Interview

Emily Floyd

by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Friday 23rd May 2014

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‘Abstract Labour’ , a new permanent public work by Melbourne artist Emily Floyd at Heide Museum of Modern Art. Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

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Emily Floyd’s exhibition ‘Far Rainbow’ at Heide Museum of Modern Art. Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

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Emily Floyd’s exhibition ‘Far Rainbow’ at Heide Museum of Modern Art. Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

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Works in progress  in Emily’s studio / workshop. Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

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Works in progress  in Emily’s studio / workshop. Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

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Emily Floyd in her studio. Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

We profile a lot of Australian artists but I have to say, today’s interview with much respected Melbourne artist Emily Floyd is something special.  With 15 years of arts practice and various large scale public commissions to her name, Emily’s responses for today’s story are a timely reminder of just how important artists and the arts community is in a wider context. Melbourne has a stellar reputation as a cultural and highly creative city, and it is prolific, boundary-pushing artists like Emily who really contribute to and bolster this reputation.  Artists and creative thinkers make our city richer, more thoughtful, more vibrant and more intriguing.  It can often be hard to quantify their value in a commercial sense, but a city without art or creative endeavour would look and feel well… stiflingly beige.

What is apparent, when you read this interview, is that artists really do a lot of heavy thinking for us! In my mind, funding the arts is a little like outsourcing ‘blue sky thinking’ to a small, highly creative sector of the community.  Whilst the rest of us get on with daily work / life in the commercial sector (and let’s face it, even the most creative jobs still come down to dollars in the end), there are a bunch of people who wrestle with the crazy ideas, the philosophical, political, spiritual and/or historical conundrums that aren’t easily pigeonholed into a discreet commercial category, and certainly don’t fit comfortably within business hours, and don’t always pay the bills, but which nevertheless require thought, discussion, analysis and representation. Artists do this.

Artists don’t work in a vacuum – they research, collate and synthesise the world and influences around them, re-presenting them to the rest of us in new contexts.  The greatest artists challenge us to take a step away from the daily grind, to open our thinking up beyond our own day to day existence.  Never has this been more apparent to me than in Emily’s thoughtful responses to this interview.

Emily’s practice is multidiscipinary in the truest sense of the word.  She is a sculptor, a public artist and a printmaker.  She is perhaps best known for her large-scale outdoor works and public commissions, which often reference children’s toys (inspired by a history of toy-making in her family), however Emily also creates installations, smaller scale timber sculptures and works on paper. Her work draws on a a great variety of reference points – typography, science fiction, community activism, alternative education, Feminism and themes relating to childhood, to name just a few. Emily is also a lecturer and researcher at Monash University Art Design and Architecture (MADA), where she teaches in the Fine Art undergraduate program, passing on her knowledge and wisdom to the next generation of talented Australian artists.

Emily approaches her work in the same meticulous and exhaustive way I imagine a historian might commence a new line of research. Her current exhibition, Far Rainbow, at Heide Museum of Modern Art, surveys the past 10 years of her practice, alongside new works created especially for the show.  It’s an enormous, varied, tactile and of course colourful (!) show which celebrates the incredible breadth of Emily’s practice, informed by layers of historical and political meaning.  Emily worked closely with Heide curator Sue Cramer to select the works and develop a conceptual framework for the show.  As you can see in these photographs, it’s a bright, engaging and surprisingly uplifting exhibition, despite the dense and at times quite politicised subject matter!

Alongside Far Rainbow, visitors to Heide will also be joyfully greeted by a new permanent public work by Emily.  Abstract Labour is Emily’s latest outdoor sculpture, a delightfully vibrant series of oversized 3D typographic forms which have recently been unveiled outside the main gallery entrance at Heide.  This work was realised with support from the State Government through the Victorian Public Sculpture Fund.

