Alex Chinneck creates surrealist illusions on a large scale. His work seeks to provoke thought and make us look twice at the architectural environment that surrounds us. With a playful approach to sculpture, Chinneck is equally interested in exploring the possibilities of materials and innovative building practice, which often inspire his artwork and help spark ideas about future projects. Not only a brilliant artist, Chinneck also has a lot to say about the philosophical implications of his work and how the distortion of familiarity is an important factor in what he hopes to achieve. After the completion of his latest project at Covent Garden, we sat down with him to find out more about what goes into making a public sculpture possible and the artistic transformation of architectural practice.
- Take me through the process of completing one of your large scale installations.
When conceiving an idea, there are so many elements that need to be considered. Most of those elements are contextually sensitive. For example, when developing an idea for Covent Garden piazza, it doesn’t just begin and end with the visual experience. Using that as a case study, I knew that I wanted to do something of significant scale and sculptural impact. I largely wanted to do that because I was conscious of the footfall through the piazza and the demographic that visits there. It is a place of recreation and holiday making. It is quite a fast place and not really one of contemplation, so the artwork had to be one of significant impact that meets an Instagram culture halfway. With those objectives in mind and the length of time it would be there for (1 month), I knew we would need temporary planning licenses from the council. You have to develop concepts with those logistical considerations in mind. I immediately knew that it made sense to develop an artwork that had a visual material synergy with the architecture in the square so therefore it acts as a celebration or integration rather than something that would deter or argue with the architecture of the district.
I also knew that I wanted to deliver an illusion because illusions are something that I’m excited by, but also they offer a kind of conceptual accessibility that any audience member could enjoy. That was really important because of the eclecticism of the visitors. When you are developing an idea, you think about who is visiting it, the mood and the pace at which they visit, the cultural identity and the visual language of the area, and finally the logistics such as building regulations because it has to pass those. It also has to integrate and you have to develop a structure and a system that considers access. Our footprint at the piazza is perfectly designed around three disabled cobbled ramps that lead into the market building, and the opening is the exact width so that when looking down the central avenue of the piazza, you don’t see the artwork. This was partly to pay homage to the architecture that was already there and not disrupt it in any way, but also to negotiate inevitable obstacles like planning.
When developing an idea, despite the playfulness and seeming simplicity of the concept, a lot of consideration goes into what would work and why it would work. For example, with the hovering building, it was an impact artwork for that kind of audience, whereas with the melting house, it is on a road where thousands of people go up and down the road to work each day as a commuter passage. In that way you can conceive an artwork that is about transformation and change and one that is about an evolution of a story, because people see it every single day.
2. How important is location for you when considering a piece?
It’s essential. Most of the time I don’t choose them, I am offered them, so most of the time the artwork is a response to that location. Lots of different things inform that decision making and which location will work best. It varies because sometimes we are given a site and offered a few locations but sometimes we have the concept before we have the land, and then we adapt it to fit. Covent Garden piazza is owned by a particular company who approached me and asked me to create a temporary artwork for the piazza. That was at the start of the year, so we then worked on it for about eight months. Largely their objective was to increase footfall and stay on the international pulse of cultural activity. It’s a strange process of contemplation and evolution and amendments to the work. Designing something like that and installing something like that in somewhere as old and precious and busy as the piazza was extremely complicated but a very valuable experience nonetheless. The hovering building was on the national news in 24 different countries and the overall footfall increased by 18% while it was there so I like to think that they got a good return on their investment.
- Tell me about the titles of your work and where you come up for them.
It is a distortion of familiarity. In one respect, my process and practice is so planned and engineered that it leaves very little room for abstraction, so the titles are often an opportunity to do that. The strange thing is that they are extremely simple in concept but extraordinarily complicated in execution. There is so much thought that goes into them that I like the title to reflect that consideration in many ways. I’m interested in language and the rhythm of the title but I also try to integrate familiar phrases and sayings into the titles because it lends them a pleasing familiarity. I like the idea of distorting familiarity by integrating known sayings and expressions in a peculiar context; I think it fits well with the work. There is also a kind of narrative at play. Using Take My Lightning But Don’t Steal My Thunder as an example, I kept thinking about something that is always together but forever apart. It felt like a pair with two objects at play. I justified the inclusion of thunder and lightning because it was such a cataclysmic narrative and theme with such catastrophe that it sat well with the piece. It just made sense. I play around with around fifty titles until I land on one that feels right. The title itself took about six months to settle on. However, I also recognise the fact that it is not called that but is known as the ‘floating building’. My work has its nicknames and I quite like that. I think public art can be described in a few words like ‘the melting house’ and that this offers an immediate impact/accessibility that works well in the public realm.
- Your work is very playful. I have always been fascinated by Pierre Hughye’s idea that ‘we must play with this culture in order to be a part of it’. To what extent do you feel that this is true, and how important do you see ‘playfulness’ as being in creating a piece of art?
