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Emily Speed, Inhabitant, 2009

Unfolding Architecture

by Ciara Ennis

Ciara Ennis: Much of your work references conflicting ideas about architecture: it either functions as a symbol of man’s hubristic and mortality-defying desires or as an ethereal container for intangible traces and illusive memories. How do you reconcile these contrasting notions about architecture and how do they manifest themselves in your work?
Emily Speed: I am interested in man’s desire to build, despite the inevitability of decay, and I am especially interested in those narcissistic buildings intended as personal monuments or attempts at immortality. But, like all buildings, even the biggest and most solid will begin to decay at some point and I think ruin is ultimately what ties these notions together. In the latter, architecture can become a way of accessing the past; an attempt to hold onto experiences or events, perhaps even to people though bricks and mortar.
I can’t help anthropomorphising architecture; associating certain buildings with people and in turn looking at people as if they were buildings, a little like synesthesia; archithesia perhaps!
In terms of how this is manifested in my work, I often use fairly modest materials in my structures, such as discarded packaging, and I find this has a precariousness that contrasts to the often monumental aspects of architecture. A lot of the structures that I make tend to sit ambiguously between half-built and half-derelict and I like this transient position between possibility and decay.
I often refer to architecture metaphorically in my work, alluding to the age-old idea of the body as a building that houses the mind. In recent work I have felt compelled to add the body and have been making sculpture that can be worn or inhabited.

CE: With your last statement in mind (“body as a building that houses the mind...”) I can’t help thinking of Louise Bourgeois’s Femme Maison (1945 – 1947) series of etchings and ink drawings depicting a naked female form with a building in place of the woman’s head. Given their title, which loosely translates as Housewife, and the image of entrapment, it’s easy to read these drawings as a critique of gender roles and stereotypes. However, these houses can equally be read as sacred vessels nurturing and protecting our interior selves. Your work functions in a similarly contradictory manner, it can be read both as a critique of the male-dominated practice of architecture—the narcissist desire to erect eternal monuments—and as shrines to our innermost beings. Would you agree with this assessment?
ES: I can agree with the second easily - the protection or exploration of the inner self (not exclusively my own). I adore Louise Bourgeois’s work and I’m ashamed to say that I only discovered it properly three or four years ago. When I saw the Femme Maison series
I was astounded and although I don’t really identify with the entrapment or gender roles personally, I loved how paradoxically subtle and blunt the drawings are, especially with the masked face and nudity.
There are other things built into physical architecture as it is inhabited and this part of building is not solely the domain of men. My work has never started from a critical standpoint on the world of architecture, although I see how that could be inferred. I find many layers of meaning in architecture and these all end up in my work, which rarely ends up with a neat package.

CE: In contrast to highly refined and processed materials, much of your work is made from found objects and recycled mundane articles—cardboard, paper and scraps of wood—that suggest a relationship to nature’s effect upon our built world. Is your decision to use these materials driven by purely formal concerns, or is there a subtext exploring over-consumption, diminishing natural resources and sustainability also at play?
ES: In terms of architecture, sometimes I think we could be better off looking after the buildings we already have and I think of this when I sometimes reconfigure old works into new ones. However, I can’t honestly claim to be any kind of eco-campaigner in my work, especially as I also use new materials like resin and plaster.

CE: The idea of transformation features strongly in your work—the repurposing of trash into sculptural forms and conversion of sculpture into wearable objects (which I will touch on later). Does the material’s former use and previous life—prior to coming into contact with you—play a part in the narrative of the work?
ES: Absolutely. Cardboard, crates, envelopes, polystyrene, corex and other packaging materials are all produced and employed for transportation and protection. The ongoing ‘shelter’ series that I have been making since 2005 always employs packaging and this is a specific choice that alludes to the temporary refuge they offer. I also like the idea that packaging delivers a message from one person to another and I hope that the work does that to some extent. The form and pattern of these materials also offers the possibility to transform scale and I love the way that a model or miniature can instantly make sense as a monumental thing; that can be really unexpected from a cardboard box.