In addition to her current show at Heide, Emily’s work will also be celebrated in a major new exhibition entitled ‘The Dawn‘ at the National Gallery of Victoria, opening in November.  The show will include a survey of many of her large-scale sculptural installations from the past 15 years, alongside new works.  I think we can safely say it’s been a pretty busy year for Emily!

Emily Floyd is represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Far Rainbow – Emily Floyd
Heide Museum of Modern Art
Open now until 13 July 2014
7 Templestowe Road
Bulleen, VIC

Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming a fine artist, and to creating the style of work you are currently making?

My background definitely informs the artwork I am making at the moment.  When I was growing up my father and grandmother worked as toy makers, my brother David and I helped in the workshop, and along the way we became woodworkers, learning the fundamentals of construction and design. We made sets of blocks for Kindergartens, dolls houses, toy boats, cars, trains and children’s furniture. My dad was very much influenced by Eastern European toy making traditions, which in turn have their lineage in avant-garde art movements such as the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, as well as more traditional forms of folk culture.

I also studied fine art from an early age, saving up for private lessons with a wonderfully eccentric artist called Margot Satterthwaite who ran classes out of her Ripponlea studio in Melbourne. I worked with Margot throughout my schooling and she gave me a good solid grounding in materials and processes, Margot always said that I would never be happy doing a real job, that the best way to apply my ability to think abstractly was to be an artist, but it took some time for me to realise she was right.

When I left school I studied graphic design because I thought it would be more sensible, then psychology, politics and sociology.  I travelled through Asia and Europe, gradually charting a course back to the studio. In 1997 I was fortunate to gain entry into the seminal sculpture programme headed by artist Robert Owen, there I found that contemporary art is something different to what I had first imagined, it is an expanded field where I can apply all the different things I’ve learnt along the way.

How do you describe your work?

I have a sculpture studio in Melbourne, where I make large-scale installations, mapping out theory and text into the viewer environment, but my work also encompasses printmaking, public art, and museum workshops. I have particular interests in typography, science fiction, community activism, alternative education and the contributions that women and children have made to Modernity through learning and play.

I am also a lecturer and researcher at Monash University Museum of Art (MADA) where I teach in the Fine Art undergraduate program, our young students are among the first generation to be fully immersed in the digitized world, and we are rolling out new interdisciplinary programs that will give them the agility required to work in the expanded fields of Contemporary Art.

Your new exhibition, ‘Far Rainbow’ at Heide includes a retrospective of the past 10 years of your practice, as well a new works created especially for the show. Can you tell us how long has this exhibition been in development for, and a little about the process of selecting the works and direction for this show?

The Heide exhibition Far Rainbow is curated by Sue Cramer.  Sue and I worked collaboratively for two years to select existing works, generate new ones and develop a conceptual framework for our project.

Far Rainbow is founded on a mutual interest in the archive. Sue instigated The Contemporary Art Archive at the MCA in Sydney, a collection of drawings, notes, sketches and books by key Australian artists. I was beginning to work with a collection of archival documents I inherited from my mother Frances relating to Feminism and children’s rights in Australia; we came together with shared ideas about how an archive might illuminate an artist’s practice in new ways or provide and a key to broader cultural ideas. Sue and I also have a mutual interest in an expanded conception of Modernity. In the case of this current exhibition, Modernism could be said to expand to include specific examples of toymaking and Australian Feminism.

The works in the exhibition are influenced by spatial and material possibilities encountered through alternative education, including Rudolf Steiner pedagogy, Montessori, Feminist Science fiction, community activism and the Socialist children’s programs I participated in growing up in Melbourne.

Ideas fundamental to the Far Rainbow exhibition include utopian “world building”, the archive, experimental pedagogy and the notion that children are the embodiment of the future of the political left.  These themes are also very much at play in the 1960’s Russian Science Fiction novel Far Rainbow by the Strugatsky brothers. So this became the title of the Heide exhibition.

