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Interview: Artist James Tailor's timely inflatable art blows up in Soho

Image credit: 'Capacity' by James Tailor at The Smallest Gallery in Soho

As we digest the strangeness of novel threats, artists faithfully emerge to transmute our emotions into form.

Over June and August this year The Smallest Gallery in Soho hosted London-based multimedia artist James Tailor. Since graduating his MA at Central Saint Martins with distinguished awards and an internship with The Chapman Brothers, Tailor has shown internationally a body of sensuous sculpture-and-assemblage based work to reception by Adidas, Nick Knight and Kanye West. The Soho edition of Tailor’s work characteristically engages material anatomies to convey social ones, and fruitfully externalises the ‘weird’ composite of sensations we have come to intimately associate with the Covid-19 outbreak.

Using a pre-existing inflatable Teddy Bear, the piece titled Capacity references the recently viral, global Teddy Bear Hunt (an initiative encouraging placement of teddies along walkway routes for youngsters). Enclosed by walls of Pantone 300, the inflatable is set against a signature design colour and mnemonic of our NHS.

An extension of a children’s game, its whimsy offers much-needed distraction for a sudden class of protectors, faced with the collective responsibility of shielding, limited contact and chronic due diligence. Meanwhile its analogous use of a toy sentimentally reveals an altogether different, but acute vulnerability experienced by key workers, who face an unprecedented outbreak head-on. Inflating and deflating hourly to fill gallery confines to bursting, the respiratory quality of Capacity is palpable – a whimsical lung periodically swelling to convey claustrophobia, restraint, and all adjacent emotions. But its playful form and the glass horizon between viewer and artwork also observe the optimistic paradox of government mandated coming-and-going; “seeing with” but not “being with”; and ephemeral recovery.

We neglect to romance the distinctly equalising effect of this pandemic, an absurd wizardry conjuring universal innocence. And as we are publicly overwhelmed by the unknown, the poetic naivete shared by both young and old is increasingly apparent. Capacity invokes James’ use of sculpture and assembly to suffuse familiarity with melancholy, comedy with ennui – and by utilising this site-specific opportunity to its fullest is a truly maximalist and timely display. Works like Capacity remind us that crisis periods are complicated, we cannot essentialise or synthesise our experience into binaries like “brave”. We can only be sure they will trigger all counterparts of the human condition: from despondency to patience, and fragility to strength.

Image credit: 'Capacity' by James Tailor at The Smallest Gallery in Soho

Anastasia Niedinger: It’s a pleasure to be chatting. How did yourself and The Smallest Gallery in Soho come together to bring Capacity to life?

James Tailor:
I had always noticed The Smallest Gallery in Soho and thought it would be an interesting location to do a site specific work. I met with the founders Philip and Andreia at a private view in another gallery and we got talking about the space and the possibility of a show. We were still in discussions, then the pandemic began. It felt appropriate to adapt this project to become a commentary on what was going on at that time.

In the planning stages all non-essential shops & business were closed, so I knew we needed to source a pre-existing element as a starting point. I had an idea for a giant inflatable artwork for a project I did in Japan in 2015 which I chose not to use at that time, revisiting this idea seemed to be a good fit for the SGIS.

I normally start work in one of two ways, by researching an area of interest, or the discovery of a rejected or found object that has potential to become something else, so this fits with both starting points. Once we agreed on making the space a social commentary and working with the idea of inflation and deflation to echo the respiratory nature of Covid-19 we started researching companies that could help us realise the idea. We found a Company called “Mega Inflatables” who kindly offered to loan us an inflatable which gave us our first two elements, the object and the space. The last element would be Pantone 300 – the signature colour used by the NHS as a backdrop for the space.

Anastasia: Can you give an insight into your own experience of COVID, the lockdown, and a global pandemic?

