Alexander James | Transparency of a Dream

Alexander James, Transparency of a Dream [0813-22], 2014

An iridescent chorus of butterflies appear as apparitions in Alexander James's spellbinding series Transparency of a Dream. Continuing the artist's interest with Lepidoptera, this series depicts several generations of butterflies delicately overlaying one another. Inevitably the celestial beauty of these blue Morpho have been catching the attention of collectors. 

Multiple layers of reference are rife in Transparency of a Dream, with allusions to the transmission of light passing through the photographic medium, the series serves as a meditation on the most important on-going themes of life and mortality within the artist’s oeuvre. An investigation of the latter is of particular note, for the idea of photographing generations of butterflies was triggered by the artist’s discovery that his estranged father had passed away and been buried two years before he had ever been made aware.

In James’s highly developed artistic lexicon, the presence of butterflies has come to signify the fleeting, beautiful and ultimately tragic nature of life and mortality. With a strong spiritual dimension inherent within the series, the association of the butterfly with religion and spirituality is a venerable one: symbolising love, regeneration, fortune, freedom, spirituality and death. In Greek Mythology, butterflies symbolise the souls of those who have passed away, whilst in the Christian tradition, the rebirth of a butterfly from its cocoon symbolises the miracle of the resurrection.

Observing this delicate creature undergo an incredible metamorphosis offers great hope to Alexander James. Just as the butterfly embraces both itself and the changing environment, the artist wonders whether we can accept the changes in our lives as abidingly as the butterfly does.

Transparency of a Dream explores this subject in a hyper-real and painterly aesthetic created through the interaction of water's mechanics to paint the subject in light. Moreover, through the introduction of water, James draws upon water’s transient and destructive nature as both nurturer and destroyer, it exposes the fragility and temporality of our existence, having the power to cleanse and reinvent or to drown and disappear.

The work of Alexander James involves more than photography, as his creative process operates in a dimension that presents profound difficulties: he has to bring these works into physical existence before it can even begin; effectively, to create his canvas. Rather than capturing a moment in time spontaneously, James creates intricate sculptural compositions submerged in vast tanks of purified water as the object for his camera. The effect of light passing through, heightened against a darkened background, gives the resulting images a painterly appearance. In so far as his process of creation involves the use of photography, allusions to painting, performance and sculpture, Alexander James’s work defies category.

Alexander James, Transparency of a Dream [0913-021], 2014

In order to create this surreal sensation of butterfly descendants dancing with one another – something that never occurs in nature – Alexander James had the idea of layering generation upon generation of butterflies within a single transparency. This required the artist to breed several generations of butterflies over a period of two years.

Starting with a parent butterfly specimen, he captured the original scene using a Sinar 10 x 8 in. plate camera, loaded with a single sheet of film. In order to create the effect of the butterfly being suspended in a dreamlike state in the studio, he used a highly scientific process to place the butterfly in a temperature-controlled coma – something that occurs in the wild. He then placed the butterfly in a specially devised tank of cooled water. The butterflies are photographed underwater alive but in a coma; a state is a natural occurrence in the wild for the South American species. Their heart rate stops completely; their respiratory system shuts down – they are completely unaware and unharmed by the process.

The subtle distortions of light and movement from the waters own wave energy creates a unique effect. The subjects appear to be floating in a void that neither interferes nor disrupts, conveying a serene and dreamlike sensation of the butterfly dancing as it moves with the motion of the water. The surface of the water can create a great deal of tension of movement; lighting is designed and directed to specifically catch these deviations in liquid mechanics. These movements catch and refract the light onto the subject, which is where the painterly quality of his work comes from: Alexander James is literally painting the subject in light.

A butterfly’s wing comprises thousands of light prisms. If a camera fires a flash directly at the butterfly, it simply reflects white light. However, as the water neutralises these prisms, this allows their full colour depth and luminosity to shine through. Once the initial parent butterflies had been photographed, the plates were annotated and stored for several months until their offspring were born. Alexander James went through four full cycles of breeding descendants of butterflies. These were then re-shot over the top of the original plates, in the same manner, overlaying mother with daughter, father with son and so on. Over two years completing the series. 

A self-reflective undercurrent exists in Transparency of a Dream by investigating the photographic medium itself. Presents works of breath-taking complexity and beauty in a sequence of singular, unique works of art, the artist felt compelled to examine the reproducible capacity of photography in this series as a response to the ongoing debate of the aesthetic distinctions drawn between photography and painting, and the intrinsic value of art.

Throughout his practice, Alexander James has adhered 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.’ Indeed, if post-production were to be employed, the image would no longer be considered ‘unique’. Having redrawn the parameters of photography, the artist has brought the painterly quality of his work into the realms of traditional works of art. For this reason, each image within Transparency of a Dream exists only as one unique piece of 8 x10 in. acetate and one, single-edition, 160 x 160cm chromogenic print.

Representing the very apotheosis of the artist’s aesthetic critique, Transparency of a Dream is a poignant celebration of life. It is a work that invites meditation and contemplation, encouraging the viewer to focus on the extraordinary - and fragile - beauty of the natural world, the power of metamorphosis, and the ethereal sense of the passing of time.