Alexander James specialises in submerging sculptural installations underwater and photographing them (without digital enhancement). He works with a South American butterfly (Caligo eurilochus) that falls into a coma when the temperature drops.
By refrigerating these small creatures, attaching them to silk thread when they conk out and then weighing them down in huge tanks of water, James has photographed them in all their splendour (“the colour bleaches out in daylight”) so that the velvety lustre of their wings becomes vivid. The butterflies are then dried off, warmed up and continue to fly around “and have absolutely no idea” about their submersion.
As an entomologist, he breeds rare specimens that can survive his strange photographic techniques. The artist's emphasis on life is surprising considering the bulk of his oeuvre shows a fascination with 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings filled with images of death, decay and memento mori. But James also takes beautiful flowers and, using primer (such as urine) to expose the fibrous threads within their petals, keeps them alive underwater.
Animal hospitals also donate recently dead foxes, badgers and other wildlife to James. “They have been put to sleep because nothing can be done. It's terribly sad,” he says. “But then you put them in the water and their fur becomes saturated and their bodies suddenly look so tender – and really alive.”
Alexander James: Intersection, the Studio Building, London W11 (distilennui.com/blog) 26 April to 25 May