Cast & Crew: An Interview With South African Artist Alex Hamilton About His Exhibition Of Pop-Culture Icons
A Cultural Experience in Cape Town, South Africa

South Africaby Mandy J Watson
Posted: 18 November 2008

In an era of all-consuming mass media that craves and divides our attention, reality TV that increasingly scrapes the bottom of the barrel for shock value and ratings, and suspect role models made famous by the Internet, what is truly important to us? What gives us meaning? What do we relate to? How do we now define ourselves? Alex Hamilton's Cast & Crew exhibition presents 1000 icons of our modern times, from artists and musicians to politicians, media stars, and religious figures, and asks us to decide for ourselves.

Icons in the Cast & Crew exhibitionAlex Hamilton's Cast & Crew is an exhibition of 1000 (and counting) pop-culture icons, each individually represented as an intricate stencilled image on a 7x10.5cm painted wooden block. The icons represent, among others, musicians, architectural wonders, cartoon characters, filmmakers, artists, film and TV characters, porn stars, politicians, and religious iconography. The exhibition features a mix of internationally recognisable figures and, more intimately, icons that may only be meaningful to South Africans and relevant to our heritage.

Yet Cast & Crew has also been a personal journey for Alex and its titles reflects this. In his words, "Cast & Crew refers to the fact that the icons in this exhibition have had, directly or indirectly, an enormous influence on my life and many others' lives. For me it feels as though they have been part of the process for a long time and they have shaped the exhibition to its current form. Therefore, they are the cast and crew that supported me in realising this show."

In addition to being an exhibition of contemporary culture, Cast & Crew is also a commercial art project in the sense that Alex is making a limited edition of 10 of each of the icons in the exhibition available for purchase. If someone is still interested in a particular icon once it has been sold out he will source a new image and create a new stencil and block, starting the process all over again. Visitors have also been able to nominate icons that weren't included as part of the original 1000 as new additions to the collection, and a few have already been added to the exhibition, including likenesses of politician Winston Churchill and musician Tom Waits. The whole nomination process makes the process quite interactive and organic.

As you enter Alex's studio and catch sight of the exhibition for the first time, the vast number of blocks can seem overwhelming and it's difficult to decide where to start. It's best not to think about it too much and rather just to dive right in. The more you walk around the more fascinating it becomes, not only due to what each icon may represent for you (or not, in some cases), but because everyone's opinions differ so vastly. Some prefer the fuzzier stencilled images over the crisper ones, others are fascinated by the colours and the icons almost become irrelevant, others still are focussed solely on the icons and their relevance in our culture.

The process is addictive. You find yourself mentally comparing colours, co-ordinating blocks into a sequence that has meaning for you based on profession or tint or something intangible that only has meaning to you, or you start determining how to arrange them to fit a spare spot on your lounge wall, or reflecting on certain icons as you consider choosing them as gifts, or trying to resist buying more than you had set out to because you will run out of wall space (or money). Just when you think you're finished, you find yourself consulting the reference sheets to double-check the number of a block or to look up just one more icon, and the whole process starts all over again as you start re-evaluating your choices, rethinking your options, and mentally playing with your personal sense of culture. You miss icons, again and again, only to discover them finally, and in amazement, on a fourth or fifth viewing. Eventually it becomes too much, and you have to force yourself to stop because time has flown by as you've been immersed in this 7x10.5 world that is an intimate reflection of you, and yet, also, a whole collection of iconography to which you attribute no meaning at all.

It's exhausting, yet fascinating, though choices you have not made will haunt you for days to come.

Cast & Crew Exhibition Panorama, Cape Town, South Africa, by Mandy J Watson on Flickr

I recently spoke to Alex about the project, his process of choosing and creating the icons, and the public's reaction to the exhibition.

MJW: I thought I would jump straight into this interview with the question that is probably on most people's minds but which they may be too polite to ask: is this art, or is this capitalising on commercialism, or is this copyright infringement?

AH: Well yes, perhaps, not really!

Art is defined as expression through skill and concept, so I would say, yes, these works definitely qualify as regards to expressing a concept (our obsession with the celebrity cult) and skill (very detailed cut stencils).

This exhibition is about popular culture and this definitely includes commercialism. Perhaps tapping into today's cult of commercialism is just a reflection of our society. Seeing that my exhibition explores our obsession with celebrity, fashion, film, music, and popular culture in general it is totally relevant as a statement... and being a suffering artist is so last century!

These works are appropriated from material, photographic and other, collected from a big variety of sources. In the process of cutting stencils they change from one medium to another and therefore become a completely new image. There is a huge difference between the original image and the final stencil and I rely on my audience to recognise the faces because of their memory and the basic shapes, shadows and lines of the stencil. Appropriation is an widely acceptable medium in art and is applied to all mediums and genres.

MJW: Talk us through this process of selecting an icon and creating a stencil. Did thoughts of your potential audience influence your choices when you started?

AH: The process was very organic; no official Internet poll or consulting the most-searched celebrity. It started with my favourites: [silent-film star] Louise Brooks, Pam Grier, Josephine Baker, Madonna. I have been interested in popular culture since childhood so had a general idea of what categories I wanted to explore. I then started collecting images and, as I wanted the exhibition to be rich, layered and interesting, I started doing research into all the sub categories of popular culture. This resulted in lists that represented the who's who of each category rather than a list that represented the general platoon of famous people. Subsequently, this was an amazing process of discovery for me and really broadened my general knowledge. I am a curious person by nature and absolutely love research so this really suited me. The whole process was far more a personal journey than an official one.

I then took the images, manipulated them to suit my cutting technique and sized them to cut the stencil, using a scalpel-type cutting knife, into cardboard. This was by far the most physically demanding of the whole process and the most time consuming. Cutting the 1000 stencils took me nearly 14 months.

During this process of research I spoke to a lot of people about the project and if they mentioned someone that was not on the list I would look into the possibility and decide if it belongs in my exhibition. By doing this, I basically also did market research for the project and it became a lot more interactive. As this is a show about popular culture, marketing played a big part in the process. Even now, with the exhibition running, I allow people to nominate celebrities that I missed as to continue the process.

MJW: You have placed cross-referenced lists up on the wall, which are useful for those wanting to find a particular icon as they can search for its corresponding number on the exhibition wall, or for those liking a certain block but not being absolutely sure of which icon it's depicting. At the same time you are using these lists to indicate when a sale has been made as you are only producing 10 of each icon - but this also has an additional effect in that it's a very visual method, which results in a type of spontaneous research of people's interests. Have you noticed any patterns emerging, such as which icons or categories are popular and how it has changed over time?

AH: The list came about to try and stop confusion on our part while trying to sell basically 10 000 artworks. It was purely a logistical reference but we soon realised that it will also indicate buying patterns. This has now taken on a life of its own, almost like an installation social experiment as the excitement grows over which icon sells better than the others. Some favourites were clear from the beginning: Frida Kahlo, Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin and Buddha. What is surprising is the popularity of the cartoons; Tintin is outselling everybody else and Asterix and La Linea are also doing really well. I don't know if this reflects on society's current state of mind (escape reality, childhood nostalgia, "men will never grow up"?) or if I should actually try and analyse this with roughly 200 people as the audience, so far, but it is an interesting aspect of the exhibition ... and there will be a winner!

I also wanted the exhibition to be a bit educational and included people whose names are iconic but their faces are unknown. Guccio Gucci is a good example of this and I hope that some people will discover new icons that they did not know before. The list gives the audience an opportunity to expand their knowledge beyond just the visual aspect of the art.

MJW: We haven't mentioned colour yet, although that, arguably, is what people will notice long before they begin to be drawn to particular icons, and it can have a huge influence on a person's decision-making process. How did you determine what colours to use, why did you use such a wide variety of hues and tints (rather than a more restrained palette), and how did you decide on what colour to assign to each icon?

AH: I wanted the exhibition to hang together as a whole but also have the individual icons stand alone. I also wanted the exhibition to be rich on many levels and therefore went for a huge variety of colours symbolising the diversity of the subject matter. Colour can communicate on a much more immediate level than graphics or imagery, and the icons were often matched with a colour representing its "soul" more than trying to match the obvious colour choice. This was a much more organic process than I am making it out to be but it evolved into something that the audience can rather enjoy and not have to analyse, therefore leaving people's minds to focus on the stencils.

The colours also represent the pop aspect of the exhibition rather than making a sophisticated design statement. Popular culture can be very unsophisticated and I felt that should be part of the show if I was going to represent the full spectrum of pop culture and be true to its nature of being democratic rather than diplomatic. Popular culture appeals to all people, regardless of education, historic background or financial status and for me that is a true democratic characteristic. In some way, popular culture, as a global phenomenon, does not discriminate and is very inclusive of all opinions. For the exhibition, I wanted to be true to this and therefore did not include icons for a specific audience but rather for a wider public. That is how the traditionally "low culture" icons, such as Jackie Chan, [porn star] Ron Jeremy and The Crying Boy [a supposedly cursed mass-produced print of a painting by Italian painter Bruno Amadio], were included and they sit comfortably next to the "high culture" icons, such as Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn and Picasso.

For me, being diplomatic, artistically, is being considerate towards a specific audience, trying to play to a type or being influenced by the art establishment. If I had this to consider during the process of creating Cast & Crew I would have landed up with a very intellectual exhibition which, for me, does not reflect the true nature of popular culture.

Perhaps "diplomatic" is just the wrong word to use but the essence of the idea is that I tried to stay true to the diversity of pop culture and not over analyse and intellectualise it.

MJW: What has the general public's response been like? One can anticipate, to a degree, how friends and family are going to react, but people you don't know can bring a whole new perspective and energy to an exhibition.

AH: Most people who have come to the exhibition have had a great, positive response, and 90% have bought an icon or are still working on a purchase list, which is fantastic! At first glance a lot of people are totally overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the exhibition and they have to find a way in to explore the show. One person reacted to a specific icon by literally ripping it off the wall and clutching it to her heart. This was unusual for two reasons: it was an adult who did this and the icon was Hello Kitty. This kind of spontaneous reaction is quite rewarding for an artist as it indicates that I have obviously touched a nerve with my art ... even if it was Hello Kitty.

As this exhibition has been a very big part of my life for almost 18 months and the obsessive nature of the project allowed me to immerse myself in it completely; it is extremely rewarding to have such great response on so many levels. I was very worried about the final list of icons and about the names I had left off and expected people rather to fuss about who was not on the list rather than who was, but this has not been a problem for most people. I have also allowed the audience to participate by nominating icons I had not included and as a result I have already added a few new names to the exhibition. In the true obsessive nature of pop culture, I just can't stop!

MJW: So, what's next? Will this project just continue on as a pop-culture tidal wave or, since the exhibition officially ends at the end of this month, will you make the icons that people have ordered and then take an extended break? Are you iconned out or should we expect a Cast & Crew 2 in a few years' time?

AH: Absolutely! Cast & Crew, The Sequel sounds good to me! But this will probably only happen in a few years time. For now I would like to travel with this exhibition, filling in the gaps and taking it to a new audience in Johannesburg, then perhaps Amsterdam and who knows where else. I do think of this project as an organic journey rather than a once-off, complete entity. I also know that I will return to this theme again and again and, like the quintessential pop icon, Madonna, just reinvent it for a new generation. With a project such as this you have to pick up a few tips from the icons that rule the pop-culture world! Even though this was, believe it or not, by far the most physically challenging exhibition I have ever done, it was also the most fun and suited my curious and compulsive, obsessive personality very well.

I am already busy conceptualising a new exhibition for next year (I have never been able to focus only on one thing at a time), which will hopefully flow from this experience and will include more traditional painting techniques... but pop iconography will definitely be part of the overall theme... and, as you can probably conclude, I do not understand what you mean by "extended break"!

A Selection Of Icons In The Cast & Crew Exhibition Tintin The Statue Of Liberty Superman Tom Waits Madonna Winston Churchill Frida Kahlo Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones

Cast & Crew is exhibiting at the Alex Hamilton Art Studio in Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa, until the end of the month.

Key Facts
Address: Alex Hamilton Art Studio, 2nd Floor, Back Building, Woodstock Industrial Centre, 66-68 Albert Road, Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa
Duration: 5 November 2008 to 29 November 2008
Opening Times:
Monday to Friday: 09:00 to 16:00
Saturday: by appointment
Open evenings: Fridays 7, 14, and 21 November, 17:00 to 21:00
Contact Number: +27 21 447 2396

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