Photograph by Zinedine Ali
Interview with Alex Chinneck
Daniel Lingham interviews Alex Chinneck
Q. Your pictures were great that Adeel took for us – have you seen them?
Q. Would you like a copy of them?
Yeah, if you are willing to share. I can never have enough posters of myself.
Serious answer or not, considering the scale at which Alex is operating he is down to earth, open and prepared to tell me about his life and work so far. He’s young, just 29 years old, but you wouldn’t guess it from the achievements already under his belt. Ambitious is the prevailing word. He has the composure and attitude of someone who can handle big tasks and an inherent belief that he is making a valued contribution…and he is.
Q. You went through a formal route; did you do an art degree?
Yeah, I did a BA degree, but I had absolutely no interest in doing a Masters, I was so relieved to leave art school.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about your background and your route through to being a sculptor?
I became interested in art at about 16 years old and like most people the doorway into an artistic practice, or an interest in art, normally begins with painting. When you speak to most practicing artists at some point along their journey they have had a very influential figure or a very passionate figure and I had a fantastic teacher at school – he taught me to paint. When I went to art school I went there as a painter but I think, partly borne out of frustration, I increasingly felt that through painting I wasn’t able to simultaneously explore all the different areas, disciplines and fields that I was interested in. I found art school frustrating in that respect as also I felt like I was closing off all of the different worlds that I wanted to explore in the pursuit of making art. I had an equal curiosity and passion for areas such as architecture, manufacturing, design, industry, engineering and increasingly construction: questioning the ways things are built, what they are made from and also, I guess, trying to utilize the innovation of those different areas, the material and sculptural possibilities. Slowly material investigations and process investigations started to creep in, but a real turning point was just before I left art school; everyone has a kind of degree show, and I wanted to make an interactive sculpture but I didn’t know how – it was beyond my abilities technically. Not so much the material and the making but the digital and technological element. So I went to Imperial College London and I went to a group that was set up which was essentially just people who wanted to explore technology and invention and play around with those things. I introduced myself and I kind of forced a collaboration with them. That became really interesting because I was starting to make things without my own hands, beyond my own abilities. After that I did what a lot of artists do and I worked with another artist for about four or five years and that was a sculptor called Conrad Shawcross. The most important lesson I learnt from Conrad was he taught me how to be ambitious, and he is an incredibly ambitious man. We traveled a lot with his work and I was one of his first assistants, so it was a very intimate time and I learnt a lot. Then slowly my practice evolved in a way that it was allowed to in not working for others, just working for myself.
Q. It’s an odd environment to be in, in some respect: you’re constrained in some ways.
The only thing art school gave me was a complex about my work. I felt totally creatively caged and I felt it wasn’t an environment that facilitated creative thinking and freedom, it was… quite suffocating creatively. Leaving art school I found incredibly liberating, because it allowed me to explore territories that weren’t typically associated with art making and artists.
Q. What are you working on at the moment?
We are working on Four Covent Garden Piazza, outside the Royal Opera House for the whole month of September. We’re installing the biggest public artwork that’s ever been on the Piazza. I can’t divulge too much about the project at this point although I think there’s about fifty people involved in this project. It’s quite stressful. At the moment we are just navigating the building regulations and planning consent, planning control and planning permission. I am working with architectural consultants to manage the administrative side of things, structural engineers to manage the loadings, lots of different fabricators and scenic artists. In addition to that project we have just started casting 7,500 wax bricks to build a full-size two storey house in London Bridge in September. Over a thirty day period we are going to melt the house.
Q. …how is it melted?
Every single morning, before anyone wakes up, for three hours we go there with industrial blowers running off generators, heating the top course of brick so it melts from the top down.
Q. …you’ve done melting bricks before with ‘A Pound of Flesh for 50p’.
That was a study. We built a six foot wall to try it out. That was just like a sketch and now we are doing that on a full-size house. Then for January I am making the main outdoor public artwork for the European capital of culture in Belgium. That’s a big project and we are basically flooding some buildings with water. Different derelict buildings around the city will be completely flooded with water and thousands of fish will swim inside.
Q. That sounds to me like a logistical nightmare.
This is why I now work with architectural consultants and structural engineers on everything. They make it safe but they also navigate many of the logistical and administrational obstacles that these kind of ambitious ideas present. And it’s very difficult because we’re doing things that have never been done before, which is of course the point. There’s no template: there’s learning on the job. It really requires my ‘go to’ team of engineers and consultants. They are able to balance out the creative drive to produce these things with necessary levels of professionalism.
Q. There are a number of references to your Margate project. Most of the media based references just call it ‘Sliding House’ but it’s actual title is ‘From the Knees of My Nose to the Belly of My Toes’. Is that some obscure reference or a bit of fun?
