Thursday, January 31, 2008

Art Space Talk: Emily Smith

Emily Smith is a Gloucestershire based artist who creates sculpture and installation pieces. Primarily using plaster casts, her work reveals a constant re-appropriation of methods as diverse as carpentry, ceramics and needlework. Influenced by childhood memories, nostalgic spaces are suggested through symbolic objects which represent a particularly subjective interaction with the memory of a significant person or place. Subtle overlaying of projections onto sculpture builds up a visual palimpsest and restructures the narrative of each object. Emily's work is concerned with loss, memory and trace of an absence.

UNTITLED, projection on plaster casts, casts approx 10 x 15 cm, 2006

Brian Sherwin: Emily you have a Fine Art Ma from UWIC and graduated with a first class honours degree in Visual Art from the University of Gloucestershire in 2004. Can you tell us about your academic background? Who were your instructors? What can you tell us about these programs?

Emily Smith: I was very lucky to thoroughly enjoy my degree and Ma, I pretty much lived in the studios spending nine hours a day working. Like a lot of art students I found the technicians far more inspirational than the tutors, although this changed during the Ma where I was tutored by Dr. Chris Short and Louise Short (no relation!) both extremely demanding and passionate artists. I studied ceramics and painting at Ba (with Visual Culture as a minor) - the multidisciplinary approach suited the way I work. There was a interesting tension between my 2D and 3D work as I felt and still feel that the sculptural pieces are the real focus.

The Ma was very intense, a two year course condensed into one year. My work moved away from the organic forms to much more conceptual work. Living in a city changed the direction of my practice from being concerned with organic and visceral pieces, to exploring man-made objects and environments.

BS: Your work often appears as if it reflects time gone by. Several of your pieces have an aged quality about them. Is that something you strive for? Or am I just interpreting the works that way? What do you think of my observation?

ES: Yes there is certainly an aged quality, like a thin film of dust on objects which picks up fingerprints. In recent years I have been working with objects that have not been touched for many years so there is a kind of archaeology to the process of rediscovery. In earlier works the manner of construction is deliberately crude to suggest former use and clues to their construction. I am very interested in traces left by my own hands through the process of making, as well as the traces of a former use present on all objects, which give clues to who may have touched the object.
INSIDE, plaster, 2005

BS: Does you work involve any philosophical or psychological theories? Do you study philosophy or psychology?

ES: Freudian theory played an important part in my Ba work, especially the theories of the uncanny. Freud and Winnicott's theory of transitional objects onto which we transfer our desires and needs influenced much of my work: many pieces I made at this time were like fetishes or symbolic ritual objects. More recently Derrida's theory of trace has been pivotal to my practice.
Coming from a ceramics background, casting techniques are central to my work and I became interested in how the cast replaces the original. Derrida wrote about a grammatical trace that is created when a word is partially erased, placed 'under erasure' but still present. It is this paradox of absence/presence that I felt to be really significant as I was moving towards much more personal work that dealt with memory and absence.
Just as memory is often biased or false, the trace at once confirms the origin but questions or undermines its structure and meaning. Often what is left (physical trace, mnemonic trace) is more real than the original event and so trace itself becomes the origin of a completely subjective event.
Poetry is a huge inspiration to me, so much of my work comes from words which are translated into the visual or physical. Surrealist poetry (and the Surrealist poem objects) and the poetry of Paul Celan play an important role.

BS: Tell us more about the themes that you deal with in your work...

ES: Theories I focus on tend to pivot around the uncanny (specifically the unhomely or 'unheimlich'), feelings of nostalgia and loss. I see much of my work as a kind of detective work, seeking out traces of others in myself, revealing clues to long past events. However there is also a sense of me acquiring memories that are not my own, a conscious attempt to become someone I didn't know.

In previous work I explored my feelings relating to adolescence and childhood, the sense of a burgeoning sexuality that is explored through organic forms - often ripe, fecund and hugely magnified. ‘Box’ for example combines the tactile properties of latex and the obvious sexuality of the form and name, with the uncanny nature of something both familiar and unknown. Its form suggests functionality, but simultaneously confounds this expectation.

Box, latex, wood, chain, foam, approx 30 x 40 x 70cm, 2004

BS: Can you tell us about some of your other influences? Are you influenced by any specific artists or art movements?

