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Global Model Village

A conversation with Slinkachu on his international street installations

by James Thorne
on 28 September 2012

A de facto ambassador for "little people," London-based Slinkachu delights passersby with diminutive scenes left in unexpected locales. From dunking basketball players and magic carpet riders to hanged men and lonely brides, Slinkachu's tableaus show off the many faces of the human condition. The quick-witted artist has been doing some traveling recently, and is celebrating with a book and two solo exhibitions, collectively titled "Global Model Village."

Many will know Slinkachu from "Little People," the blog that has acted as home to the artist's work since 2006. What began as an anonymous project has turned into an instantly recognizable cult phenomenon, and "Slink" now finds himself attracting crowds in Berlin when he goes to erect and photograph a scene. Recently, we had the chance to speak with Slinkachu about his evolution and the art of abandonment.

You've been placing these figures in urban centers for around six years now. How has the work changed?

When I started, I was much more interested in the act of leaving the figures on the streets, rather than incorporating any aspect of storytelling in to the process, or even in the photography itself. Pretty quickly I realized the potential for some kind of narratives in the installations and this in turn got me hooked on the photography aspect. I think over the years I have got much better at the photography itself—I literally taught myself how to use a camera as I went along—and the installations have become more ambitious and more polished. I try hard to give the figures and the images emotion and a story below the surface, while still getting humor across. And of course, recently the location work has evolved. In the past, most of the figures have been left in London, but the new work involved traveling to many other cities around the world.

There is an element of humor in the work, but there is also a dark side. Do you ever grow attached to the figures and worry what may become of them?

I have never been attached to the figures. If anything, it is the opposite. I like the idea of "abandoning" the characters. I have always been interested in exploring the ways in which people can get swallowed up in big cities and how often we can feel anonymous and alone amongst millions of other people. For me, the figures have to be left on the street and I prefer not to know what happens to them, whether they are found and taken or overlooked and destroyed. It ties some of the messages in the images directly to the reality of what happens to the figures themselves. I have had a few people email me in the past though, having found some of the little people. One person even stuck the character back after she had been knocked over!

When traveling to new locations, do you create models to fit that environment?

Many of the themes of the installations are universal, but I do make a conscious effort to craft the figures to fit their environment. For instance, an installation in Stuttgart featured a miniature version of the ubiquitous German wurst stall, but in this instance passing off rat droppings as sausages. In Cape Town, South Africa, I visited a township called Khayelitsha which has a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS and many people in poverty find access to medicine difficult. In this case, I placed a tiny mother and child, the woman carrying 'giant' retroviral drugs on her head.* The environments are always important to me, but in many cases cities look very similar wherever you are around the globe. As I make all the miniatures in advance, I often research what the small differences are, especially in street architecture. For instance, in London we have red pillar boxes as post boxes, but in Moscow the post boxes are blue and set in to the wall. These kinds of things can change how I make the figures.

How do the figures and settings come to be? Are they bought, found or made by hand?

I use plastic train set figures on a 1:87 scale. Most of them are made by a German company called Preiser, which I then modify to create the characters that I need. This usually involves cutting up the figures and reposing them or perhaps swapping body parts with other figures, sculpting new elements on to the bodies and then painting them. The props I use are a mixture of items I find on the street, things I make from scratch or things I source from eBay and other sites.

One of the things you do in every situation is re-appropriate space. Do you consciously work to confuse expectations and rattle spectators when they come upon a forgotten corner of the world?

The figures aren't placed specifically to be found, and in some in many cases they are almost hidden. But some of the installations are more noticeable than others so there is a good chance that eagle-eyed people will spot them. There is definitely an element of my work that is about the surprise of finding something unexpected, a world that usually goes unseen. We are often wrapped up in our own thoughts when we are out in a city. We tend to avoid eye contact with others, we have our headphones on and we don't pay much attention to the world around us. So I hope that my work could sometimes jerk people out of their world. I think that all my favorite urban art works in the same kind of way. I hope that even just the concept of my work will get people looking at the city and the world around them in a different way. What other secret things are we overlooking? What other dramas are going on around us while we have our eyes glued to our iPhones while we are commuting?

How do you see the relationship between the life-sized people and the models? Are they fringe characters trying to survive in our world, or are we an oversized inconvenience in the world they think they dominate?

I think the characters are a mixture of both. I see the figures as archetypes a lot of the time. They can stand in for real people that we might know or even us ourselves and their problems are analogies for the problems that we have on a day-to-day basis. The differences in scale can just emphasize things.

It seems like one of the unanimous reactions to your work is that it makes people feel a lot less lonely. Does that help spur you to continue creating?

It is nice to hear that my work can make people feel less lonely! As one of the ongoing themes of my work is loneliness, I do hope that reflecting some of those feelings can actually have the reverse effect.

Ironically, one of the problems of doing this kind of project is that I now work on my own a lot. I used to work as a creative in an office environment and now I am in my studio alone or out on the streets alone in cities that I am unfamiliar with (unless my girlfriend comes along with me to keep me company!). I only get to meet people who like my work occasionally, at shows or street events, so I try and make the most of it when I can. One of the most rewarding things for me is when I meet people or receive emails from people who have been inspired by my own work to do something creative themselves. I believe quite strongly that people can make connections with others through art and I think that my own work is most successful when people feel that they can empathize with the characters in the installations. Perhaps seeing that the little people are a lot like us can make us feel less alone after all.

*In conjunction with the exhibitions, a print of "Balancing Act" will being sold through the galleries with proceeds going to benefit the AIDS/HIV effort in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township.

The Andipa Gallery
27 September - 27 October 2012
162 Walton Street, London, SW3 2JL

Broome Street Gallery
3 October - 7 October 2012
498 Broome Street, New York, NY 10013

Images of the book by James Thorne. Portraits courtesy of the artist.

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