Swiss artist James Bantone is obsessed with perception

Following his collaboration with UGG, James talks us through his new exhibition from Milan Design Week.

How can I get a good grade without doing much?” says James Bantone, when I ask him about how he first got into art. All’s well that ends well, though: what started out as him messing around in his secondary school photography class eventually manifested into a fully-fledged career as an artist. “[Photography] was my first artistic language, and somehow my teacher really believed in me.”

James has come a long way since then, making a name for himself as a multidisciplinary artist who works across sculpture, photography and video. Last week, he was invited by UGG to show his work as part of Spazio Maiocchi, Milan’s prestigious art fair, in honour of the city’s Design Week.

Titled If you (see me, see me, see me), James’ installation explores the blurred lines between what constitutes private” and public” images; how perception works from the outside looking in, and vice-versa. The 31-year-old has long been an obsessive consumer of found photographs, often finding the context they’re taken in more interesting than the images themselves. Visually, the UGG collab felt like an extension of his pre-existing work.

When we started to [collaborate], one of the main things that sparked my attention was that there was the opportunity to have a billboard in the city,” he says. This billboard, which is up in all its glory in the Porta Venezia area of Milan, replicates one of James’ pieces in the exhibition: a metalwork sculpture featuring a combination of mannequin and human legs intertwined on a sofa, against a backdrop of textured steel panels.

I like that the image is becoming very abstract and kind of decomposing itself,” says James, who was heavily inspired by fading remnants of larger-than-life street advertisements for the exhibition. The show ends with a reflective wall, allowing for an interactive space for visitors to be reminded that they are currently being perceived, too. The exhibition explores themes of identity, which James has long been obsessed with.

It took me a very long time to consider myself as an artist. I’ve always had the feeling that I’m not doing enough or that I’m not a real artist somehow”

Born and raised in Geneva, in 2010 James moved to New York, alone, at the age of 17. Before this, his dreams of being an artist had still felt out of reach. It actually took me a very long time to consider myself as an artist,” he says. I’ve always had the feeling that I’m not doing enough or [that] I’m not a real artist somehow. Maybe [it was] because of a lack of representation at the time in Switzerland.”

In New York, he became part of a more diverse community, and he fondly remembers feeling a new sense of freedom. That was the first time that I was travelling so far without my parents [and] it sounds very naive, but it was also the first time I was living in a place with such a high percentage of people of colour.”

James became friends with cult musician Mykki Blanco, slowly finding his feet in a scene that helped him cement his interest in art, and then helped him to envision it as a proper career. He found an affinity for sculpting after switching his studies from photography to fine art at the Zurich University of the Arts, where he graduated in 2019. Now, he’s based between New York and Paris, and is still somewhat influenced by some of his earlier work, such as sculptures wearing silicone masks and mannequins inspired by his own body’s movements.

However, as time has passed, James has stripped away markers of his own identity little-by-little – from faces to items of clothing, leaving his trademark mannequins looking shy of the ones we see on window displays. Identifying himself as an artist of colour within his work is now less appealing. I felt like at some point there was some hypocrisy, somehow, or [that] I was being used for [a] narrative and I wanted to detach myself from it.

I want people [to walk away with] an idea of boldness [in self-identity] – but in the sense of you can be anyone you want to be, and not take it too seriously as well.”

More like this

The best of THE FACE. Straight to your inbox. 

00:00 / 00:00