The action of Far Rainbow centers on the planet Rainbow; an experimental zone populated by scientists, administrators and artists. When the experiment spirals out of control, a cataclysmic force called The Wave is unleashed, moving across the planet, destroying everything in its wake. Citizens of Rainbow realize their fate and elect to save their youngest inhabitants. The only remaining spaceship becomes an intergalactic Kindergarten or ‘Children’s Colony’.

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‘Far Rainbow’ at Heide Museum of Modern Art.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Complementing your exhibition, a new permanent outdoor sculpture ‘Abstract Labour’ commissioned by Heide has also been recently unveiled – it looks amazing! Could you let us know how this separate commission came about, and what inspired these works?

The exhibition begins and ends outside the museum in public space, with the new permanent sculpture ‘Abstract Labour‘. This outdoor sculpture is intended as the practical expression of the ideas explored in Far Rainbow, providing open spaces for people to gather and interact, hopefully subverting its rather didactic title through material experimentation, play and tactility.

Abstract Labour‘ spells out its title using abstract open form typography, informed by Bauhaus and Constructivism type. A library of left-wing books is housed within shelf-like spaces in the back of the work; visitors are free to take these books. The term ‘Abstract Labour‘ itself is a Marxist concept used to describe the process of breaking down human work into abstractions, such as units of production or value added tasks; this combination of theory and play has been a consistent preoccupation in my work.

Materialising a public artwork of this scale is a very complex process. In the first instance the project needs to be framed and clearly described so that all the people working to make the project happen understand what is involved; I make physical models, written proposals, digital 3D models, prototypes, budgets and work with industrial fabricators. ‘Abstract Labour‘ was realised with support from the State Government through the Victorian Public Sculpture Fund.

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‘Abstract Labour’ , a new permanent public work by Melbourne artist Emily Floyd at Heide Museum of Modern Art, realised with support from the State Government through the Victorian Public Sculpture Fund.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Your practice is very varied, incorporating large public commissions which often sees you working with large scale fabricators / manufacturers, smaller scale timber sculpture made in your own studio, and printmaking. How do these various disciplines interplay within your practice – and with so many skills, how do you choose which medium is right for each new project?

The decisions I make in terms of materials and processes are determined by the content of the material I am working with. For example Far Rainbow includes an installation based on an Australian publication called Ripple that my Mum edited throughout the 1970’s and ’80s. The project includes sculpture, print, graphic design and painting.

Ripple sought to enable women to create supportive networks, convivial communities, and participation in public life. The publication provided frameworks for setting up childcare cooperatives, so that women could enter the workforce en masse. I wanted to re-present this material for a contemporary art audience because of its personal significance, but also because Feminist struggles of that time remain current.

I experimented with screen-printing on paper for this project because it is a form of reproduction true to the original publication. I worked with Trent Walter who has a burgeoning, anarchic printmaking company called Negative Press. Trent runs Negative Press out of a shed in his Mum’s backyard in Chadstone, and works with artists to make limited edition artworks and one-off projects. We scanned and reprinted pages, but also rebuilt the original graphics that were made by renowned Modernist Mary Featherston. The graphics were then abstracted, rearranged and saturated with colour so that they became something new.

In my workshop I made a series of large-scale sculptural objects to echo the shapes found within the Ripple graphics. I knew that it would be a challenge to get an audience to engage with the graphic material I was presenting, because this little known history of Australian Feminism is on the margins of collective interest. I gave it status by presenting it in a totally dynamic form, whilst taking care not to use framing devices that would be materially inconsistent with the original spirit of the movement.

The ‘Ripple‘ installation also includes wall paintings with the title ‘Help from the Periphery’.  This is a concept used in Montessori education to describe the way that an adult might pass an object to a child during a play session to facilitate flow and creativity. In this sense I was thinking about the way that the politics embodied in the posters had been a kind of help from the periphery in my art practice.

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Details from Emily’s print studio. Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Can you give us a little insight into your process? When starting a new body of work, is each work pre-planned or created very intuitively? Do you work on multiple works at one time?

