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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder