By Annette Wagner
Emily Floyd’s work needs little introduction, and for some EastLink Melbourne commuters, you’re lucky to appreciate a glimpse of her almost symbolic signage work daily with her public art installation of an enormous black iron bird and yellow worm (Titled: Public Art Strategy, 2008).
Read into that what you will as this is exactly Emily’s point. Her work is an ongoing investigation into texts, typography, literature and ideologies.
Honestly, it’s not often you get the opportunity to ask questions of someone who’s work you admire tremendously, and while I’ve been enamored and thrilled with the depth of Emily’s responses, I’m not surprised. Her bold and colourful work provokes discussions about design, cultural and political ideas, and provides spaces for social interaction and community engagement that I’m pleased to say even my own children enjoy.
Emily graduated in sculpture at RMIT University in 1999 and has exhibited widely since, including Heide Museum of Modern Art Melbourne, Monash University Museum of Art Melbourne, MCA Sydney, Anna Schwartz Gallery Melbourne, Dundee Contemporary Arts Scotland, Seven Art Limited New Delhi, NGV Melbourne, and Queensland Art Gallery Brisbane. She has multiple awards, completed public sculpture commissions, and is held in major collections nationally and internationally, including the V&A Museum in London.
In my Q&A with Emily, she reminds us that it can be a big step to say ‘I’m an artist’, that turning off technology can be liberating and analogue methodologies are considered the new avant-garde. A response that resonated most with me was “…success for all artists is about making better work and achieving a connection to an audience, no matter how small”.
Emily Floyd. Photograph by Sean Fennessey. Courtesy of The Design Files.
Growing up with makers, then studying graphic design, before focusing on sculpture, all evidently contribute to your exploration in contemporary art. How long did it take you to realise you were destined to be an artist, and build the confidence to commit wholeheartedly, create and exhibit your own work?
I started exhibiting formally in my final year of art school, although I have always made artworks and experimented with different modes of display. My grandmother made wooden block sets in our family’s toy workshop in Melbourne when I was growing up, she would never have thought of herself as an artist but had an excellent ability for abstract composition. I enjoyed assisting her to do this work and it helped me develop the skills I use today. My first exhibition was a collaborative project at an artist run space in Melbourne’s Nicholas Building called Talk, that was in 1999 and I was 26 years old. It can feel like a big step to say “I’man artist” and something that some women find pretentious or confronting, for me the decision and confidence has been cumulative.
Lecturing in Fine Art at Monash University, you noted that today students have grown up with the internet, and are not just interested in one discipline. It is evident that you yourself are comfortable with the fusion of ideas and processes, working with many different materials in sculpture, and printing, to name a few mediums you explore. Do you have a preferred medium or material to work with? If so, why and how does this engage your imagination and abstract thoughts?
This year I’ve been making a wooden sculpture and block-print installation for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney called Telling Tales: Excursion in Narrative form, curated by Rachel Kent. I’ve made hand carved letterpress typography using cyrillic fonts developed at the Moscow based institute “Polygraphmash: Laboratory of Special Graphic Forms.” Following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, type designer Lyubov Kuznetsova digitised the Polygraphmash font archive as an online resource, it has been amazing to research and work with the typographic legacy she assembled, including font books by mid century book designers Solomon Telingater and Galina Bannikova.
Your work, especially public sculptures, explore many references to font and colour, shape and size, material and movement. How important to you is interaction and the process of engagement with your work?
The process of engagement is the moment when art enters life, so it’s very important. Participatory art can have a social function when integrated with other strategies, including research and media communication. I try to make objects and situations that facilitate direct engagement for an audience, for example a forthcoming hands-on typography workshop at the MCA makes the proposition that design can exist in support of political and social change.
I’m also mindful we’ve come to expect a great deal of spectacle, movement and direct participation from contemporary art, but active engagement can also involve a quiet afternoon wandering through a museum or cultural space, reflecting on diverse ideas and forms that are discovered rather than overly presented, it’s a fine balance and I would hope that art offers an alternative to the relentless engagement of Capitalist junk space.
Emily Floyd's 'Labour Garden', 2015. Installation view 'All The World's Futures', 56th International Art Exhibition, Biennale di Venezia, Venice, 2015. (Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery).
With references to Dada, Bauhaus, Russian Constructivist, and folk culture, your work demonstrates your passionate research and the exploration of contemporary social, cultural and political ideas. How do you see new technologies enabling your work and facilitating the translation of our culture today?
I usually begin in the studio with analogue methodologies because it helps me to think things through in a material way: reading, writing, cutting out objects, printing and collaging different images. The turn away from digital technology can be liberating, I am finding students and young artists who have grown up with digital technology often view analogue systems as a new avant-garde, which is interesting. Once I have worked something out by hand though, I’m happy to leave Middle Earth and work with new technologies. In the studio we use laser-cutting and CNC routing processes, 3D printing and modelling, graphics software, ink jet printing and scanning, a lot of cut and paste.
As an Australian Woman in Art, and beyond the specific political and ideological issues involved in the subjection of women, what does success really mean and how has it been achieved so far for you here in Australia?
Contemporary cultural institutions present a kind of democratic ‘balance of power’ so the fact that Australian and International museum collections are full of artworks made by white, male artists makes an unprecedented opportunity for women artists, we can offer a counter position, what they call the ‘feminine multitude’.
I feel extremely fortunate to be working in this time because I know how difficult it has been for previous generations to find a voice. Success for all artists is about making better work and achieving a connection to an audience, no matter how small. I hope to have the opportunity to continue researching different approaches to language and my next step is a project exploring invented languages in the literary genre of Feminist Science Fiction.
A good dose of statistics is always reassuring, two Feminist art blogs I love to read, both exploring ideas of success and failure in the art world, are Countesses and Natty Solo. As well as looking at the data they are brilliant artworks in their own right, affirming that by inventing new contexts, we can make our own success.
Emily Floyd is represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery, who I would like to thank for their assistance in coordinating this interview.