unzipping the ordinary: alex chinneck on bending reality through art, awe, and accessible experiences

Apr 20, 2021

alex chinneck has fractured façades, melted houses, knotted post boxes, and unzipped walls. he’s created astounding architectural illusions in public places that have sparked widespread wonder and awe, and has set sculptural surprises right outside people’s doorsteps. the british artist’s collection of accessible experiences has spanned across countries and contexts, underscored by a sensitivity to the existing landscape, a joy for the ephemeral, and the foundations of familiarity. ‘the arts offer the most wonderful vehicle to momentarily escape reality and I suppose my work tries to hand people the keys,’ chinneck tells designboom about making the ordinary momentarily extraordinary. ‘I think that public art has to resonate with the public, and if it doesn’t then it’s not doing its job. there’s no room for elitism in the public realm and I try to lend my work a playful warmth that endears it to any onlooker irrespective of demographic.’

there is a strong sense of mystery behind much of alex chinneck’s work — an earnest wonderment that makes its viewers ask how?, and unlock new narratives and experiences in the environment around them. one of chinneck’s early works saw the façade of a derelict four storey house in the seaside town of margate slide off onto the ground; later, in the middle of london, a full-scale house made of wax bricks slowly softened into the city streets. ‘the trick is to conceal this process and the greatest illusion of all is that of effortlessness,’ he shares. ‘ultimately, as a contemporary artist I want to try to produce work with a unique voice and this becomes evermore challenging. I’ve always seen utter ambition and risk as two mechanisms to help distinguish my work from others.’

designboom spoke with alex chinneck about his interest in illusion, the accessibility of art as a philosophy, and walking the fine line between sculpture and stunt.

designboom (DB): what aspects of your background and upbringing have shaped your creative principles and philosophies?

alex chinneck (AC): I’ve always felt like a tourist in the art world and you certainly wouldn’t call my upbringing a bohemian one. I think this has allowed me to carve my own creative path, but has perhaps slowed my career development — I’ve always worked one hundred hour weeks but never given a second to networking.

for a long time I misunderstood the art world as all snakes and no ladders so I chose to operate outside of it. this probably explains why my practice initially evolved outside gallery walls and where my drive to create accessible experiences came from.

DB: have you always found yourself seeing unfamiliar and extraordinary possibilities in otherwise ordinary objects and architecture? when did this interest in illusion begin?

AC: I try to make the every day world feel momentarily extraordinary. by weaving fantasy into the materials, objects and structures of the world that surrounds us all, the work builds accessible experiences on the foundations of familiarity.

illusions and magic are a positive rejection of restriction and I think there’s something uplifting in that. I want my work to distract people from their problems and not remind them of them. it’s not that I don’t care about what’s happening in the world, I just believe that the creation of pleasure can play some role in the prevention of pain. the arts offer the most wonderful vehicle to momentarily escape reality and I suppose my work tries to hand people the keys.

DB: how important is it for you to create work that is accessible to the general public, and that can reach people outside of the typical gallery confines?

AC: for me, accessibility has always been a philosophy and not a strategy.

I think that public art has to resonate with the public, and if it doesn’t then it’s not doing its job. there’s no room for elitism in the public realm and I try to lend my work a playful warmth that endears it to any onlooker irrespective of demographic. my work knowingly walks a fine line between sculpture and stunt and in doing so it has sacrificed critical acclaim but seemingly won the affection of a wider public. I obviously crave appreciation from both parties. it’s easy to overlook compliments when there’s criticism in the room.

AC (continued): the public realm doesn’t offer the comfort and security that the gallery walls preserve and there’s times that I crave that. I won’t pretend that overnight installs with a group of drunk blokes singing ‘the sculpture’s shit’ is a highlight of the job but perhaps they’ve got a point.

our sliding house was introduced into a residential area where you wouldn’t expect to find it. for a host of reasons I was repeatedly warned against putting it there, but surely that is every reason to put it there? it was, and remains, a brilliantly ethnically diverse community so we wrote invitations in a number languages and delivered them to the surrounding streets. we closed the road that the artwork was on and had a street party the day we finished it. it was brilliant; the local children, the mayor and even my dog was there. who needs champagne and canapés when you’ve got free cherrypicker rides?

DB: much of your work in the public space exists temporarily, even melting into the ground — can you talk about the idea of impermanence, and what draws you to spaces and places that respond to their context in an ephemeral way?

AC: I increasingly work on permanent sculptures and I like to think we’re getting good at them. it’s taken time to refine this side of my practice because permanence can easily force creative compromise. you have to design the artworks with permanence in mind and it’s challenging to deliver a dynamic, contemporary outcome that simultaneously navigates the structural, legal and logistical obstacles that creates. then there is material and conceptual durability, and of course subject matter. I increasingly believe that all public art should be reassessed every ten years to consider whether it continues to make a positive contribution. nothing lasts forever and perhaps nothing should.

the joy of the ephemeral is the creative freedom it permits. it is sculpturally liberating and allows you to deliver more ideas in more places. at times I intertwine the impermanence with the narrative, such as my melting house built from 7,500 wax bricks, but mostly I enjoy the very public stage and license for theatricality that ephemerality presents.

regardless of whether my work is there for ten days or ten years, it is always contextually responsive, conceived with the visual language, material palette, heritage and future objectives of the location in mind. this philosophy lends the work a sense of belonging to the place in which it stands, heightening the believability and regional personalisation of the sculpture. in my opinion this is critical and is the difference between a sculpture that is considerately placed or crudely plonked. there’s a lot commercial benefit in ‘copy and paste’ but limited creative zeal.

a pound of flesh for 50p | image by chris tubbs | read more on designboom here

DB: your sculptures are incredibly playful and often induce an awe-inspiring physical spectacle, but there’s undoubtedly a complex process behind arriving at the final result — which project has been the most technically challenging to execute? what were the challenges?

