When the Turner Prize shortlist was announced in May this year, video artist and Chelsea College of Arts alumnus James Richards was the youngest of the nominees. At 31, he has already shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is represented by galleries in both London and Istanbul and has an international reputation for making open, sensitive and intuitive work.
He follows in a long line of Turner Prize nominees and winners that have studied at Chelsea which includes Anish Kapoor, Steve McQueen, Richard Deacon, Chris Offili, Gillian Wearing and Mark Wallinger. He is nominated for the 2014 prize for his film Rosebud, which featured in The Encyclopaedic Palace at the 55th Venice Biennale.
With just a few days to go before the Turner Prize winner is announced, we spoke to James over Skype from his new flat in Berlin, to talk about his time at Chelsea, how he created his Turner Prize-nominated art work and the creative process.
The film for which James is nominated, which is currently showing at Tate Britain, centres around censored images that he found and filmed while researching in a Tokyo library.
“I came across these images by accident. I saw one and was struck by this kind of sanding which almost becomes its own kind of image and speaks to rubbing or caressing, and there was something about that which I really enjoyed. I had a few days left on my trip so I filmed them, not sure what I’d do with them. “
In Rosebud this footage is interspersed with natural imagery and other fleeting vignettes. When asked how he came to select the footage that sits alongside that which he shot in library, James speaks of an instinctive process.
“The process is so organic, it’s like it’s not deliberate! It’s not really thought out. I had filmed the books in Japan and then I didn’t make the film until a year later.
In the meantime I had bought an underwater camera that I’d been playing with, filming the ripples that happen when the liquid moves on the lens and the really beautiful things that happen when you just look up from underneath the surface. I was carrying this camera around with me, playing with it and fiddling with it all the time and I generated a lot of footage.
Then I worked on boiling that down to the 2% that’s beautiful and striking in some way. When the invitation came to make a new piece for a show, I guess I started thinking about putting these two utterly different things together, making an argument for them being in the same space.
There is a previous video installation of mine called Not Blacking Out Just Turning the Lights Off which I made two years before Rosebud which I think looks at similar things. I was starting to work more and more with filming pictures, working with the time-based quality of film while concentrating on the still element of a photograph. In both films there is something about the tension between these two things that I’m playing with in various ways.
There’s a lot in both films about surface and tension and trembling and the top layer of a thing. Finally, I started putting together these little passages that appear throughout the film such as the hands dancing, and these were sort of small frames of appropriated material which I started weaving some of the more sensitive, romantic and rhythmic elements into the piece.
It’s very like song writing: you have to keep going through the process and finding that each piece needs certain things – so you dip into the archive and get those and then try them out and they don’t work so you try another thing out. It’s an organic thing.”
On the Lux Artists Moving Image website, James’s work is described as “transcend[ing] the usual constraints of film and video projection by accumulating imagery in a manner that resists completion. Rather, the material of video is treated as a resource for constant manipulation, and the ‘work’ emerges through the act of continual reconstitution.”
Describing his practice in his own words, he talked of a “gathering and sifting, fiddling really”. He works with both visual and sound material that he creates himself as well as that which he borrows from friends, colleagues and archives. He has worked with Lux for a number of years, organising exhibitions, screenings and projects with works from there.
He explained: “I also find things from just watching films, things online – video is kind of around you all the time. I have phases of looking in different places, mining a particular area for a while and then moving on. Because of the nature of the format, everything gets stored anyway – six months or two years later you can go back and dip into that pool of stuff and you end up working with it again.”
Growing up in Cardiff, James was introduced to art at a young age, when his mother would take him to the nearby Chapter Arts Centre. But he became really interested in sound art and video installation as a teenager. When asked about how he decided to study Fine Art at university, he put it simply: “I wanted to be an artist so that’s why I went to art school.”
He went on: “I wanted to go to Chelsea because I was interested in sound art and video art and I wanted to do a new media course. I wanted to go to London and I went to an open day – going round the college, I felt good about it, coming and visiting the college really helped me make up my mind.”
James speaks fondly of many of the people who taught him during his three years studying for his undergraduate degree at Chelsea. As well as inspiring tutorials from visiting lecturers such as Lucy Gunning and Georgina Starr, he is still in touch with his tutor Gill Addison, who continues to teach at on the Fine Art BA and was even accidentally was when she proposed to her partner!
He laughed as he told the story: “I still see Gill intermittently and about five years after I left Chelsea I worked in a really romantic restaurant in Soho where a lot of proposals took place. One night I took a reservation from someone planning to propose that night, and when it came to giving their name it was Gill.”
Gill speaks fondly of James in return: “James Richards was a smart student who was engaged and committed to the moving image and always thought critically about collage. He was great to teach: as his tutor, you could have a real conversation with him and we have stayed in touch for this reason.
When looking back to the time just after he graduated, James reflected: “In terms of college I’m really glad I went to Chelsea and had those years of art school. But when I left it was kind of a relief because I’d had three years asking myself “Have you got anything to say, what do you want to do?“ so when I graduated, the art work became play. I worked all weekend in catering to pay the rent, and art became the thing I was doing utterly for its own sake. I chose to work all weekend in restaurants with crazy double shifts so that I could spend Monday to Friday working on my art work and doing my own thing.”
It’s clear that James is completely dedicated to his work, even though when he speaks about it he often describes the process as ‘playing’ or ‘fiddling’ which makes it sound like a lot of fun. He is keen to point out, however, that “the reality of being an artist is that making work is actually a small part of your week. There’s also working on how to get the work shown and where it goes, the communication around it, that’s all part of the work.”
When asked what advice he’d give to students who have yet to graduate, he is unequivocal that the key is to keep making work: “I remember everyone being so nervous in the last year and being so afraid of leaving their BA but really, everything works out fine in the end. I think on the whole I wish I hadn’t wasted that time worrying. Also, try not to stop – try to keep doing stuff. I know that everyone is so unique and so everyone has a different experience, but try and do as much as you can for the first couple of years. Keep the momentum going. Try not to be isolated, remember you need support and conversations and to be around people who make work you really like.”
Indeed, James initially moved to Berlin for a residency at the DAAD or German Academic Exchange Service and several of the artists whose work he talks about during our conversation such as Willem de Rooij and Josephine Pryde also live and work there. He now plans to spend at least another year there working. Of the city which he now calls home he said: “I travel a lot I have friends here and I work here but I don’t really show here. It’s very much a place to work in the studio and gather my thoughts.”
He’ll be heading back to London for tonight’s Turner Prize ceremony. When we return to the subject of the announcement, James was characteristically modest and unphased “It’s one of those things you try not to think about too much. It’s out of your control. You do the best presentation of your work that you can and then you hand it over. “
You can see James Richards’s work in the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain until 4 January 2015. Find out more on the Tate website.
You can see his solo show at Cabinet in London until 6 December. Find out more on the Cabinet website.
Find out more about James Richards’s work on his website.
Find out more about studying Fine Art at Chelsea College of Arts on our course page.