I like to research various material then experiment with it, for current projects I am looking closely at typography. ‘Readymade’ fonts in the Heide exhibition feature in the Ripple works, including the ‘Whitlam Era’ Australian typography of Mary Featherston; a Modernist designer recognized for her pedagogical work and co-design of the Featherston Sound Chair for the Australian Pavilion for the 1967 Montreal World expo.

I also make my own fonts, informed by Modernist typographic traditions emphasizing the arrangement of ideas on a page, these include Dada, Bauhaus, Constructivist and Lettrism, the typographic branch of Situationism.

I designed all the three-dimensional typographies in the exhibition, for the public sculpture ‘Abstract Labour‘, and for the relief paintings ‘The most important thing we have on Rainbow is our labour‘ and ‘When this experiment is over we’ll build anew together.’ In making these fonts I researched Russian type and book design, in particular looking at Cyrillic and Latin fonts produced in Moscow by designers such as Bannokova Favorsky, Baryshnokov Gennady and Lyubov Kuznetsova. In the 1990’s Lyubov Kuznetsova digitised many of the soviet era fonts so they are now freely accessible, she also worked at one stage for Mir Publishing (publishers of the 1967 edition of Strugatsky’s Far Rainbow).

I also begin projects by assembling images; in Far Rainbow these occur throughout the exhibition in various guises and have also made their way into the catalogue. Utopian circular forms such as the giant globe of the world in the Socialist New Lanark classroom in Scotland have influenced the sculptures and graphic motifs in the show.

I am usually working on 5 – 10 projects at one time, and I would describe the works as carefully planned but hopefully intuitive.

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Works in progress in Emily’s studio. Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?

There is no such thing as a typical day; artists are the personification of the new ‘Precariat’ – this makes our existence very interesting but also means our working life cannot be predicted.

I am doing multiple diverse activities including studio practice, public presentations and workshops. Over the past five years the field of contemporary art has altered completely, art museums have become places of education and public engagement, and so much of our work involves facilitating the translation of culture.

As a lecturer at MADA my role is to help facilitate a new generation of artists so that they can participate in the changing fields of contemporary art, I spend a lot of time with students working on their confidence in navigating these new waters.

Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?

Radio – 3CR Community Radio, Fire First with Robbie Thorpe and Clare Land, Wednesdays 11.00 – 12.00.

Blog – Slack Bastard, BLDG and AAAAARG.

Print – The Saturday Paper and Quarterly Essay.

Online Lectures – European Graduate School and Monash Art Design and Architecture Wednesday Forums.

Books – Far Rainbow, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.

Which other local artists or creative people are you liking at the moment?

There is a really interesting movement of experimental printmaking and publishing in Melbourne, including self-organised projects like Discipline Magazine, Motto, Perimeter Books, Spacecraft Studios, Negative Press, Monash Art Projects (MAP) and The Narrows.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

It might sound crazy but I’d have to say going to Art School, I was the first person in my family to go to university and when I opened the letter of acceptance to study a degree in Sculpture my life changed forever.

What would be your dream project?

Social Housing for Melbourne Artists.

What are you looking forward to?

This November a major new survey exhibition of my work will open at the National Gallery of Victoria. The Dawn will include large-scale sculptural installations from the past 15 years, along with some massive new projects.

Melbourne questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighborhood and why?

Preston.  Artists have been pushed out of the inner city and are now reshaping the outer Northern and Western suburbs of Melbourne.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

Carbatec Tools in Springvale.

Where / what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Sri Lankan in Dandenong.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Preston Market.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Recently I have been following a campaign run by Dr Joe Toscano and others to create a public monument marking this site on the corner of Bowen and Franklin Streets in the CBD, where two Aboriginal freedom fighters, Maulboyheenner and Tunnerminnerwait were hanged in Melbourne’s first public execution in 1842. I think these early histories of colonial confrontation; genocide and resistance are Melbourne’s best-kept secret.

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Emily at work in her studio. Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Friday 23rd May 2014

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