The underwater photography of Alexander James

Life, death and vanity.

“Still life” is surely one of the finest word couplings in the art historical vocabulary. It is a perfunctory and poetic term, making its meaning clear while leaving room for cerebral ping-pong. It makes you stew. The “still life” must, classically, refer to inanimate objects arranged for a portrait; a freshly cut cantaloupe spilling its seeds beside a dead pheasant. But stretched beyond the literal, the still life seems to scratch at the paradox of representation. What does any work of art do, if not stop time? And what has a work of art achieved, if it cannot make life from inorganic matter - inert smears of pigment, or light imprinted on paper?

The still life is often the foundation of a budding artistic practice – in childhood art classes we draw a bowl of fruit or a pile of tulips in the centre of the table. The model doesn’t move, it doesn’t change, but to succeed our still life must touch reality; we must preserve it. This mode of art-making has long been an exercise for study and skill development, a calm method for practise and improvement. The Italian Renaissance painters and later the Dutch Masters used the still life to show off – how sliver thin could they cut the line between reality and impersonation?

From this was born the Vanitas, a symbolist style of Dutch and Flemmish painting that sought to capture the temporality of earthy goods. Rendered from the biblical “Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas” ("vanity of vanities, all is vanity"), here vanity took the connotation of the superficial, the ephemeral and the fleeting. More modern translations turned the phrase to "all is meaningless". Ticking clocks, human skulls, animal bones, bruised flower petals and tissue-like butterflies became the heavy handed symbols for the delicacy of life. The Vanitas tableau was defined by a meticulous brand of hyper-reality, photorealistic light and shadow, draped cloth you could feel and red meat you could smell.

The work of Alexander James, a London-based contemporary artist, draws from this tradition while making a few liberal interpretations. His work objectifies and delights in decaying fruit, cut flowers, insects and animal carcasses, placing them in familiar arrangements with a notable, but nearly often imperceptible difference - they are, in fact, underwater.

James considers his work as much sculptural as it is photographic – each piece is built in his Docklands studio before it is submerged into black, velvet-lined tanks filled with highly purified water. Then they are photographed; often it takes just once or twice to get the perfect shot.

The process has taken him over a decade to perfect and is an attempt to create work that feels at once photographic and painterly. “I started to experiment with different ways of making my works look more like paintings,” he tells me, “as well as discovering the properties of water in relation to light and movement as an image is created. The process is very intricate and scientific in its application, which provides a lot of heartache, as well as absolute joy when it all comes together.”

James likes leaving viewers “unsettled” and a little unsure of what they are looking at: “Regardless of the size, the subtlety of the works is very much a device used to allow deception to occur. By deception I mean that nine out of ten people that see the works for the first time think they are, in fact, paintings.”

He relates to Momento morti ("remember you will die"), another slogan of the Vanitas movement, whose “underlying message is un-replicated elsewhere in the art world - the theme being to remind us of the inevitability of death; and the meaninglessness of a superficial existence. There are several deeply important and moving events in my life which have driven my artistic direction”.

James has recently mounted a show, Intersections, at the Studio Buildings in Notting Hill. Pictured through water, his living sculptures become cold and seductive, like coy carp in a pond. He describes it like this: “The subtle distortions of light & movement from the waters own wave energy creates a unique effect. The subjects appear to be floating in a black space that neither interferes nor disrupts the subject matter. The collaboration within this void offers a serene and dreamlike sensation.”

He adheres to a doctrine of “in camera purity”, eschewing digital film and post-production editing in favour of “the caustic chemicals to which you expose these delicate strips of celluloid - all of which are unrepeatable moments in time.”

This is hardly surprising if we return, as he does, to the satiric nature of still life as false preservation from the inevitable. Fruit rots, people die, even a painting can be burned or a photograph buried. Life and its records are easily lost. James often destroys his assemblages after he’s shot them, sowing and reaping his own “unrepeatable moments in time”. Perhaps the cycle make them more beautiful. 

Alexander James, Intersections, runs from 26 April – 23 May at The Studio Building, Notting Hill, 21 Evesham Street, London W11

***

(Grace, 2011, by Alexander James) 

(Virtue, by Alexander James) 

(Resting Aria, 2013, by Alexander James) 

 

(Iris Bound, 2013, by Alexander James) 

 

Loves Resurrection, 2013, by Alexander James.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism