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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The “Yolocaust” project conflates hate with foolish but innocent acts of joy

A montage of selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial layered above images of concentration camps risks shutting visitors out of respectful commemoration.

Ten years ago I visited Berlin for the first time. It was a cold and overcast day – the kind of grey that encourages melancholy. When my friends and I came across the city’s Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of over 2,000 concrete slabs, we refrained from taking photos of each other exploring the site. “Might it be disrespectful?” asked one of my non-Jewish (and usually outrageously extroverted) friends. Yes, probably, a bit, we concluded, and moved softly and slowly on through the Memorial’s narrow alleys.

But not all days are gloomy, even in Berlin. And not all visitors to the Memorial had the same reaction as us.

A photo project called “Yolocaust” has collected together images of the Memorial and selfies taken there that young people from around the world have posted to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. In the 12 photos featured on the website, one man juggles pink balls, a girl does yoga atop a pillar, another practises a handstand against a slab’s base. The last of these is tagged “#flexiblegirl #circus #summer”.

Most of the images seem more brainless than abusive. But the implication seems to be that such behaviour risks sliding into insult – a fear all too painfully embodied in the first image of the series: a shot of two guys leaping between pillars with the tag-line: “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial.”

Grim doesn’t begin to cover it, but the artist who collated the photos has thought up a clever device for retribution. As your cursor scrolls or hovers over each photo, a second image is then revealed beneath. These hidden black-and-white photographs of the Holocaust show countless emaciated bodies laid out in mass graves, or piled up against walls.

Even though they are familiar for those who learned about the Nazi concentration camps at school, these historic scenes are still too terrible and I cannot look at them for more than a few seconds before something in my chest seizes up. In fact, it’s only on second glance that I see the artist has also super-imposed the jumping men into the dead bodies – so that their sickening metaphor “jumping on dead Jews” is now made to appear actual.

The result is a powerful montage, and its message is an important one: that goofy, ill-considered behaviour at such sites is disrespectful, if not worse. Just take the woman who urinated on a British war memorial, or the attack on a Holocaust memorial in Hungary.

But while desecration and hate should not be tolerated anywhere, especially not at memorials, does juggling fall into the same category?

I can’t help but feel that the Yolocaust project is unfair to many of the contemporary subjects featured. After all, this is not Auschwitz but the centre of a modern city. If public-space memorials are intended to be inhabited, then surely they invite use not just as places for contemplation, grieving and reflection but also for being thankful for your life and your city on a sunny day?

The Memorial in Berlin is clearly designed to be walked in and around.  Even the architect, Peter Eisenman, has been reported saying he wants visitors to behave freely at the site – with children playing between the pillars and families picnicking on its fringes.

So how do we determine what is offensive behaviour and what is not?

A section at the bottom of the Yolocaust website also suggests (in rather sarcastic tones) that there are no prescriptions on how visitors should behave, “at a site that marks the death of 6 million people”. Though in fact a code of conduct on the memorial’s website lists the following as not permitted: loud noise, jumping from slab to slab, dogs or pets, bicycles, smoking and alcohol.

Only one of Yolocaust’s 12 photos breaks this code: the first and only explicitly insulting image of the jumping men. Another six show people climbing or sitting atop the pillars but most of these are a world away in tone from the jumpers.

The blurb at the bottom of the webpage says that the project intends to explore “our commemorative culture”. But by treating the image of the yoga performer – with an accompanying montage of her balancing amid dead bodies – in the same way as the jumping men, the artist seems to conflate the two.

In fact, the girl practising a yoga balance could be seen as a hopeful – if overtly cutesy and hipster – act of reverence. “Yoga is connection with everything around us,” says her tag beneath. And even if climbing the slabs is frowned upon by some, it could also be read as an act of joy, something to cherish when faced with such a dark history.

In an era when populist German politicians are using the past – and sentiment towards Holocaust memorials themselves – to rev up anti-immigrant, nationalist feeling, the need for careful and inclusive readings of the role of memorials in our society has never been greater.

Yolocaust may have intended to provide a space for reflection on our commemorative behaviour but the result feels worryingly sensationalist, if not censorious. Instead of inviting others in to the act of respectful commemoration, has it risked shutting people out?

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.