For me, there are two kinds of play at play. There is an experimentation with processes and possibilities and materials. The other kind of playfulness comes from the work itself which is unquestionably warm and humorous at times. It really walks a fine line between humour and silliness, and I recognise that. I try to reinforce the playfulness and humour with a structural and sculptural complexity. A lot of thought goes into a simple moment and for me that is Minimalism in a nutshell. So one form of playfulness is experimentation and one is experience and the second one is that which the audience can hopefully enjoy. I think that the creation of pleasure is as important as the prevention of pain. What I struggle with is at what point the cultural experience needs to be intellectually complex, in order to be a valuable one. That is where the art world confuses me at times; this necessity to over intellectualise or justify something from an intellectual perspective. Some experiences don’t need that and don’t work well with that and not all walks of life need to be over conceptualised. I understand that in some cases it is extremely valuable but in some times it is just not true and some experiences can just be a positive, uplifting experience. So, with regards to playfulness, I try to create things which are hopefully extraordinary but ultimately uplifting and things that develop a sense of optimism. I think distorting the real world makes extraordinary things seem a little bit more possible and I quite like that.
- Your work often creates a sense of disorientation for the audience. Is this a deliberate part of the experience of the piece itself?
I have always loved illusions and magic and the idea of offering visual and playful questions while concealing the answer. I have always liked them. Since day one I have always used illusion in my art. I think subconsciously, it does a lot of the things I like an artwork to do. It asks questions in a visual way, it has a kind of visual magnetism that draws the audience in and I think that illusions offer an accessibility that works well in the public realm. I just think art provides a fantastic opportunity for the distortion of reality. It offers an opportunity to present the world in a new and slightly different way and allows us to think of it in a different way, which goes hand in hand with innovation and progress. Creativity is the root of progress in all areas of life.
We have such an unhealthy approach to creativity and culture in this country. I think the problem is that there is no obvious root from creativity into the service sector and therefore it is perceived as not essential. Creativity and commerce don’t often have an immediate, obvious link but if you scratch the surface and really explore the economy, creative input is extremely valuable. I think the general public are immediately suspicious of anyone who wants to explore a creative path in their future.
- I am interested in the permanency of your work. You often create pieces that are inevitably transient. What does this mean for you and how important do you feel it is both philosophically and psychologically for the viewer to experience?
I think the most important quality is legacy. Even though the artwork is gone, the memory, the conversations, the imagery will remain. Even though the tangible experience is impermanent, the impact lasts considerably longer. For me, it offers a closure. When the piece in Covent Garden came down, it immediately liberated me to think about another project. It’s a strange anchor and I like the idea of impermanence because it creates better opportunity for legacy. An experience that you’ve had is stronger when you can’t have it again. Death is a really bleak but good example of that. When someone is gone, your appreciation for them typically heightens. I like the idea of an artwork having the same lifespan. Nothing lasts forever and I think it’s nice for my work to begin and end while I can control that. With that philosophy in mind, the melting house was a particularly exciting step for me because its lifespan and its devolution are intertwined with the evolution of the experience and the narrative. It didn’t have a beginning, middle or end so I made impermanence the focus of the piece and the story of the sculpture. We live in a society now where information and experiences are so frequent and so fast that I think it is quite nice to make art and installations that reflects that frequency. It allows the audience to move on and for it to not linger. A finite experience is somehow a more valuable one.
7. What is creativity? What does it mean to ‘be creative’?
A passion for progress, irrespective of profit.
8. Where do you look to for inspiration? Surrealism seems to influence your work quite a bit.
I quite like surrealist objects that are sidelined from the main movement. From a creative level, largely the inspiration comes from the discovery of new materials and processes. It opens you up to new sculptural possibilities. I work very hard and invest a lot of time and travel to introduce myself to these things. I visit lots of companies and factories and specialists. I like certain artists and certain elements of art history. I love the Abstract Expressionists and the Minimalists, and I’m also quite into American art. Certain individuals really get me going; typically individuals who are ambitious, progressive, innovative and brave and who put their work into the public realm. I like Jack Dorsey, who is the founder of Twitter. I like Thomas Heatherwick very much and also really like Kanye West. His new album is so brave and he is so talented. He chooses creativity over commerce every time.
I believe in the idea of visual osmosis which is where the aesthetics of your environment inform your creative decision making. I used to live in a concrete factory which was next to an old parachute factory which was an enormous dilapidated building with all the windows smashed. I walked past that every day before making my own piece with identically smashed windows, so I do believe that there is a sort of subconscious at play as well, which is why I am open to the idea of people interpreting my work in their own way and finding messages that I haven’t set out to deliver. I like the idea that once I have abandoned my work, it then belongs to everyone.