"I have come to appreciate in the short time I’ve been here is the amount of space available...the freedom to roam, allemansrätten in Swedish, instils a pervasive sense of freedom and respect for the land."
Adam James, Artist in Residence with Tate St Ives
Adam James has exhibited widely across the UK and Europe. Having graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, he is currently working on a PhD with the University of Kent whilst living in southwestern Sweden. James is currently Artist in Resident with Tate St Ives, where an exhibition of his work will open in late November 2021.
Why did you become an artist?
I wouldn’t say I decided to become an artist, it’s was something I always liked doing. When the other kids were out playing football, I was inside drawing maps of the housing estate and planning games or copying cartoons from my Disney books. I went to a Rudolph Steiner school, which gave me a creative outlook on life. Through all my years in school, art was the thing I did well and was good at – my mother understood this and encouraged me by ensuring that I studied all the ‘art subjects’ on offer. Like many other creatives, I have dyslexia and dyspraxia, both of which might be regarded as superpowers when it comes to visual thinking. This, together with an inspiring and Catholic grandmother who created portraits of Jesus and took me on day trips to the countryside where she painted with watercolours, meant that I had a good start in some ways! That said, I didn’t grow up in a home with art on the walls, nor do I recall visiting an art gallery or museum until college.
Where did you train?
I went to university to study for a BA illustration degree in Brighton, mostly because I didn’t comprehend what fine art was and because I was good at life drawing. But I struggled. I was expected to respond very quickly to creative briefs, but I wanted to go on a longer self-reflective journey discovering who I was. It didn’t really go as planned, and after a year I was kicked out. Later, I met a friend who wondered why I was flipping burgers in a burger bar and wasting my talents. He let me live at his place for free to sort my life out, during which time I decided to study Fine Art Printmaking at Brighton. Soon after I applied to the Royal College of Art (RCA). I prepared a portfolio and got an interview. It went relatively well and at the end of the interview one of the interviewers asked, “I don’t know Adam, your portfolio is alright but it’s a bit all over the place, are you really an artist?” I banged my fist into the table and shouted “Yes!” and was accepted into the RCA.
Have there been any places or people that have helped you on your way?
After I finished my master’s degree in RCA my final show wasn’t the razzmatazz I’d hoped. Thankfully a friend saw a few photographs I’d taken of myself wearing false noses and suggested that I involve performance. A month later I was parading round Vyner Street as part of that same friend’s exhibition, with a suitcase of wigs, noses, and ill-fitting clothes. Since then, it’s been a case of doing whatever, whenever to keep my foot in the door. Four years after graduating I received my first major funding from the Arts Council, and since then I’ve been fortunate to build on each previous project with a new one. Over the years I’ve had a lot of friends who have encouraged and shaped me. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am now. They’ve taught me to take myself seriously and to believe in my work. When I see how they have become successful directors, architects, curators I realise that I was right to take their advice. When it comes to credits, I must also include the live action roleplay community, or Larp - particularly across the Nordic countries - with whom my work has grown immensely.
Tell us about your practice and what you try to do with your art?
I’m interested in bringing things together through different forms of collective play. I play a lot of games and through my work I help other people to do the same. They play with things that I’ve made, in worlds that I’ve created and with objects and costumes that I’ve constructed. Sometimes it’s very hands-on in the studio making things and sometimes it’s more about a process of games design, writing games or play scripts and then playtesting them.
Larp is a part of my practise and is something I’ve been playing with for the last six or seven years. It has helped me find reasons to make sculpture as it creates problems for me, and the answers to those problems are often in the form of sculptures and objects. I’m not someone who goes into the studio every day, diligently working on a painting or chipping away at a sculpture. I think I’ve always wanted to be that, but I’ve worked out that that’s not who I am. My work tends to be more about lots of smaller things building up into one big thing. Maybe that’s true about all art? I sometimes think I am the epitome of the frustrated sculptor! However, it does seem that the only way I can make sculptures is through these rather convoluted, albeit fantastic projects. The projects are often a year or two in the making, involving many complex moving parts and teams of people. Each time I get to the stage when I’m finally creating the sculpture, I ask myself why I don’t do this part of the process all the time. But I know that for the work to have any chance of being successful, all parts need to be treated with equal importance.
Who is your main audience?
I’m not entirely sure I like the idea of people standing around looking at my work unless they are in some way implicated in their existence. I want people to have an engagement with the piece. That’s not to say I don’t do that with other people’s works, it’s just that with my own, I’m concerned with what’s generated collectively in response to something, and this tends to mean people are actively involved in them in some way. I’m interested in working with others who may not be the type to frequent a museum. Fortunately, this often leads to me being provided with people to work alongside. Broadly speaking, I’m trying to find a point of friction in each social context and bridge that through play. One recurrent way to do that, and something which roleplay excels at, is to invite the switching of roles or positions by participants. Within this process, empathy is a force that I can explore and invite new ways of being.
