After 35 years of exploring the liquid mechanics of water ArtNet asks how it can be an artistic medium



Alexander James has one of the most complex photographic practices of any artist working today. His current exhibition “All Icons Are False” displays still lifes of flowers and skulls bathed in an eerie light and painterly atmosphere—a sort of trompe l’oeil effect achieved by photographing all the objects completely submerged in water.

Here, the artist discusses the history of his practice, its urgent ecological message, and what we can expect next from him. 
water art vanitas
Q: What experiences led you to become a photographic artist?

I think this happened by accident when I was very young as an artist, I was rough sleeping on beaches around the Caribbean building sculptures out of washed up materials, taking them underwater and creating interventions on endangered or recently dynamited reef systems. This happened a lot in the past, often hotel developers would buy land with difficult reef systems, and forcibly remove them to make way for softer waves and sandier beaches. I saw this first hand and it immediately moved me to action. Both in advance of the reefs destruction and afterwards as a moment mori for what was.

Some of these underwater installations were difficult to swim to, so photography was used to fix and extend the work and allow fuller access to its reasoning.

Q: At what point did you turn to staged photography? It always was staged from the very beginning but I had no idea what was to come in the years that followed.

Q: When did you realize water could be a medium?

the decision that water was to be my medium was set in those early days; if was difficult work and often dangerous. Free diving alone offshore, and tanked on deeper dives and always alone; sometimes the materials would fight me in their bid to stay afloat, and often there were inquisitive receptions waiting for me. I dived exhaustively at least four times a day for 4 years working, dreaming and thinking underwater for this length of time had made its mark on me. I cannot turn away.

Q: Tell us about your current exhibition All Icons Are False”.

This new work is a further realisation of how much farther I still can push ahead with this medium. Floral abstractions works for me involved complicated processes to capture 8x10 inch film plates and mixing differing film mediums such as positive and negative together. This creates an otherworldly outcome that is completely freeform yet controlled. It is a celebration of nature and with a slightly different perspective can show has many more surprises for us to see; both in science and in art. Something completely new, and that is exciting.

This show is presented with the aid of the Gynaecological Cancer Fund. How are you connected to this organization? I was aware of the charity prior but a formal introduction was made to me through the gallery last year. Research of the type that oncologist Dr Susana Banerjee’s research at The Royal Marsden into cancer research is a worthy calling. Cancer affects us all and the 'silent no more’ campaign in particular is important as open dialogue of difficult subjects allows for early diagnosis which saves lives; its as simple as that.

Q: You’ve expressed that the “reproducible capacity of photography is both its force and its failing” and since 2013 only produce unique prints. Why stick to photography and not go into painting?

I do paint, but have never released any of those works and it has been going on for a long time. Perhaps one day I will but for now I know I have not fully explored the physical form with how analogue photography & water can be used to interpret it; I do this fully underwater and by using the surface tensions & elasticity with interventions to paint the subject in light in a controlled way. That may sound a strange way to work but to me the only strange thing about my practice is that I only want to produce these kind of pictures, and only this way. It can be done in other ways, but it would not be the same; not at all: through darkroom or digital manipulation of some kind, but this does not appeal to me. I have no desire to manipulate anything other than these liquid mechanics ; if I used these other methods, tricks would occur to me and I would be able to repeat them endlessly , to me that would be horrific and the pictures no good.

Q: Andrei Tolstoy, Professor of Arts at the Russian Academy of Arts, writes about your process which includes breeding butterflies and growing period specific flowers. To what other lengths have you gone to compose your desired image?

I am completely driven to maddening levels by my work, and there are absolutely no limits to what I am prepared to put myself through both financially and physically to see the realisation. Once a seed is set in my mind I will not be driven off course - every thought wasted or not written down or acted upon to me is pointless. One example of this was the project ‘Oil + Water’ where I enact the process enthalpy of fusion which is created when you cool water in an enclosed space caused by expansion pressure. for that I had to find extremes in temperature so I travelled to siberia in temperatures of down to minus 70 degree to create my works from within the frozen forests in winter. Mixing crude oil still warm from the deep wells and fresh water from the Yenesei river. The project took four very cold months to complete and every moment was relished.

Q: Do you work in open water or in pools? Any memorable or frightening moments working underwater?

I custom make tanks in the studio which hold upto 30 tonnes of water for my still life works, and open sea on the installation works, I have also worked in streams, rivers and even the the Los Angeles floodwater causeways. In the past I have received a severe bite to my wrist from a Moray Eel, many fire coral burns and coral scrapes across my body, sharks testing wether I was edible or not, and a horrible jellyfish toxin filled wound to my neck which still glows red under my skin after happening 30 years.

Q: Tell us about your time in Russia.

I have worked on two projects in Russia which resulted in my moving my entire studio to live there. one studio was just across the water from the Kremlin in an old disused chocolate factory. I lived and worked there for 6 months through winter with no bathroom other than a bucket and no heating in a vast underground space with ice formations on the walls literally the canvasses of the wall; I have never had so much fun in my life with my work; Russians are so inquisitive about artists and their work; many people were so very helpful and supportive in what they could see as very difficult conditions even by their standards of Russian artists. It was a very simple time and the work that evolved very pure. When I did sleep it was on nothing more than a few bails of hay, and that was not often the work drove me constantly. Figurative underwater works are so very complex to realise. I had a very close team of three people we worked all night hand making garments and props, I am proud to have such great lifelong friends now from this experience. Russia is a wonderful place for an artist to work.

Q: Who are your biggest influences?

I am fascinated by the Flemish Vanitas movement, and the way the artists of this period lived their lives. It was time in history when people did great things which can be lacking today, I feel there is a lot of saying not doing. I am transfixed by the lighting and composition of Vermeer, Jan Steen and Caravaggio primarily; but tomorrow is my biggest influence, what is to come.

Q: What has been the highlight of your career or personal life so far?

That I am still here, having the one single conversation, for me my lifes work is so closely interwoven with every breath I take; love, life & work its about how you mix it. I am known for my monastic dedication to my work, and, if you love what you do then actually I have never worked a day in my life, it did not feel like work for one moment. for me that is a life well spent, and a shining highlight perhaps worth mentioning.

Q: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects or exhibitions?

I want to kayak around all the Atolls of the Maldives, a place I know quite well already. This region is an important climate change impact zone. their entire population and its lands are at risk of rising water levels. Perhaps to the point where and entire nation will be forced to relocate. I plan to go back to the early work with installations and interventions underwater and on land exploring the polarity therein. Water is an important medium for me to continue exploring, its environmental signature is a conversation I have made a lifelong commitment to. Today as in the past we have entered conflicts over access to oil, soon those very same disputes will happen over access to clean water for our very survival, this takes much of my thoughts and I want to serve it diligently.

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