Cities, towns and villages aren’t just buildings. They’re formed by the people in them, how those people relate to, and adapt, their environments and the nature of those people themselves. It is these constantly developing themes of the space we occupy, lived in environments and the occupation of the body itself, which helps Emily Speed create the intriguing art that she does.
In the summer of 2011, Speed set of on a voyage around the lake at Yorkshire Sculpture Park that forms an unofficial pivot around which visitors stroll. Set in acres of beautiful parkland, the park harbours the unusual at every turn, but the water remains largely inaccessible. That Speed chose to venture onto the lake, in a waterborne wooden shelter, suggests that the artist is fearless when it comes to breaking new ground.
“I just felt like anything was possible at the Sculpture Park” she explains. “I said to Sarah Coulson, the curator there, that I’d like to do something on the lake and she said: ‘yeah, OK then’. She called my bluff. We needed to have technicians in a rowing boat to stop me going down the weir and things like that, so even though it looks like quite a simple piece of work, a lot more went into it. It was important that it was a boat, because I was thinking about the time periods in the park and the fact they’re restoring it back to how it was with the landscaped gardens. They’re knocking down the old halls of residence there and I am interested in how we make these decisions about what needs to go.”
The marks which humans leave, and the decisions that cause those marks to be made are of obvious interest to the artist, who works across a range of different disciplines to represent her interests. It’s possibly her large sculptural works, gathering found materials, that she is becoming best known for including her Cabanon piece on the lake in Yorkshire. Discussing her work to date on a wintery day in Liverpool, at The Royal Standard studios which she has chosen to make her base, the conversation starts not at the bold ideas of traversing expanses of water in handmade structures, but on the uncertainty of where the younger Emily Speed was going to take her work.
She starts at the beginning of her, now blossoming, career by saying: “I graduated in 2001, but then I went away and worked in Japan. I wasn’t quite ‘there’ when I finished my BA to be honest. So, I did my MA and it’s only since then really that I’ve felt like I am an artist. I was always going to come back to it, as I was always making when I lived in Japan and I carried on my magazine subscriptions to try and keep in touch with what was going on in the UK. But, I think it was just that I wasn’t finished with my education.”
The discipline to wait before jumping into a career as an artist is an admirable one, although Speed is the first to acknowledge that some people have the knack of making the work that they are comfortable with as proficient far earlier. She says: “When I go and do visiting lecturing I do see that I probably made the right decision, but then again some people just are ready at an earlier age. Everyone has a different pace and that’s fine. Because I knew I wanted to be in it for the long haul I knew I’d have to just be patient. My granddad was an architect and I think about his education, where you have to study for seven years, and that’s a really long time. So, I guess I was thinking about it like that.”
After sitting on her hands for so many years, quietly working to develop her practice, but not unleash it on the world, Speed eventually decided to break cover by applying for residencies. Allowing her to meet other artists, work in nurturing environments with a helpful combination of support and freedom, the opportunities she secured pushed her closer towards establishing herself. In fact, it was the combination of arriving in Liverpool and a residency in Austria in 2009 which stands as a watershed moment for her.
“I think I found my pace when I had my residency in Linz,” she says. “I moved to Liverpool from London in 2007 and was very liberated, with loads more time for my money basically. I had studio space, and life changed, because I’d been killing myself with five part-time jobs in London. I’d made loads of work here in that time, some of it not so good and some of it really important, but then I got nominated for this Austrian residency. I made this work, Inhabitant, and that was a turning point for me.”
If there was going to be a bold statement of intent, then the work she produced in Austria was it. Inhabitant was, and remains, a concentration of Speed’s interests in the notion of personal and public architecture. Developing ideas concerned with the body, the place and the vulnerability of living things as we enclose ourselves in both natural and artificial structures, the artist found herself walking the streets in a suit of cardboard, as if the contents of her studio had got up, purposefully assembled itself to stand and gone walkabout.
Thinking about what got her into that unique position, she reflects by saying: “It was a build-up in confidence and then having three months to just skip around the arts centre, and make whatever I wanted and not care what anyone else thought. I’d had the piece of work in my head for 18 months and not had the guts to make it. But, it all came together and I really enjoyed it. I was terrified of being in the work, so being encased in it is a way of protecting myself. I was in the attic making it, which is very much about the head space.”
She continues: “I knew when I was making it that I’d have to go out in it. I left it until the very last day before I was leaving, right at the last minute. I hadn’t made eye holes in it, because I’d made it in the attic. In the end, because I couldn’t see anything, and because I don’t speak any German, I wasn’t that protected at all. I like the way that it turned on its head. It became a kind of trap, or a prison of some sorts. I was slightly hysterical inside it.”