ES: Artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse whose work is now experiencing a revival (or long overdue recognition) influenced me on a practical material level but also on a more poetic level, especially Bourgeois who combines objects, installation, traditional sculpture and words in a rich poetic structure. Bourgeois has created an extremely personal vocabulary of symbols and objects that reappear, but never lose their freshness. I find Doris Salcedo's examination of both a personal and a pluralistic, ‘meta-memory’ very powerful. Surrealist collage and poem objects fascinate me, as does Rachel Whiteread's use of casting unseen spaces and making the transient solid.

I site myself as predominantly modern rather than postmodern, perhaps not particularly fashionable. I am drawn to the material first, to the physical presence of a object of installation, I am more interested in the phenomenological reaction of a body to an object than with conceptual gags.
HIS CABINET, projection on plaster casts, approx 130 x130 cm, 2006

BS: I really enjoyed the images I've seen of His Cabinet and Drip. Can you tell us about these two installations and the thoughts behind them?

ES: 'His Cabinet' began as a cataloguing of an old cabinet filled with paint, wood stains, glues and other woodwork materials that hadn't been touched for years. It was interesting to see how the cabinet had been used; the bottom shelves were most densely stacked, the top shelf - out of reach - almost empty. The listing, dusting, sorting and cataloguing was cathartic and I felt like I was not only unearthing old memories but absorbing and reappropriating the history of the bottles and jars. of course none of this process is revealed in the piece but for me as artist it was vital to understand each object before casting began. By casting in plaster traces of the labels were transferred and when overlaid by the slide projection a palimpsest of traces was created; the plaster cast as trace, the fragments of label and paint picked up on the surface and the very transient photographic trace of the projection. The illusion is broken when a viewer walks between the projection and the cabinet, revealing the objects as non-functional simulacra.

The installation 'Drip' really emphasises the fragility of the material - plaster. It is a more directly emotional piece, a response to the effects of grief. A literal staining occurs, there is a slow measuring drip and a gradual darkening as the plaster absorbs stain. I am interested in how furniture is so close to the human body that it can often stand in for a person or take on human characteristics.

I have made five of these chairs so far, only one remains intact as they are often mistaken for the real thing and moved or sat on! I enjoy the precarious nature of these pieces; all my works are ephemeral, from fragile plaster and decaying latex to the slow burning away of the slide image.
Drip (after installation active for one week), Plaster, tin, chain, Fiddes vandyke and brown wood stain, dimensions variable

BS: Emily, you have several works in progress right now... care to give us any details about these projects?

ES: My practice feels fairly disparate at the moment, I think partly in response to a recent studio move and all the stresses and changes that entails. I am really enjoying pinhole photography and playing with lighting my cast objects with projected images.
There is a gradual (very tentative!) move toward introducing some colour into my work. I have stayed away from directly colouring pieces playing more with applying colour through light, however I am particularly drawn toward yellow at the moment, from my lemon pieces.

I am also investigating Braille and working on a music box that plays Braille phrases. It is the transition from spoken word to writing to touch to sound that interests me, how things are communicated and what is lost or gained through translation.

Untitled (work in progress)
Untitled (work in progress)

BS: Tell us about your process... how does a piece go from being an idea to a physical reality? Place us in your mind during the process of creation.

ES: Each new work stems from a previous piece so there is rarely a complete change of course. Most inspiration comes when I am away from the studio and have time to dream without being distracted by practical tasks. From initial sketches there is a direct jump to the actual pieces; I work directly without models or trials so my work is very labour intensive and there is always the risk that I spend weeks on a piece but then am not happy with it. My work is more like a jigsaw or collage, individual pieces can be modified and developed within the restraints of the whole. I sometimes miss the immediacy of paint but cannot move away from my love of process driven work. I suppose my ceramics background has a lot to do with this, within each stage there is freedom but the production of work has a clear process and direction. I use repetitive methods such as casting and sewing which are deeply absorbing. I have developed a deep knowledge of materials and respond to the physicality of the work, which is often tiring and almost always messy!

BS: Finally, will you be involved with any exhibits in 2008? Where can our readers view your work?

ES: There are a few shows planned for 2008, mainly in Gloucestershire. All are in the preliminary stages but more details coming soon!
You can learn more about Emily Smith by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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