Kind of both. What people don’t realize, or not everyone knows, and certainly what people don’t see is that I have quite an office type job. The realization of these projects is enormously administrational. The building of these projects is simply a physical execution of that administrational process, therefore there’s not a lot of room for surprise and not a lot of room for abstraction or free creative action or forms. The titles are my last place for a bit of abstraction or poetry, just a bit of Bohemian indulgence. I do like words and rhythm in titles. I struggle with the idea of something being untitled. I see it as a brilliant window of opportunity for further explanation or intrigue or personality and individuality in the work. Mine are quite playful, as is the work, and I like the rhythm of words and the use of alliteration. With ‘From the Knees of My Nose to the Belly of My Toes’, I was thinking of this idea of distortion; an architectural distortion of a building doing a sit-up and swapping the windows and doors for body parts.
“By using the kind of material and the structures and the scale and aesthetics of the everyday world that surrounds everyone, you are immediately discussing and exploring a subject matter that anyone can relate to and understand.”
Q. You’ve had quite a bit of media exposure; do you think they are missing something by not necessarily focusing on the title as part of the piece?
It’s often ignored; they are often quite long and wordy. There are always two titles: there’s the working title, which often equates to the media title, then there’s the official, correct, title. Because my work is so in the public realm, and therefore in the public eye, the media is often quite national mainstream media and I think their audience isn’t particularly interested in these kinds of arguably slightly pretentious waffling titles and so the working titles sometimes serve as more appropriate. The titles, for me, are a creative indulgence that I love after months of planning and preparation.It’s probably not apparent but a huge amount of thought goes into the titles. It’s nice when they get mentioned; there is quite serious intent behind them.
Q. In your work you seem to be playing with the audience’s perception in some way. Are you trying to subvert our sense of a place and a purpose and is there an underlying concept to that subversion?
I try to make the everyday world extraordinary and I try to blur familiarity with fantasy. My motivations for that: I think public art too often forgets its responsibilities in public, and I don’t do this to be popular or to be liked or to get press. Fortunately the work I want to make gravitates towards creating an experience of this kind. I seek to make work that’s quite accessible that can be enjoyed by anyone. By using the kind of material and the structures and the scale and aesthetics of the everyday world that surrounds everyone, you are immediately discussing and exploring a subject matter that anyone can relate to and understand. In that respect everyone has an equal chance of understanding, enjoying and hopefully being mesmerized by the experience. I think illusions are the distortion of our perception of the physical world that surrounds us, therefore architectural illusions make a lot of sense to me in that respect. Another of my motivations is that we let too many things slip into our subconscious and it’s quite good to bring those things back to our attention. Also it’s really in tune with the history of art as the re-imagination or the re-presentation of the world that surrounds us, whether it’s flowers or emotions or the human figure. My work in a kind of re-imagination or the re-presentation of the physical world around us and in that respect I explore architecture.
Q. Your work obviously is a massive undertaking; do you think you have to have a big challenge to thrive?
When it comes to making art you’re at your best when you are making something you enjoy and you’re at your strongest when you making the work that you want to make. Unfortunately the channels that I want to pursue and the work I want to produce is routed in the territory of architecture and that’s bloody big, and bloody expensive, and complicated. I think I do thrive on challenge. I’m obsessed with progress and I think there is no progress without risk. The problem of scale and money really are the enemy of ambition and to create sculpture of architectural size and language requires a certain level of ambition. But it is getting easier. The more I make, the better the team gets and experience is incredibly important. For Covent Garden, for example we’ve done about ten different elevations of the design, we’ve done site plans. OS maps, floor plans, roof plans, design and access statement, illustrations and onsite schedules. The amount of work is considerable but it’s getting easier as we recognize it as the process and part of the practice. When I did the Sliding House I didn’t have a clue what was going on, I’d never done a planning application before, I’d never worked with building control before. The problem is I never repeat. There’s a fine line in art between refinement and repetition and I think artists have to be very careful that they don’t creep into the latter. Repetition is the beginning of the end of a practice and I put myself under tremendous pressure to not repeat, so with every new project we explore new areas, use new materials, collaborate with new people and use new processes. That’s very important as an ingredient for progress but at the same time you don’t have the luxury of familiarity. The only familiarity we have is the process, not necessarily the product itself.
Q. …and your own creativity, there is an identifiable thread of you in your work isn’t there?
People can see there’s a thread, absolutely. From the smashed window to the inverted buildings and Sliding House there’s this undercurrent of art and architecture and large scale collaborations. Then there are the experiential qualities, such as the size, the humour, playfulness and illusion. All those things go in the pot but I put myself under pressure to bring different things out of that pot.
Q. It sounds like you have a lot of potential pressure. A lot of people would find what you are doing highly stressful considering the trajectory of your practice – your career path looks quite rapid and you’re still in your twenties.
