Interview: James Birkin

James Birkin is an artist who focuses on the architecture in his hometown city of Coventry. The Raccoon speaks to him about how he got interested in the subject, upcoming exhibitions, and just how silly Coventy City Council have been.


Hey James, tell us a little bit about yourself as a person and as an artist.
I am quite an observant person so my art often reflects what I see around me. Architecture and the urban environment has always been an interest of mine and my fascination with history and how places used to look is apparent in my work too. I would say I am a perfectionist, which good when you are an artist as you constantly aim to do better with each piece of work you make, but also bad at the same time as you can look back at work you did in the past and think its rubbish. I suppose that is just part of being an artist.
You focus heavily on urban neglect, when did you first become interested in it?
It is strange really as I became interested in it just as Coventry pulled down a lot of its derelict buildings so I essentially missed out on a lot of opportunities to photograph more different places. I know that contradicts my observant persona but at the time it never occurred to me back then that I could use these buildings in my work. The thought never crossed my mind to enter the buildings either which I regret. There are very few derelict buildings left in the local area so using the Mustard Nightclub, the last substantial unaltered building in town was a great place to focus on.
What mediums do you prefer to work in?
I have always worked in Acrylic paint as I find this really simple and easy to use. The vibrant colours also add a certain graphic like quality to the work as it can be applied with precision to create sharp images. I also work in pencil and biro when I produce drawings. I would like to venture into using Oil paint but at the moment I’m comfortable using Acrylic.
Who would you say your main influences are?
My main influences are Second World War artists such as John Piper as he painted buildings that were endangered during the bombing raids. He was an artist that recorded what he saw around him at that time, which is a lot like what I do now. I am sure everyone is familiar with his work; his famous painting of the bombed Coventry Cathedral is a piece that everyone would know him for. I have been inspired by George Shaw as his paintings immediately captured my attention. They are produced with such skill and finesse and the colours he uses are unlike any other artist looking at the urban landscape. I would say he inspired me to take this route and I am glad as I feel a true engagement with this subject. Dexter Dalwood is an influence, mainly due to the precise interior paintings and similar colour palette.
How do you go about finding an area of urban decay, is it a case of wandering around until you find somewhere or do you spend time researching it?
Like I said, Coventry has a limited number of abandoned places left as the council have pulled them all down. The last substantial building is the Mustard Nightclub. This is a building that I always walked past but it never registered in my mind what it was or even if it was possible to get inside. All of a sudden it just sprang into my head and I managed to get inside and I became fascinated with it.Looking back now I can’t understand how I never noticed it before as it has had such a profound effect on the direction my work has taken. Once I move on from this building as a subject matter I will have to travel further afield to photograph anymore buildings. Or I could just stumble upon another somewhere like with Mustard so you never know.

There is a place I would like to photograph it is just a case of ensuring it isn’t guarded by huge dogs or security vans! In terms of my work continuing with the dereliction theme I am unsure of its lifespan. ‘Urban decay’ or ‘decay’ in general was a cliché topic whilst I was at University so if I do pursue this I would like to ensure my work remains individual.

Is it just Coventry that you’ve looked at, or have you explored other cities or even other countries as well?
Yes at the moment I have only looked at Coventry. It is definitely time for me to move further afield in terms of collecting imagery. I think there are still a few places that I can look at in Coventry but in the long term I will need to branch out. Whilst in Greece I was interested in the abandoned concrete frameworks of buildings that were unfinished so I would say I have looked abroad for ideas to an extent.

What mistakes do you think council planners have made in the past, and do you think those same mistakes are being made again and again?

Coventry Council planners in particular have made dreadful and unforgivable mistakes and ruined a once fine city. Only a handful of their ventures have been a success.  The Blitz started it but the council ensured it was dead and buried in the years after. Coventry pre 1940 was considered one of the finest examples of a Medieval city in Europe; now look at the state of it.The mistake wasn’t in the rebuilding of the city after the war as this could not have been helped. The precinct is a product of its time like any form of architecture. It was cutting edge in its day but it has been butchered and altered so much over the years that it is nothing like it was originally intended. The mistake was the clearing away of buildings that survived the war either in replacement of a car park or part of the ring road.

For an old building to have survived the architectural butchery of the 1950s in Coventry is an achievement. On the site of Pool Meadow bus station there was a huge Victorian Gothic style art school that survived but was demolished in the 50s. There was an Opera House next to the Old Grammar School on Hales Street demolished in the 60s where now stands Benny’s Chicken Shop and a Slot Machine arcade with no architectural merit.

I personally feel a huge grievance at the way in which this city has turned out. History and character was wiped out and now there is nothing left to clear away. Even as recently as 2002 a huge art deco Hippodrome Theatre, a Coventry landmark that stood where Millennium place is now was demolished for a couple of metal arches and a light up world clock which has subsequently been ripped up by the council. This was an iconic building that was still used, albeit as a bingo hall but still used, until the council forced Gala out. Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Laurel and Hardy, The Rolling Stones, all acts that graced the stage of the theatre, and the council felt it was worthy of being replaced by a clock, words fail me.

In terms of the mistakes being made again, it is a topic of speculation. Getting into the mindset of the planners of the 1950s it is hard to understand that they thought an old timber framed medieval cottage or row of shops was an impractical mess whereas now we look at it with fascination and conserve them. Attitudes have changed in the way we view old buildings to a degree. I wonder if people will look back on today in the next 60 years when a lot of the precinct will be replaced by the new development (starting around 2015) and think that it looked better in the past or whether that form of architecture will just be forgotten about and learnt from.I suppose Coventry hasn’t got a lot of old buildings left to choose from so it is now forced to look after those that remain. Mustard is one of the last old buildings in the city centre to be cleared away if the development actually happens.

When you focus on a building for a long time, as you have done with Mustard Nightclub, is a sense of personal attachment created?
Yes in a way I think it is. It is all part of the experience of entering the place which in turn generates a personal attachment. My observations from the place are all captured in the work so it feels quite personal as it reflects what I felt and saw. I will be sad to see the place be demolished as it is another old building that has succumbed to the bulldozer. I suppose things just have to move on if nobody has the money to save it.

Have you got any shows or exhibitions coming up?

Yes I will be showing a couple of my paintings from the Mustard Nightclub series in Free Range, plus the video that I found inside the building on the first visit showing a night at the club in 2000 will be shown. The exhibition opens on Thursday 27th June at the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, London. It runs through until Sunday. So come along on the 27th at 6pm and have a few drinks and see a huge variation of artwork from graduates.
And finally…when we finally get round to designing and building our own office for The Raccoon, how can we make sure it stands the test of time?
All I can say is don’t clear away a landmark building to construct Racoon HQ, other than that use a lot of glass as that doesn’t seem to look as bad as a concrete tower block. Time will tell.
balcony view

To find out more about James and his work head to his personal website.


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