Emily Speed

Steve Pantazis talks to this year’s Northern Art Prize nominee Emily Speed about her current show at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester

Steve Pantazis: Your work explores the relationship of body and architecture. Why are you attracted to this relationship?

Emily Speed: I have always loved buildings, probably because my grandfather was an architect and he was very encouraging of my art-making, but I’m not sure exactly where it stems from. I’m interested in how we occupy our own, complex psychological spaces (we are also spaces) and also in our relationship to built space, especially how buildings shape us as people. Architectonic vocabulary is used in such an interesting way around the body (having a façade, to put up a wall, eyes as windows) and the reverse is also true (buildings can have a skeleton, a heart, ribs, hip roof), then something happens with clothing that seems to span the two as well; in German there is ‘wand’ (wall) and ‘gewand’ (clothing) and I like the meeting of ‘habit’ and ‘inhabit’ in English. I could go on.

SP: In the ‘Body/Building’ pieces, representing buildings like armour with just two bare legs protruding, there is a strong sense of vulnerability, as the drawings are loosely sitting on fragile stands. What does this signify? Are you interested in exploring the fragile relationship between humans and their surrounding spaces?

ES: With the Body/Building works I suppose I was really thinking that building a defence like that, something impenetrable around yourself, is quite debilitating; you become trapped in your own space and then vulnerable because you are weighed down. I am always quite attracted to the hubris of really monumental building and I like the idea of these people with their own special construction – a monument to themselves perhaps (especially as the architecture will certainly outlive their bodies). The small stands serve to highlight how precarious the legs-holding-building are. The drawings also provide a contrast to the Build-Up piece in a way, with these private individuals shown against a small group of people, who are dependent on each other, but can build something much bigger if they work together. Maybe it’s more about the fragility of everything, but especially the relationships between things and how that needs a careful balance.

SP: These pieces together with your 2009 performance ‘Inhabitant’ around Linz, where you wore a ‘costume’ of cardboard boxes and model houses, bring to mind the performances of the Dadaists. Do you share any of their goals and aspects of their art?

ES: Somewhat, although I think the appearance of my work might be a bit of a red herring there. What I do have in common with them – I don’t agree with war for one, but I wouldn’t say I’m anarchic or overtly political through my work in the Dada sense. I love the use of humour or nonsensical things (wearing a city for example) to communicate an idea though and I’m attracted to the surrealist or intuitive elements. There is a personal aspect to my works that doesn’t make that comparison an easy fit, but I do enjoy the way they combined art, literature, gatherings, theatre, costume etc. and the shambolic nature of events.

SP: How did you come up with the idea behind ‘Build-Up’? Why are you interested in turning the film into a sculpture/installation with the wooden structures ‘projected’ off the screen?

ES: Build-Up began as a continued exploration of Human Castle, a work commissioned for the Edinburgh Art Festival in 2012, based on Catalan Castells. That commission had all happened very quickly from the first conversation to the performance, so I didn’t feel like it was very resolved. For me, the bodies were just like objects in this work; imperfect elements that helped to build a structure, so it seemed necessary that they were shown among other objects and supports. Because of the way Castlefield work and the trust they have in artists, I was in the (increasingly) rare situation of not having to properly describe what I was making until the last moment. So, this piece has been shifting right up until installing it last week. It’s been a real pleasure to work instinctively like that and I think the work might be better because of it.

SP: Your work at Castlefield Gallery is exhibited together with that of Hayley Newman. Do you feel there is a strong link between your practices and in particular among the works exhibited in Castlefield Gallery?

ES: I think Hayley and I both rely on things that are anti-monumental or minor things as a basis for works, whether that’s daily actions, tea towels, cardboard or scrap wood, and I think we both like silliness a great deal. Hayley was fantastic to work alongside and I really admire how bold she is; perhaps the political bent of her works is closer to the Dadaists than mine.

SP: How do you see you work developing in the future? Will you continue exploring the relationship between body and architecture?

ES: I have no idea to be honest. At the moment I live precariously between projects and have had little time to think so far ahead. I wonder if artists do just work with the same thing their whole lives though; I would say I was making work exploring the same ideas during my degree twelve years ago, just without as much coherence or focus. However, Build-Up did become very much about the bodies and honestly, I find it hard to imagine works without people in anymore, so perhaps that will be the direction that I follow. The next commission I’m working on will also be a film work documenting a performance, so for now, that is how it will continue.

Hayley Newman & Emily Speed is on display at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester until 7 April 2013.

Steve Pantazis is an online editor for Corridor 8, independent art historian, writer and associate editor for Versita Publishing in the field of Arts, Music and Architecture.  

Published 05.03.2013 by Steve Pantazis in Interviews

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