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

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(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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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