Just before the start of lock down I decided to move my studio home which enabled me to continue working without having to travel across London and shrink my financial outgoings. Isolation was hard because the future seemed bleak in every aspect, at the time I was living alone with my dog (Edie) and cat (Marcel) however not being able to see other people was surprisingly a struggle but having my studio home was a good distraction.

Anastasia: You’ve described many of your pieces, involving acrylic paint for example, as intimately labour intensive. How have you found this experience of installation compared to a very tactile production of a work?

The show with The Smallest Gallery in Soho isn't so different to some of my previous works, the visuals and ideas relate with ‘Small Things’ and ‘Holding on’ to name a few. Similarly Capacity has been as labour intensive and tactile, the inflatable used in Capacity is 3 times the size of the space, meaning the head alone was able to occupy the full gallery, which meant a lot of negotiating and strategic weighting.

The planning, installation and general maintenance over the 2 month run was key to allow the bear to inflate and deflate into various positions that change over time but still retain recognisable elements that help amplify the feelings of anxiety, confinement, outbreak, loss of time and death.

Anastasia: Would you tell us a bit about what restraint means to you? And do you think at a time like this, its definition is fixed?

Restraint for me is a block on a situation or routine but also an opportunity for growth.

I am hoping for a new normality but not rushing towards it, a complete return to ‘Normal’ would be counterproductive. Of course the restrictions are frustrating but if it means not being sick, keeping family safe and having respect for those who have to shield I'm happy to do what is asked and also what common sense tells me.  

Image credit: 'Capacity' by James Tailor at The Smallest Gallery in Soho

Anastasia: Your work often explores comfort, but also heaviness. As someone interested in materialising melancholia through objects, would you say pathos is, or should be an important part of the human perspective? (Especially when crisis lingers on every corner!)

I believe my works can be understood on many different levels, ranging from purely aesthetic values; emotions captured; the exploration of the material compounds; or how these have been juxtaposed. It's not a requirement that the viewer understands everything I've put into a piece, it's about intriguing the viewer enough that they choose to increase their own engagement. This helps generate a more speculative conclusion by the visual interaction alone.

I always try to make my work as inclusive for as many people as possible. This means communicating my personal ideas or struggles in a fragmented way using objects or materials as my visual mode of communication. I can't speak for others but this has been helpful for me to process my own life experiences.

Anastasia: Finally, has your relationship with your art and practice been affected at all by this climate? If so how?

My work hasn't been affected that much yet, of course there's been a slow down in sales and there were exhibition postponements but this was anticipated. It's important to stay as productive as possible, if only for your mental health. As difficult as this current climate is, it will generate new ideas or projects and more importantly an opportunity to re-evaluate how work is viewed and what is actually necessary in the future.

Before lock down I was working on some larger pieces for a solo show, which was understandably put on hold. The majority of these works were sent to storage and for the foreseeable future which has freed me up to focus on small or medium scale works which would accompany the larger ones in future, when there is more stability. Before the pandemic started my pace was a lot faster, which meant I applied a lot of pressure on myself, I've since slowed down and I've got back to making for me.

James Tailor: 'Capacity'
The Smallest Gallery in Soho
62 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 4QF
June - August 2020

James Tailor | Instagram | Twitter

'Capacity' was curated by Philip Levine and Andreia Costa.

About the Curators:
Philip Levine
Philip has been working in the creative and cultural industries for the last decade as a producer. This has ranged from exhibitions, events, publishing, talks and creating his own unique artwork under the title ‘Headism’. He has gained a MA in Culture, Policy and Management at City, University of London. Being from London, his passion is knowing ‘who and what’ is up and coming in cultural trends and being involved within them. Read the Run-Riot interview with Philip Levine, here.
Andreia Costa
Andreia is an Associate Architect at Jamie Fobert Architects. She studied in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto and practiced for 3 years in her native Portugal. Before moving to the UK Andreia decided to explore her contemporary art interest by working in Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art as an architecture and art lecturer. In 2010 she joined Jamie Fobert Architects, where she has been involved in several projects including Selfridges and Tate exhibitions.


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