Yes, I feel about fifty, I kid you not. There are long, long days. I don’t have much of a social life. At the end of the day I am working for myself and making my own work. From the outside it’s great, but I am under a lot of pressure, increasingly. Before, it was a little bit more kamikaze: it was a case of pulling it off. For some of the projects I would find the sponsors and I’d find the donations from different companies and then we’d get to the finish line and it was great. I suppose now there’s a client, now that there’s commissioners and I feel there’s a greater sense of responsibility, but also the audience is greater. It’s a really healthy pressure in the same way that deadlines are fantastic; it’s a necessary evil to facilitate better results.
Q. I get the impression that your work is designed in some ways to be transient: they’re short-lived, they’re either disintegrating quickly like the wax bricks, or you are using a building that’s ready for demolition. Are any still in situ past the point at which they were originally going to be taken down or removed?
The windows, the upside down building and the Sliding House are all in situ and I thought that all of them would have gone by now. It’s OK because they are designed and built to last. When it comes to public art I am a big fan of temporary installations because I think two of the principle enemies in public art are durability and over-familiarity. In regards to the latter it’s important, when something is removed and it’s gone and the experience can no longer be accessed and enjoyed, that it has a stronger chance of legacy. The example I always give is Rachel Whitereads House: the making, the presentation, the reception, but then the removal of that sculpture really completed a package and really therefore completed its legacy. It’s also very cathartic for these things to be removed. Being an artist I’m obsessed with the next and bored with the last. If there’s one piece that could stay it’s the broken windows, it’s the best piece I’ve done.
“I think I do thrive on challenge. I’m obsessed with progress and I think there is no progress without risk.”
Q. I am wondering whether you find your practice isolating, either in terms of a peer group or your actual day to day work, are you on your own a lot?
I think I have a nice balance. I don’t have a studio and I don’t have employees and that’s a definite decision. I find that quite liberating. When you have a studio space and when you have employees, and of course many artists need both, you feel a necessity to use them and a pressure to make work that fits through the doors or fits inside the studio or uses the new tool that you just got, or a necessity to use that employee because they are standing there in a way that might not be particularly useful. I find it liberating to not have a studio, not have anyone work for me and just work in terms of meetings and from my computer and with freelance people. Basically, in terms of working on the computer and for meetings it’s limitless. We can make anything we want, anywhere we want to make it, as large as we want it to be. In terms of people, I can collaborate with whoever I want. The next project can be completely void of the last. It doesn’t have to be the same people, materials or space. It means I am constantly meeting new people and collaborating with new consultants. It also allows me to have time to myself. The nature of my practice is not an insular one where I hibernate in a studio because I need to work with so many different people. Last year I must have worked with about 150 different people.
Q. Do you think it’s important that you are in London?
I think about this a lot. I think I do. At the moment my work is largely about the urban environment and ideas or inspiration is born from being in the company of the architecture of the city and it’s through a kind of process of osmosis that these different aesthetics creep in. When I had absolutely no money I slept illegally in my studio in a building next to a concrete factory in East London on an industrial estate. Every single day I’d walk up to a sandwich stall, for the builders nearby, and get my breakfast and walked past this most incredible factory. It was a dilapidated ex-parachute factory from the war, longer than a football pitch and it must have had over a thousand smashed windows. I walked past that building every day for a year and it was impossible after that to not make a piece about smashed windows. It doesn’t just relate to the architecture, it also relates to the people and the interests and the buzz. The city offers a real eclectic pallet of experiences, aesthetics and materials.
Q. Do you feel you are competing with contemporary artists or sculptors? Have you got an eye on that world or do you ignore it?
I largely ignore it but I am extremely motivated and inspired by personalities. I wouldn’t say I compete but certain people put me under pressure to perform and do better. They’re people who fuse creative bravery with creative quality: a balance of art and ambition.
Q. …are there any in particular that you have in mind?
Thomas Heatherwick, Kanye West, his new album is so good. I am not talking about the person I’m talking about the product. Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter. I get such a kick out of different personalities rather than aesthetics. It’s not really about what they are making it’s about the way they are making it. What unites those three people is a kind of tireless ambition to keep driving things forward irrespective of success or failure. With Kayne West, the message and the package I don’t like, and the lyrics are terrible a lot of the time, but the production is fantastic. I think Thomas Heatherwick is the best creative talent we have in this country he’s a real inventor; it was Alexendar Mcqueen.
“We can make anything we want, anywhere we want to make it, as large as we want it to be.”
…you know who I think deserves as much credit as the art world can adorn on him and I think he’s unfortunate not to be on the same plateau as Hirst, Gormley or Kapoor is Richard Wilson. I’d say him.