final major artworks Alexander produced for ‘Intersection’, with a fox and a badger. Trepidation I would say was the overall feeling. Anxious but excited. Actually, these two pieces were my favourite to co-produce. The sadness of the reality that these animals were dead was soon overshadowed once they were placed in the water and brought to life through the interaction of subtle lighting and the energy created on the surface of the water. The cloudy waxy wisp of the candelabra, which envelops the fox, was created as the light danced on the surface of the water, and is one of my favourite elements in the artworks featured in the exhibition. The installation of ‘Intersection’ was a major endeavour, at times exhausting and an intense physical workout as the team of studio assistants and Alexander transformed the concrete space into a gallery environment. It was not only the artworks displayed that were Alexander’s craft but also the designs for the gallery space. All exhibition components for the final aesthetic were designed and produced in the studio. The space had to be completely smothered in darkness with black fabric to make the artworks “pop”. Hanging the black fabric was a huge task as we had a few problems with the space and the mechanics that we were using, but with persistence, coupled with hope, the space was transformed. Rigging the lighting was also a big job as it involved installing the spot and floodlights that were produced in the studio, along with the eerie green strips of light that greeted you at the door and led you into the space. It was also difficult installing the lighting inside the pitch-black space because it was one of the hottest and sunniest weeks this year. But ploughed on through we did. Hanging the artworks was by far the most enjoyable part of the installation, but by no means was it easy. The pieces were not hung in a conventional way i.e. drilled into the wall, because the wall space was predominantly made up of large windows. The placement of the artworks on the windowsills was not for the fainthearted, lifting these huge and heavy artworks from anything up to one metre off the ground. The concern was that if an artwork were to fall it could bring down the black fabric, more than a little worrying. But as each piece was put into place in the Vanitas room, the Amathonte and Glass works, the concrete space transformed into a gallery setting but maintained an industrial edge with the concrete floor and walls still exposed. Life was breathed into the show, with the green strips of light and subtle spotlights accentuating elements of each piece: we had ourselves an exhibition! But the glory piece, ‘Grace’, was truly mesmerising. At two by one and a half metres it made many gasp as they turned the corner to see the piece delicately illuminated at the back of the room. ‘Grace’ makes me feel wonderfully at ease, especially at this huggable life size. Every piece inspired an emotion, whether it is the calm of ‘Grace’ or melancholy of ‘Isolation’, the hope in ‘Memory by Gloriosa’ or just the awe of the scientific beauty inspired by ‘Dreaming Morpheus’. This green poppy that was once red was definitely a highlight for me, as it was another piece that you could just gaze at for a long while, noticing something new with every glance, the fragility and beauty of life surrounded by a black abyss. Personally, working in the tank and physically witnessing the change of the scene in the water has been fascinating, and it truly emphasises the importance of these artworks being the only evidence of their existence. The concept of water giving the image life whilst decaying the scene has fascinated me whilst I have been working for Alexander. The response on the opening night and throughout the duration of the exhibition and beyond, was a joy to hear, alongside speaking to people who were both familiar and unfamiliar with Alexander’s work. ‘Intersection’ was not just a show in a gallery space, it was something to be experienced.