We meet the sculptor behind the unzipped building that has been the talk of Milan Design Week 2019.

Alex Chinneck Wonderland
Alex Chinneck Wonderland

In true Christopher Nolan’s Inception-style craziness, British sculptor Alex Chinneck captured the attention of Milan Design Week 2019 with his surreal “unzipping” building in the middle of Milan’s Tortona District. Chinneck’s bold combination of architecture, art and theatre was created for smoke-free innovators IQOS, in an exhibition titled “World Revealed.” Inside the space, a section of the floor was also unzipped, with the space behind emitting a hypnotic light – and the same again on an internal wall in the next room.

We talked to Chinneck about his installation, why his work stands out, and what is next for him.

When did you first become interested in sculpting?
Throughout art school my practise slowly transitioned from being that of a painter to that of a sculptor. I became passionate about discovering new materials, new processes and the creative possibilities that they generate.

Was there ever an art form you wanted to explore instead?
The honest answer is that I would have loved to be a painter but I ran out of things to paint. One benefit of sculptural practice is that new possibilities are constantly emerging in line with developments in industry and architecture.

What inspires your work?
I enjoy presenting the every day world in an extraordinary way. Like most artists, I also make work to be seen and hopefully enjoyed by as many people as possible. By developing a specialism for making large scale, outdoor sculptures, I’m fortunate to be given an incredible opportunity to reach a large number of people – nowhere more so than at Milan Design Week. Through this project we have also started to explore new ways of encouraging interaction with the artwork and creating a sense of real immersion, which is an interesting new challenge for me.

What would be your favourite sculpture you’ve ever created?
I’m excited by the work that we’ve created for Milan. For the first time, we’ve made an installation that goes beyond a single sculpture. It also represents new territory for me in terms of working with abstract colour, sound and illumination and introducing an element of interactivity to the work. If I had to pick another, it would be my first work. This was called ‘Telling the truth through false teeth’ where we created 312 identically smashed and cracked windows using 1,248 pieces of glass. It has a special place in my heart because it was my first public artwork. I also think it achieved a brilliant balance of sculptural spectacle and visual subtlety.

Alex Chinneck Wonderland
Alex Chinneck Wonderland

How do you make sure your work stands out amongst other sculptors?
Monumental ambition.

How has your approach to work changed since you started?
My work has become far more collaborative, both through necessity and as my preferred way of working. Ambition generates the ideas but collaboration delivers them. In the past year, we have also begun to create indoor sculptures that speak the same visual language as my public artworks. For instance, we have made a grandfather clock seemingly tied in a knot and this offers the same illusory flexibility as my bending buildings.

You’ve teamed up with IQOS World for a new collaboration. Can you tell us how this partnership began?
We were invited to Milan to meet members of the IQOS team 11 weeks ago, with a view to collaborating on Milan Design Week and creating an artwork that resonated with their product and my practise. The IQOS device shares a curving fluidity of form with many of my sculptures. We also share an interest in changing people’s perceptions of what is possible. As soon as we started talking and saw the site that had been secured for the Fuorisalone, I think we were all struck by the scale of the opportunity and eager to make the most of it. Following on from that, we were thrilled to be invited to present the results of our collaboration at Milan Design Week – our first time working in Italy and a wonderful opportunity to present our work on an truly international stage to a global audience of artists, designers and architects.

It’s about “the future seen from three different angles.” Can you tell us what this means to you and how you translated that into your art?
We began by creating a completely new facade for two buildings, in keeping with local architecture and complete with stone quoins which ‘unzip’ to reveal an ethereal light emanating from within. Inside the buildings, two further interventions unzip the concrete floor and stone walls. All three artworks share the same narrative of unzipping, bending in seemingly impossible ways, and revealing a coloured ethereal light. While the exterior is fatigued, in keeping with its surroundings, and the interiors are true to the buildings’ industrial past, the vast illuminated ‘portals’ opened up by the zips create a sense of contrast and hopefully a sense of positivity and potential, which I associate with the future.

Alex Chinneck Wonderland
Alex Chinneck Wonderland

What can we expect from the collaboration?
For IQOS World, we’ve intentionally conceived and created an artwork that takes audiences on a journey and offers them the opportunity, for the first time, to be physically immersed in the work. We live in an increasingly digital age where art is often experienced on screen. While social media acts as a fantastic mechanism for widening reach and awareness, sculpture is best experienced in person. By inviting visitors to not only walk around the work but to go inside it and to literally picture themselves in the world that we have created, we encourage as many people as possible to experience it in real life.

How did you approach the “three different angles”?
The facade is a response to the architectural language of the region while the interior spaces respond to the buildings’ former use as a factory. They all tell the same story but in slightly different ways. Every public artwork that we produce is contextually responsive, so the work is tuned to the characteristics of the place in which is stands. This lends it a heightened sense of belonging and increases the believability of the illusion that we work very hard to create. It also means that every sculpture we create is unique which, as my work becomes better known, maintains an element of surprise.

What do you hope people take away from the collab?
I hope that people leave feeing uplifted, astounded and with a sense of optimism for the future.

What are you working on next?
My practise is broadening in ideas, materials, processes and, increasingly, locations. I’m particularly excited to be developing an international portfolio of projects, which is one of the reasons that I’m so pleased to have partnered with IQOS for Milan Design Week. We are currently working on perhaps ten large artworks, including a major public artwork for Mumbai, but at present all our energy and attention is focused on revealing IQOS World.