It’s apparent that, despite the fact that she was almost completely obscured from confused Austrian onlookers, the mental effort to actually become part of the work was significant. The initially daunting experience was clearly as exhilarating and as rich in its rewards as she had hoped, as it turned out to be a precursor to her more ambitious appearance on the lake at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Taking a single person vessel, the traditional coracle, as the base, it is often carried by fishermen towards the water on their backs and was therefore a perfect starting point.
Speed explains: “It looks like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle from behind. I love the idea that you can have this flat pack life, carrying that kind of thing around with you. A lot of those ideas come back to the novel, The Box Man, by Kobo Abe. I had a reading room I made at the Sculpture Park, where people could read the book. In the book a man decides that he’s going to be a box man, living with a box over his head, like a fridge box, down to his knees. He folds the flaps in, so it becomes a shelf. Its interesting how he describes what he needs and what he doesn’t need. He writes all over the inside of his box, and has a slit for his eyes and he becomes invisible. He’s made a decision to be completely apart. I thought that was so fascinating, the economy of it is fascinating, how he exists and the fact that he walks and moves it all at the same time.”
If any of her work could be described as extrovert, then the works which she becomes part of, like encasing herself in a mass of furniture reclaimed from the unused halls of residence at the Sculpture Park, then there are other creations which keep themselves to themselves. Her egg, nest, home, country, universe work for example, sits as a small and imperfectly formed concentration of ideas around an egg as a host for a living being, and the occupation of spaces and structures. The smooth surface of an egg is interrupted by an architectural extension, complete with pitched roof and windows. Crafted in a dense, heavy dentist’s plaster, it’s interesting to find out how Speed adapts her ideas to so many different materials.
“For me the work figures the materials out for itself,” she says. “Things suggest the way that they need to be made. With the eggs, they needed to be closed and dense. I made them out of this really dense dentist’s plaster, after trying out a load of other plasters. I do like to reuse things however, so I love cardboard. It’s strong and weak at the same time, and really malleable. The materials are really about economy, not just money.”
Amongst all of the things that she has been able to take from her previous shows, it is the catalogue from her Sculpture Park show that she says she holds most dear. So often a compulsory addition to any art exhibition, and one assumes taken for granted more often than not, Speed acknowledges the transient, fleeting nature of her exhibitions and installations and the investment made in her work by the institution recording it in print. However, seeing her work on paper is nothing new as she is an avid self-publisher, creating numerous books to further her ideas alongside sculptural works.
Of these printed projects she says: “Artists’ books I see as just another part of my work. Quite often I’ll make a book alongside an installation. The detail of the work will be in there, rather than being something separate. It’s part of my practice in the same way that drawing is. It’s something that needs doing quite a lot. It includes text that will be single words, or quotes, or really short allegories. I wrote a book called Unfolding Architecture, which was about a city that unfolds, which was about the person who designed it and bringing the city back to paper. Making it flat again. They’re ideas that are part of the work, but don’t have a place in it.
“When I have no money they are made of inkjet print and cardboard. But, there are loads of different kinds of books and I love having a cardboard piece next to a really nicely letter pressed piece. There are loads of great artists’ books out there, and it’s also a lovely way to invest in an artist’s work. I love that fact that you can pick up something for £3 and not be stressing about your finances.”
2012 will follow a momentous 2011 with Speed committing to group shows with Danielle Arnaud Gallery, starting in London and eventually visiting her adopted Liverpool home at The Bluecoat. Her egg, nest, home, country, universe piece will feature in an exploration of emerging art at Cornerhouse in Manchester and her touch will be applied to the home of London-based artist, Jo Ball as she opens her property for a complete transformation in the name of art. So, on reflection, things are going pretty well, aren’t they?
“This last year has been amazing and next year looks great too. But, there’s something precarious about that and I don’t think you’d ever sit back and be complacent,” she states, as our conversation draws to a close.
“You always have one eye on the future and try to make sure you have some stability lined up. Working with the park, it’s given me a benchmark of how good a relationship can be. I keep expecting there to be a break or something. It used to be that I’d do a residency and then I’d drift for three months. But, now there always seems to be something coming along.”
Info: Emily Speed lives and works in Liverpool, UK. She is based at The Royal Standard Studios and has exhibited internationally since 2003. Her work features in Lost is Found at Cornerhouse, Manchester until Sunday 19 February 2012.
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