BR INTERVIEW. British sculptor Alex Chinneck: “An artist’s responsibility is to show people things they haven’t seen before”

Newsroom 20/09/2019 | 08:55

Acclaimed British sculptor Alex Chinneck came to Romania with the exhibition “Unzip your mind”, exclusively for Qreator by IQOS. The symbolism of the zipper represents the distinctive characteristic of the project, as an object through which the artist highlights the surrealist cracks through which light enters, flooding the space and inviting the visitor to take part in an immersive and unexpected experience. Born in Bedford, and living and working in the UK, Alex Chinneck graduated from the Chelsea College of Art and is a member of the Royal Society of Sculptors Council. In his creative process, the international artist has as a starting point real-life experiences. He transforms materials and perceptions of them, seeking to change the world around us and test people’s perception of apparently familiar objects and materials. He spoke to BR about the project, and how brands and artists balance their increasing collaborations.

By Romanita Oprea

What does creativity represent for you?

For me, it’s presenting the world around us in a new way. Or re-imagining the world in which we exist. In my work, we are trying to make the familiar, the everyday world, extraordinary. That’s what surrealism is, I think, taking familiar materials and surfaces, different structures and trying to intertwine an element and to see. And in doing so I myself often kind of escape from the everyday world, but those who visit it and see it ideally enjoy a momentary escape from everyday life and get a little moment of magic. I think that is one of the elements of creativity: a wonderful opportunity for us and for the people who see it. And it’s a positive thing. 

When did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?

There wasn’t a clear moment when I said: I want to be an artist! I just, kind of, slowly, fell in love with the process. And I think that every artist begins to paint with a brush and a pencil, this is how you begin. I have quite a busy mind and when I used to paint, everything calmed down, I suppose, and I just became lost in the work and in the process. I probably wasn’t the greatest painter, nor a particularly good craftsman, but I fell in love with the process. It wasn’t so much that I loved what I was creating, but that I loved the process of creating it. It wasn’t about a career path, I was just following my instincts. I began to be very interested in the idea of making contemporary art and making a genuinely contemporary contribution to art. And I was conscious of the fact that everything that I painted had been painted before, or something incredibly similar had. So, I ran out of this this energy that I had something that would distinguish me in the art world, so it began to evolve into sculpture. 

The Zipper: the central piece of the Bucharest exhibition

I’ve always loved making things and craftsmanship and materials, particularly wood, and it just evolved into a kind of sculpture practice where I would have ideas that were not so easy to create and I couldn’t necessarily create them. So, from a very young age, 19, I started working with other people to create work. And I found it very liberating: that I would conceive an idea and through collaboration and partnerships with others we would collectively produce it. It just allowed the work to evolve in directions and territories that I believed people gained something from being part of, and then it just evolved in ambition and scale and we now have a practice that is quite hard to replicate. Because of the ambition and the magnitude of the work and the huge teams involved. I kind of enjoy where it’s got to in that respect. 

But when you started collaborative projects, wasn’t it hard to work with all those people? Wasn’t it a competition from time to time or did you meet people that had a completely different opinion or vision than you? How could you turn it into something cohesive?

I have always been the art director, so it was always my idea, vision and projects, and I was managing them. So it was not about working with other artists, because I find that kind of collaboration difficult (not because I don’t love other artists and other artists’ work, because I do), but it was just the two creative territories were too close. I found that my work had flourished into new territories and directions and I became more ambitious and, naturally, started to develop a unique voice, but collaborating with people from outside the art world. From that perspective, there was never real tension, it just became about: this is the vision, how do we deliver it and how do we work together to do that? And that is what I enjoyed.

For instance, at art school, I would go to the local universities in London that specialized in science and robotics or computer coding and programming. So, already, the work was allowed to evolve in multi-disciplinary directions, rather than just art. And it was allowed to be more about the idea than me being the one executing it. Now it’s impossible, because of the size and the multitude of projects that we work on around the world, but, even then, I don’t want an idea not to happen just because I didn’t have the technical capacity to produce it. But, even if there are hundreds of people involved, I am deeply involved in any decision.

It’s difficult when you are collaborating and producing work and it’s not just you. You can easily lose control and not make decisions or let decisions be made for you, so it’s an art form in itself. It takes practice, but I think I am getting better at it. 

Collaboration is an art form. Commissioning is an art form. I don’t live by myself, I am surrounded by people and I want to collaborate with people. This relationship and collaboration continues here and in other countries around the world, which is very exciting. I have fantastic partners.

Your first collaboration with IQos was at Milan Design Week?

Yes. We were invited by IQos to create a piece for Milan, which was a phenomenal international platform, but it was new territory for us – working with a brand. We were understandably anxious, as they were about us as well, because the partnership has to be right. But we were immediately reassured by the creative freedom we would get for our show. It was something genuine, nothing forced.

So how did it work? Did you receive a brief or was it the other way around?

It was more than a brief. It was a philosophy: to do something that would change perspectives. And that is beautifully aligned with what we want to create, to try to present the world we know in a new way and familiar materials and structures in a different light. We went into brand integration nervously, doing it in a way that wasn’t sensitive to my work, and it worked brilliantly. Very, very good partnership and commissioning. And we continue to work with them.

