VISIONS FROM THE SHORELINE
The growing problem of plastic pollution is rising up the political and social agenda, but few people have made a more personal commitment to address the issue than British artist Alexander James. He has released a series of unique photograms to fund a recycling facility on the Maldives. The twenty works were created while living and working alone in a plein-air studio in the region last year, which saw him spend his 50th birthday in the middle of a four-day typhoon “battered about like a nautilus at sea”. The resulting works, which celebrate James’ longstanding medium of water, explore its interaction with light, while revealing both its infiltration with man-made detritus and the tension between the beauty and danger of nature.
James’ has visited and free dived in the Maldives for over 30 years; witnessing its transformation over this time provided the inspiration for the project. “I have been diving these coral reefs since I was 18. I have seen a pristine coral reef systems dynamited to make way for softer waves to a a new hotel. The once-clear waters are now strewn with plastic. It’s utterly devastating seeing the changes.”
The problem of plastic pollution arriving on the islands is compounded by the lack of infrastructure: “Currently there are no tangible facilities for recycling plastic on the remote islands in the Maldives, or indeed creating fresh water on the local islands; everything is brought across by sea in plastic bottles. It’s well-known that we have fights over access to oil; I have always been very aware that many communities have the same battles over access to clean water. This creates a double-edged sword for them – having to bring the product in and having no way of dealing with the packaging once there.”
It’s estimated that more than 330 tonnes of rubbish a day is brought to Thilafushi island alone – most of it from the capital of Malé – where it is dumped in large piles and eventually used to reclaim land to increase the size of the island. So much is being deposited that the island is growing at a rate of a square metre a day.
James has donated twenty illuminated photograms to a charitable foundation to fund the building of a community recycling facility on one of the islands in Baa Atol, Maldives, primarily to recycle PET clear plastics and HDPE plastic used in the drinks industry. “We’ve dropped the price of the photograms by about 20% so they don’t sit around for long on gallery walls. In all, we should make about £30,000 profit, which will finance the recycling facility. Unless we take our technology to these islands, the islanders will continue to throw their empty bottles into the sea.”
In tackling the problem of pollution, the facility will also help fill the dearth of local materials and the additional environmental complications this creates. Currently, everything has to be shipped in. For example, if someone wants to build a house, they pay someone else to find the sand for concrete, which leads to ship owners digging up sand on uninhabited islands at such a rate that many of them have disappeared. The plastic recycled at the community facility can be turned into materials such as planks and bricks, providing a second level of environmental benefits.
The illuminated photograms that will fund the recycling facility encapsulate the tensions between man and nature which have inspired this project. James agrees that there is a macabre dichotomy that the destructive pollution he collected by free diving the waters to produce the photograms can create images that are so hauntingly beautiful. “I think deliberately so. Contemporary art often tries to shock us; it seems to forget that the greatest art has to be beautiful and convey a message after it has been hung on the wall. Nature is danger and beauty intertwined in a never-ending dance, but humanity’s survival at this dance hall is unsure as we pollute our environment and threaten every wild species on the planet, through careless behaviour and reckless growth.”
Photograms are images produced with photographic paper or film but without using a camera. “Man Ray was the most famous proponent of the technique; he exposed the paper directly to light. I have stepped it up to a whole new level by using photographic film. It’s very easy to create a photogram using paper – the exposures are in the 10-20 second range. I decided to step it up using photographic film, which exposes about 1,000 times quicker, combining my core elements of water and photography.” It’s not surprising that the New York Time described James’ work as ‘Like Man Ray meeting Jet Lee’. (ref. NY Times Oct 1992)
James uses photographic film plates that are the size of A4 paper; he believes he still has the largest stock in the world of the obsolete plates, which have been out of production since the 1980s. “You just need a small amount of light, which I why I do the exposures by the setting sun or moonlight – it’s so alchemic in the pitch darkness. The images are pieces of plastic and metal that I collected laid across the plates, but the exposures are a very complex process.”
Textures and texts
Working within the landscape of the Maldives as he explored the polarity within the disappearing landscape is central to the works: “It allows the environment itself to provide the materials and enable the process, resulting in unique environmental collaborations with water as a recurring exploratory medium.”
Alongside the photograms, James produced a series of polaroids and letters, collectively entitling the project ‘Textures & texts from the shoreline’. “I was living and working in a plein-air studio – I didn’t have a desk so some of the letters looked like the scrawlings of a rambling madman. I was also very hungry some of the time, and that’s probably evident in my writings; they were very heartfelt. On my 50th birthday I was smashed about like a nautilus in the middle of a four-day typhoon, and I think my letters went through different stages and mantras – even to repeating ‘What’s the point?’.
I sent the letters with the polaroids – basically giving away my art – but to people I believe can help: journalists, publishers, environmental groups, collectors of my work from the past. Half of the people I wrote to have engaged, asking to know more.”
Although the polaroids gave James an indication of what might be on the plates, he was unsure whether he had captured anything more than a blur until he got back to his Distil Ennui studio. “Processing the films in the studio is a magical thing. I didn’t move out of the studio for three days. My developer only takes five plates at a time and it takes 90 minutes to develop each set, and I had about 140 plates. There’s a lot of red in the photograms – it’s the moonlight. They are very alchemic.”
James has already achieved his ultimate goal through the project, but that doesn’t mean he has given himself permission to slack. “A group hotelier has said that whatever I do, they will do 20 times over. So if I build this recycling facility, they will build 20 of them on the islands. But even with this promise, I still intend to see this project through and finance the first one myself; I am a man of principle. If I say I am going to do something I see it through.”
Not only does he intend to see it through, he has no intention of taking – arguably –easier routes to achieving his vision of the recycling facility. “I don’t want to have my hand out. I am a lone artist. If I was banging my drum and asking for money, nothing would get done. I could go to the corporates: to the Coca Colas and Diageos and try to get through to them, but it would take a year to get the right door open. This way I can have the facility built in a year.
There is growing political and cultural awareness of the scale of plastic pollution, but James is not convinced we are at a tipping point. “We’re all talking about it, but no-one is willing to make a one-minute change in their life and how they do things to have an impact. We seem to be in a world of talkers not doers. I am doing my damnedest not to be part of that – to be a doer.
“People’s habits have to change. It’s more convenient to buy a bottle of water than to carry your own. I have used the same life can for years; it’s made of metal, it doesn’t corrode, it’s safe. When I travel I take my own water filter, I do not leave a swathe of plastic behind me.”
Suffering hunger and living exposed to the elements is still an extreme commitment to undertake. Why? “It’s a very important subject. Water has always been very alchemic in my mind, from a young age. I am going to keep doing everything I can to be part of the solution.”