Queen Marzipan, her pale face framed by a diaphanous tiara, stares defiantly into the camera, rouged lips slightly parted. On her right shoulder there sits a candied cherry in a shot glass, a shocking splash of scarlet against her albescent body. Her naked torso is fragile, flesh clinging to the outline of bone and muscle, taut skin the colour of pale almonds. A plastic coat hanger dangles from an egg-shaped protrusion on her clavicle; from which hang suspended a pair of false eyelashes, splayed and brittle like spiders’ legs. A square of gold foil skims her stomach and perched, impossibly, on this vertiginous surface is a cupcake, thick with jade icing and a single black decoration, circular, occupying the position of her navel.
‘Every object that adorns their sinewy figures has symbolic value; every queen has her own regal story’, wrote Eyemazing magazine in 2009, in a feature dedicated to the photographic project ’13 Queens’ by Alex Gertschen and Felix Meier, or ‘AlexandFelix’, as they are more commonly known. Described as ‘an intriguing gallery of flamboyantly dressed dignitaries’ by the photographers, the project is an attempt to cultivate attention to detail in the viewer, to pitch them into unfamiliar worlds filled with everyday objects ‘staged in an unexpected way beyond recognition’. Queen Spoon, for example, carries two pieces of toast on her shoulders and a rack of cotton buds poised above her ribcage, while the white breasts of Queen Tin are almost entirely hidden by two sardine cans. AlexandFelix call these the ‘insignia of power’. The more the viewer contemplates the picture, they suggest, ‘the less obvious becomes the queen in its midst; the magic emanates from the details, from the reinterpreted use of objects and from the desire to find even more magical ornaments’.
Such attention to detail and fascination with reinterpreting the quotidian is typical of the work of the pair, who met and began working together in 1996 in Switzerland. Alex studied silversmithing and photography at the Art School of Berne, while Felix worked in graphic design and photography at the School of Lucerne; their combined backgrounds enable them to create rich visual universes, informed by their everyday experiences: ‘Everything around us is a source of inspiration,’ they note. ‘Songs, football games, shop windows – it’s like a sponge!’
It’s a successful formula, as they have had numerous magazine features and worldwide exhibitions, and won the Hasselblad Masters award in the Fine Art category in 2009. Their influence stretched to Paris Fashion Week in 2012, when designer Juun.J showcased a series of men’s sweatshirts bearing images from ’13 Queens’ on the catwalk. The duo never rely on computers for their elaborate, surrealist scenes, but are dedicated to building sets themselves: a process that begins with sketches and progresses to timbering, constructing and painting. These ‘multi-textured backgrounds’, they suggest, ‘never give the impression of being artificial but rather radiate with their immediacy’. Sets are complex – some requiring up to 6000 light bulbs and three days to build – and place emphasis on creating an ‘explosion of colors’, a ‘unique atmosphere’ that relies heavily on the use of makeup and props.
AlexandFelix aim to encourage and nurture ‘careful observation.’ Such is the ethos behind the two projects ‘Under Construction’ and ‘Behind’, their titles hinting at a preoccupation with facade. ‘Behind’ features a series of profile shots in which the figures are darkened almost into obscurity; what stands out is the iridescent ‘mask’ painted onto each face, its ragged white contours clearly visible, confirming its status as elaborately painted artifice. In ‘Under Construction’, inspired by tourist attractions ‘where you look through a viewfinder to become an astronaut or captain’, the whitewashed faces are surrounded by objects – perfume bottles, false teeth, doilies, teacups, pills, dolls’ heads – all painstakingly arranged in complex haloes that demand your eye linger and attempt to make sense of the chaos.
San Antonio Current admired the ‘unknowable symbols’, the ‘personal codex’ of the manufactured worlds created by the photographers. In fact, AlexandFelix suggest, there is no single interpretive codex that can decipher the symbols of their work; rather, the meaning of each piece is personal to each individual viewer. They liken their work to a mirror: ‘everybody is looking for a unique perspective, a personal angle, the frame and depth. You give yourself and your surrounding meaning and direction, you arrange views, attitudes and you structure what you see according to your own parameters’.
With their surreal, aesthetically engaging designs, AlexandFelix challenge both the conventions of modern photography and what it means to view a work of art. This, they suggest, is the ultimate goal of their work, our ‘aim is neither to criticize nor to moralize. But careful observation is encouraged to develop one’s very own look at the world.’
By Elly McCausland