And afterwards did they ask you to do projects for them in other countries?

Following that project, which was a real success – it had 220,000 visitors in six days and was well received and shared around the world – we generated the photographic series and a series of sculptures, objects, artifacts from it, and different Qreator Embassies around the world wanted to share them. 

What about Romania?

When we came here, I thought it would be nice to create something that would speak specifically to this place and location. And even if it’s not a huge architectural façade, that is where the stone Unzip It block in the entrance comes in. Because that entrance is lovely, it has this kind of curving stone and it felt nice to continue that language and purpose, but, obviously, make something that is an extension of the Unzip It family. 

One piece that we created in Milan was the Unzip It floor, where we unzip the floor and the light came out of it and every time that happened the color changed and a different sound came out. We composed music especially for the piece. So, we did the same here: we created a low light and the color would change and the light in the stone and the sound would change as well and create a nice environment, hopefully. 

But this is what you do everywhere, isn’t it (incorporating the piece in the place and its specifics)?

Yes, mainly the big pieces, like the one in the entrance here. Because we are creating these illusions and they have to speak the same language as the location, otherwise they are not believable. In Milan it was based on a Milanese façade, we basically copied a couple of buildings in Milan, we built them, the whole façade is artificial. Everything has to be contextually responsive. Public art has to do that. Gallery-based artists don’t need to do that, because they have a blank canvas to work with, perfect for doing any artwork. But this is not the way we work. Our work has to have a good communication with the surroundings and the people. And I think all public art should do that. Because if it doesn’t belong there it feels like an intruder. And, ultimately, it will not succeed. We are doing a project in Mumbai at the moment. It is very important to us that it’s made by the people of Mumbai, not for the people of Mumbai. We have done that quite often around the world. It has to be born and belong to the location rather than kind of added to it. We try to do that as much as possible. 

What is your goal for the exhibition in Bucharest and what do you expect from the people?

It’s a nice opportunity to broaden the impact of the Milan project in the region. We’re also showing photographs of previous work. We’ve produced a lot of work in the past five years and is very nice to share that and I hope that even if we don’t have a huge architectural work outside, collectively it would be experienced in the esthetics and the visuals that we share here. The entrance, in the interior space, I hope is quite beautiful and calming. The changing sound, light and colors are pieces of the process – in contrast with the very brutal stone, the materiality of that. 

Have you worked with other brands besides IQos?

Not on this scale. 

How do you see the perfect collaboration between an artist and a brand? When does the brand have to get involved in the process, or doesn’t it?

I think it’s a two-way dialogue. The artist has to understand that there is a partnership and that they potentially have to tune the work or tune the way they communicate the work, to align with the partner’s messaging. I think the partner has to give the artist as much creative freedom as possible. I think it is about trusting artists and the art that they produce. If they weren’t right in the first place, the brand shouldn’t have invited them. It’s about giving a platform and sharing the philosophy. And if those two are right and aligned, trusting the artist and trying not to shake the outcome, it’s the way to do it. Because the approach is not this way; they should have created their own work in the first place.  I think it’s about having confidence. It’s about the artist feeling confident and comfortable in the relationship. But the brand needs to have confidence that the art and the message attached to it is enough and will enjoy the kind of reach, awareness, fruitfulness and excitement that allow the project to communicate and resonate with multiple people. I think that sometimes there is a lack of confidence where brands choose particular locations or kind of force the infiltration of product and brand into the work. And I think that the public is wary of that, conscious of the over-integration of brand and product. And they are conscious of advertising and brands need to be more confident and say that it is not about forcing those messages on potential consumers, it’s about offering a very exciting and stimulating experience to people who want to share and talk about it. And, in that process, people will discover the project and the brand rather than it being a kind of force feeding. Because that will ultimately fail. It’s a delicate combination. The artist has to be very confident and strong, be able to say no to the brand. And the brand needs to be able to hear no and understand that. It’s about working together, not ignoring important facts. It’s a difficult relationship to manage. I can imagine a lot of artists not being able to do it or not wanting to do it. 

Are brands more interested in collaborating with artists and entering the art world? Is it a trend or not?

Yes. Not necessarily entering the art world, more remaining in the real world. Because that is the place where they exist. I think that brands increasingly seek ways of reaching more people and creating unique experiences, messages and distinguishing themselves from others. And, in many ways, I think this is art in a nutshell. An artist’s responsibility is to create new things, in new ways, and show people things they haven’t seen before. And I think that neatly aligns with how brands want to operate today. We live in a very digital, fast-paced world, in an incredibly visual world. It’s about immediate impact and esthetics and I think an artist can offer that. 

There are huge benefits for brands, and for artists too. It’s easy for very successful, celebrated artists to be critical of brand partnerships, but that is because they don’t need them, they have more opportunities that they can ever manage. The reality is that there are far more artists, far more creative practitioners that there are opportunities and platforms. So, I think that that these ever-increasing brand partnerships really allow and encourage artists to create work that otherwise wouldn’t exist, and represent very exciting and ambitious extensions to their portfolio and body of work. Providing that it is not a compromise, something forced. And it is the brand’s responsibility not to force them in that direction. I think it’s a win-win. 



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