Alastair Thain


Born in Dusseldorf in 1961 at the height of the Cold War at the moment in history when mankind came closest to universal suicide through the deployment of atomic weapons. Thain's creative evolution was determined by world events and his personal relationships with many artists and thinkers, the most influential of whom was Joseph Beuys. Whose social healing, egalitarian, social, environmental, and political concerns, are more relevant now than ever. Following Beuys’s example Thain began to make work that originated in personal experience, that however sought to address universal, political, social and humanitarian issues.

Between 1980 - 2001 Thain travelled extensively, participating in the New York art scene of the early eighties. He made the last portrait of Andy Warhol, and was with Stephen Hawkins when he announced that “There was no need for a god to create the universe.” He witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and the aftermath of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. 

Wanting to use the opportunities he had been given, to make work that was a vector for empathy. Thain sought to make work that connected the viewer with the experiences of individuals he was photographing. To achieve the results he was seeking Thain designed and built some of the most advanced film cameras ever made, and produced spontaneous, highly reactive portraits, that captured the emotional states of his subjects, with unprecedented scale, depth, and power.

Thain observed how remarkably similar the people he met all over the world were in their basic psychology, and their universal aspirations for fairness, kindness, and friendship. However he encountered many instances when the people he met were swept up in events, that were not of their making and beyond their control. The origins of the positive and negative changes in the ‘collective consciousness’  of the societies he was observing, and the joys and  tragedies he witnessed, were clearly caused by patterns of behaviour, that appeared to  be engendered by similar myths, beliefs, and imperatives, in all the places he visited.

Thain became increasingly aware of the deficits in the nature of mass representation of empathy he encountered. The mode that the construction of the descriptive narratives of news events are filtered with narcissistic distortions of reality, and combinations of denial, fallacious arguments, lies and repression. Thain  became highly conscious of the limitations of his practice. By simply recording and presenting the real world consequences of the empathy defects he had witnessed, he was failing to meaningfully engage the audience of his work with insights into their origins.  Thain realised to make work that could function as a catalyst, to challenge the underpinning causes of the empathy defects he had witnessed, He would need to develop a radically different methodology. 

In response  to the limitations of his previous practice Thain started The 10 Studies of Love and Everyday Cruelty (A manifesto for empathy) a series of works that engaged with the questions that were raised by his experiences. Why does the empathy we feel for each other collapse so catastrophically? How do we enhance the empathy we feel for those we perceive and labels as ‘other’? What are the mechanisms in the human brain that generate self-serving delusions, and how do these delusional constructs  become vectors for diminishing the wellbeing of others? Why do insignificant culturally engendered aspects identity,  become widely used to describe the attributes of entire groups when every encounter  confirms that individuals can only be understood on the basis of their own merits? What is the best way to moderate our most harmful desires? Why do we abhor violence on an individual level and eulogise it when carried out at a group level? What aspects of cognition, determine the shifting balance between spite and altruism, in our societies? Will the  success or failure of our species be determined by our ability to comprehend the effects of our actions on others?

The multi-media works engage their audience with dialogues concerning the social construction of empathy, and its deficits, by combining the cognitive sciences, social psychology, structural anthropology, and philosophy with Thain’s  records, personal memories, video and visual images. The works highlight the crucial role that the arts, can perform in our societies, because of  the possibilities within them to connect to their audiences, with a  deconstruction of our complex social realities, in ways that are impossible in any other medium. And in the process to enhance the opportunities that recent insights into the human mind have provided, to those who desire to build more altruistic societies.

Situated  in the hyper-saturated context of the modern information age, where the amalgam of image and words, fact and fiction, has created unexpected meanings where nearly any version of reality can be confirmed as the spectacle evolves into a hydra of absurdity and insanity. The Studies confront the most pressing issues of our time, the construction of fake news, the nature of parochial ideologies, religious conflicts, environmental destruction, and racist violence, and as a result are amongst the most significant and prescient artworks, made in the last 10 years.

Thain’s work has been been exhibited internationally in Kunsthalle Mannheim, Kunsthalle Basle, The National Portrait Gallery, The Tate Gallery, The Royal Festival Hall, The Imperial War Museum, and is in the collections of Maja Hoffmann and Thyssen-Bornemisza. 


The intimacy of Thain’s extraordinarily detailed photographs creates a fascinating understanding of the emotional state of the photographed person.
— Dr Susanne Drost

Alastair in Sarajevo

Alastair in Sarajevo




17 September - 18 January