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.

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses