This article was originally published on Hungertv.com in March 2015…
[T]oday marks the opening of Nick Waplington’s new exhibition at the Tate Britain, a collaborative art project with the late Alexander McQueen. First realised as a photo book, Working Process takes viewers into the extraordinary world of the legendary designer, going behind the scenes of McQueen’s iconic AW09 collection and show, Horn of Plenty.
Waplington was commissioned by McQueen in 2008 (Lee was a fan of his Living Room series) to document the creation of his final autumn/winter collection, which was considered a retrospective of Lee’s career, given that it reused certain silhouettes and fabrics from prior collections and bits of set from previous shows.
Drawing on the concepts explored in the collection, Waplington presents the photographs of McQueen and his team at work alongside conceptual images of landfill sites in East London. For many, both the collection and the photographic series documenting it, draw on the throwaway nature of creativity today, and the cycle of the fashion industry.
On the day that the exhibition opens, we photographed Nick at his London studio and had a quick chat about McQueen’s legacy and why he’ll never collaborate with a designer again.
What, in your opinion, makes this series an art project, rather than just a behind-the-scenes documentary series?
After I had made the “working” pictures I made these more conceptual images of recycling plants and landfill sites, which I used as a kind of intervention within the body of work to try and change the dynamic of the work from a series representational documentary to a more conceptually-based art project.
Was the concept behind the collection what you were drawn to most, rather than the physicality of the clothes?
Yeah. I don’t really have any interest in fashion, but the kind of ideas that Lee was trying to put forward were either surreal or a tongue-in-cheek joke. I took those ideas and ran with them a little bit, to try and bring the work closer to something that I would consider my own. And he [Lee] was happy with that. We wanted it to be something that took the art book/the photo book in a new direction. That was what we were after really, in the end. And that’s why it’s ended up in the Tate [Britain] as opposed to anywhere else. They seem to be very happy with it, which is good.
You were granted unprecedented access behind the scenes. Why do you think he trusted you? Do you think other photographers in your position might have taken advantage of Lee’s openness?
No, I think that’s kind of the wrong question. I think because he knew me and we had a personal friendship, he was able to trust me. He knew that he could trust me to get the work done, and he didn’t feel inhibited around me. I had a track record, and he knew I could do it. I don’t think it was a project that was for anyone else; it was either I was going to do it and it was going to happen, or it wouldn’t have happened at all.
The series contributes to the way in which we look back on Lee’s legacy. Do you feel like you've been given a certain level of responsibility that you weren't expecting?
Of course. He was a bit of a practical joker and I can imagine, if there was an after life, he’s probably up there now laughing at me having to deal with his legacy, which is something I never expected, and am not really that keen on doing. But I will do it to the best of my ability from now on.
What elements of Lee’s character do you think this series celebrates in particular?
There was a kind of happiness to the whole thing that year – hopefully that comes across in the work somehow. Other than that I think it’s a good [example of], to a certain extent, from a number of different angles, the idea of finite resources and the idea of infinite growth of fuels… Western Capitalism… No one’s come up with any other ideas yet, and someone needs to think of something soon, or we’re all going to be in trouble. It’s a comment on that.
Did your take on the Horn of Plenty collection change after Lee's death? Did you read into the themes differently?
No, not really. To be honest, no. I don’t think his work had to do with what happened. I don’t see that. If other people do, that’s there interpretation. But I don’t see it like that.
Many interpret the collection as symbolising the throwaway nature of creativity. The cycle of fashion. Is this the same in the worlds of art and photography?
Certainly not the case in my existence; I work on projects over many years. I’m not involved in the gallery system that a lot of young artists are. They’re pushed to make these works that can be put in a suitcase and taken round to lots of different art fairs. I’m not involved in that at all. I see myself very much operating outside of the system, but with a degree of success. I don’t have a commercial gallery. And I’m one person showing at the Tate, that’s a very unusual situation to be in.
Besides the fact he worked in a different discipline, watching Lee, how did his process compare and contrast with your own?
Well I work alone! And he has a large team of people working for him – that was the major difference. I sometimes have one assistant doing odd jobs for me. Today I’m here in the studio working by myself again, that’s my normal life. I just do what I can do in a day. I work very long days and I work seven days a week. What gets done gets done. There’s no team of people here running around helping me. That enables me to move around a lot, which I need to do for my work. I can decide to go to Los Angeles tonight if I want to. I can just go to the airport and get on a plane and go. And I often do that type of thing. I like freedom!
Because you do work in that way, was it strange working so closely with someone when you and Lee were editing the project?
No, no. It was enjoyable. It’s always good to work with other people and see how they work. I’ve done a number of collaborations that I’ve enjoyed over the years, and that was definitely the case working with him. I really liked having him here at the studio, going through everything together. I’m hoping to do some more collaborations in the future.
Could you ever see yourself working with a fashion designer again?
Oh no, I would never do anything with fashion again. No chance! That’s done. I want to work with other artists. Fashion is commercial, it’s about selling clothes. Making money doesn’t interest me; I’m interested in making art – it’s a different thing. I’m not Murakami and I’m not going to have Nick Waplington t-shirts and mugs and onesies for sale in six months time. That’s not going to happen. I’m happy doing what I do. I’ve been very fortunate to get to make the work that I have and carry on doing it – it’s not always easy.
Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process is currently on show at the Tate Britain until the 17th May.