AC: I’ve dedicated all of my time, energy, passion and profits to making my ideas physically exist. they are real and not renders. we do have a vast archive of digital visualisations of currently unrealised concepts, but I choose not to share them. this is not to dismiss digital work, but I like materials, I like the real world, I like people and places. surely, there is still a place for these things? virtual is incredible but so is reality. it’s disheartening at times and I find myself resenting my burning desire to create the physical thing, particularly when one NFT enjoys greater commercial success than my entire creative output to date combined. but money’s not my motivation. of course, with a farm, family and a team to look after, any profits help me sleep at night but it’s passion that gets me up in the morning.

I call them projects because they are considerable undertakings that can take months but typically years to produce. I say ‘we’ because I collaborate with many brilliant professionals to make the ideas exist.

AC (continued): we take long, challenging and at times untrodden paths to reach simple visual moments. the trick is to conceal this process and the greatest illusion of all is that of effortlessness. I tend not to talk about how the work is made because I think the questions are often more interesting than the answers. however, a lot of our current projects utilise STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and I embrace the opportunity they provide to demonstrate to schoolchildren a fun and engaging application of these subjects.

different projects have presented different challenges but facilitation is the hardest part of all of them — time and money are the enemies of ambition and I have to force my sculptures into existence. you have to push and push and push, just to pull it off.

AC (continued): my first project on an architectural scale was ‘telling the truth through false teeth’ where I created 312 identically smashed windows. this was predominately about stamina and I worked alone to install 1,248 pieces of glass in a derelict factory full of soil (it had been previously used to harvest cannabis), foxes, rats and asbestos. every new concept and location presents different challenges and my absurd determination to repeatedly overcome them (we sometimes cannot) is a professional strength but personal burden.

ultimately, as a contemporary artist I want to try to produce work with a unique voice and this becomes evermore challenging. I’ve always seen utter ambition and risk as two mechanisms to help distinguish my work from others.

DB: what are you currently fascinated by, and how is it feeding into your artistic practice?

AC: david lynch. if anyone reading this knows him then please thank him for me.

DB: can you tell us about any upcoming projects you are particularly excited about?

AC: I’m committed to the broadening of my creative output and extending my practice into new disciplines. I’ve just built a painting studio so that’s an exciting stimulus. we are working on lots of smaller interior works, a number of bronze and silver sculptures and a healthy collection of international outdoor projects. I hope they all reach the finish line because it’s heartbreaking when they don’t.

I never really like to talk about the projects before I complete them. I just think that people tend to talk a far better game than they play so I try to make sure it’s the other way round. I’m not the best at self-promotion but I want my sculptures to receive the spotlight while I stay backstage. this isn’t ideal when I think that one of the principal movements in the visual arts at present, arguably built on the foundations of social media, is the ‘hype movement’ where it’s not about how good you are at making art but how good you are at telling people you’re good at making art. in the land of the insecure the self promoter is king.

somewhere under the rainbow | image by marc wilmott | read more on designboom here

AC (continued): what I will say is that we have endless ideas across art and architecture and remain forever enthusiastic to find new partners to deliver them with and new places to deliver them for. we are working on some very ambitious sculptures for all over the world but still nothing in the US. just to be clear, this is a hint to any commissioners reading this.

DB: what boundaries are you trying to break yourself, or what goal are you working towards right now?

AC: I really threw my practice into the deep end when I started these projects ten years ago, but that’s also the best way to learn to swim. you have to be careful with experience because it can become a cage to imagination — you spot the problems before the seed of a good idea has time to grow. I do my best to silence my accumulated knowledge and continue to daydream about new projects but rely on my experience to make them a reality.

AC (continued): I’m still always in a rush but I do think that impatience is a strong root of progress (as are optimism and unfortunately greed). my professional focus has always been shortsighted and it’s always about ‘pulling off’ the next sculpture. it’s hard to plan my day let alone a career. I just keep making sculptures and walking my dog and hope that a career path will present itself.

if there is a longer term objective, it would be to accumulate a broad, unique and ideally unparalleled global portfolio of public artworks that reach and uplift as many people as possible. art makes life more than just survival, which is great, but naturally suffers when medical and economic survival become a concentrated focus. the last 18 months have been tough on the arts and while we live in an increasingly digital world, I still hope there remains an appetite for tangible real world experiences that transcend anything a screen can offer. if that’s the case and we are still invited, then I’ll be there making sculptures.