Where do you tend to work in Sweden?
I’m based in southwestern Sweden in Sjövik, Lerum. For a while I had a studio in a shipping container in an industrial port of Gothenburg, but now I have a studio. A lot of the work I make is with other people and not usually in a studio. This sometimes means renting a studio or hall somewhere which we might use to stage workshops, play sessions or roleplay. I often work collaboratively with other artists, many of whom I’ve been privileged to work alongside on successive projects. This means that we have developed a sort of shorthand understanding of how we each operate. I really like to mix up the way I work with people, giving over agency and trying, where possible, to follow a bigger vision which is more about the sum of lots of small parts as opposed to me controlling every tiny aspect. Whatever approach I take, human play usually leads to studio-based play with a mix of low-fi affordable materials. These are inevitably are made to serve a function before being discarded. Right now, because of Covid-19, I work at home and in my studio more than normal. Meeting other people and working together is something I am longing for once we’re on the other side.
Are there any differences between working in the UK and Sweden?
That’s not easy to say as Covid-19 has been ever present since I arrived here at the end of 2019. I have noticed some slight but important differences in how it feels to be an artist in Sweden. In Sweden artists are almost always paid for initial ideas or concepts submitted as part of a public tender process. What that means, and what I found rarely to be case in the UK, is that even if you are unsuccessful in your proposal, you are still paid appropriately. This is huge and makes you feel appreciated as a human and professional. In the UK it feels much more cutthroat, you win, or you don’t, and you are almost never paid for work which is rejected. In terms of day-to-day studio work, another major difference is the much tighter regulations around use of harmful chemicals, materials, and the ease with which you can recycle. Something I have come to appreciate in the short time I’ve been here is the amount of space available to work in, if you step outside of the major cities. Old, and often underused farm barns are plentiful and the freedom to roam, allemansrätten in Swedish, instils a pervasive sense of freedom and respect for the land which feels like a call to live, work and be outdoors more (freezing winters aside…).
Do you have a routine in your day that helps you work?
Well, it isn’t a studio routine as such, but since recently becoming both a father and a stepfather my day is now governed by my daughter’s sleeping routine and my stepdaughter’s school schedule. I’m not to the first person to say this is an adjustment, but what it has done has introduced a new appreciation for time. In the last year my partner and I moved to a house with a large garden which backs onto a nature reserve. Aside from the boon of having a studio which overlooks a forest, with occasional families of wild boars and deer passing by it has really got me into gardening as something to do in downtime between working at the computer or in the studio. It’s nice doing something which has no relationship to my practice. The other thing which has been a godsend to me, both psychologically and physically is wild swimming. I’m extremely fortunate to live a few mins away from a lake, which I try to swim in whenever possible. For me, swimming and possibly having a sauna (when Covid allows) is time and space to unpack my thoughts. During last winter I got into ice swimming for much the same reason. The ritual of undressing and donning thermal gear by the side of frozen lake at -15 is another thing I need to do to feel properly alive. I know this all sounds somewhat idyllic, and I’m not naïve as to the luxury I’m afforded by living here.
Are international opportunities still important for artists?
I’d say so, yes. Whilst the UK might have left the EU, I still feel very connected to it, not least because I envisage that I will continue staging projects there. So, whether I like it or not, I am by virtue of Brexit an artist dependent on international opportunities. It is, however, an undeniable truth, that Brexit will make it harder to exhibit in the UK. I am only just scratching the surface of the opportunities available to me here in Sweden, let alone the rest of the Nordic countries. For me at least, I am trying to see the world as a smaller more connected place than before. As a UK citizen I think it’s all too easy to not look past your own borders. Being an artist has always been a bit of a passport to other places, either through related freelance work such as installing international art fairs or through residencies. I think Brexit has hastened an ambition for many artists to look further afield for work, study or to live. Perhaps as a reaction to it being made more difficult by Brexit, or perhaps because of Covid which has put a stopper in the travel bottle, but only for so long.
The bigger issue is funding, and what lies ahead for the UK culture sector. There is going to be very big wakeup call once we are out the other side of this, lots of institutions people once relied on will be gone and I suspect funding will be generally harder to come by for individuals. Whilst this is undeniably tough, it will almost certainly lead to change and perhaps an exodus of artist to more prosperous lands.
Have you discovered any buildings or environments in Sweden that really inspire you?
Barns. Everywhere. If you move out of the city and you don’t own one, what are you even doing?! Lol. But really, the barns here are beautifully rugged and have so much history. Whenever I go anywhere in the car, I am constantly slowing down to look at another barn, thinking about how they could be used either as places to work in or simply places to film and play within. There is an especially lovely one near where I live owned by a lovely lady who breeds dogs. It’s full of rusty old farm equipment, and of course an old Volvo. I’m probably very naïve about (a) her letting me use the place, and (b) about how much work it would take to empty it out.