CE: Contrasts in scale, texture and tone—room-sized installations versus discrete and understated, rough-hewn versus smooth and opaque and robust versus delicate and tenuous—appear to be important aspects of your work. In your new piece egg-nest-home-country-universe, that you will present for in October, comprising seven hen-sized eggs fabricated from a dense plaster material, you continue this play of opposites by representing an extremely fragile form that protects the delicate and vitreous with something thoroughly solid, heavy and inert. What significance does the material have to the meaning of the work?
ES: I wanted the material to be the opposite of the real object, so in this case it had to be solid. As the plaster imitates the smooth appearance of an egg, I hope people will want to pick them up (although they can’t) to check that what they are seeing tallies with what they might expect the eggs to feel like. I think the delicacy of eggs is very important in the work; particularly the fact that you aren’t able to look inside without destroying them or killing the embryo inside. Eggs are sealed things, plaster is sealed, and the viewer always remains excluded, on the outside of the space in these works as long as they are intact.

Hieronymus Bosch, Tree Man, 1505

CE: When we first began talking about your new work you sent me an image of Hieronymous Bosch’s Man Tree (1470s), an ink drawing depicting a hybridized man tree form with human head, tree limbs arms and egg shaped torso cracked open to reveal a group of revelers around a table. A central figure in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-1504) Tree Man--adorned with miniature boats as shoes—functions as a gigantic human vessel fit for both land and sea. In addition to the similarity of the egg-like form and given the macabre nature of this extraordinary image, how does Tree Man resonate with your current work?
ES: It’s an important image for me as it is part of a history of bodies and buildings merging in art, which goes back to the Middle Ages with images of body/buildings used in medicine. I think the hybrid form is always a little sinister and uncomfortable, so I enjoy putting the incongruous built and natural forms together. With Bosch’s image, it appears the man isn’t even privy to what’s going on inside his egg-body, with a number of people drinking beer round a table in his eggy posterior. I find this lack of control (over his own body) really disturbing, although it is only the viewer that sees the full picture; the man himself is smiling in blissful ignorance. egg-nest-home-country- universe, is more about private space I suppose, as the eggs are sealed and self- contained. At the moment the link between body/building is not explicit in this work, but it feels like a step back towards Inhabitant and I am curious as to how it will develop. The egg has been a fairly recent image for me and I put this down to the fact that my last piece of work involved a three metre high wooden watchtower. I have been looking to the simplest, smallest form of dwelling to follow on from that.

CE: While the dome and arch are structurally sound building methods, your decision to use egg forms as a structural strategy strikes me as quite perverse. Rounded both top and bottom your eggs provide a perilous foundation for the construction of architecture. What was your thinking behind such a bizarre conflation of forms?
ES: Precariousness, I hope, is in all of my work. It’s important because everything is precarious and I think most people identify with a situation where everything could collapse in a moment. I am interested in forms that are held together by two dependent elements or where objects are balanced, wedged and propped. The fact that the eggs are liable to rock or tip, and break their delicate architecture, makes them more appealing to me.

CE: The multiple egg landscape lends an air of fantasy to the work––should we fear the hungry hatchling or embrace it? Was it your intention to create an imaginary alternate universe or is the work firmly grounded in our current solar system and if so, how?
ES: The imagery of hatching is interesting – especially when the protruding architecture might suggest an already sentient and active being inside! But no, the work is not intended as an alternate universe. I think the eggs in this work are more metaphorical than fantastical so perhaps they belong more to the surreal than sci-fi.

CE: In previous works such as Inhabitant (2009), you assumed anonymity inside one of your own sculptures—an amorphous structure made from found and recycled wood that covered your head and most of your body. The work functioned simultaneously as a protective shell and portable dwelling allowing for agency and a degree of control over an unfamiliar place—in this case Linz, Austria. In what way did the interplay between performance, sculpture and installation impact your subsequent work and has it led to a more hybridized practice?
ES: It’s strange because the idea or image of Inhabitant was in my head for at least a year before I made it. There was something incredibly liberating about being in Linz (where I felt like no one was really watching) that meant I could take sculpture that bit further - into performance. There is something about the idea of waddling around, unable to see in a cumbersome object that is completely absurd, and the moving image of Inhabitant is quite funny to watch. But it is also a serious piece of work that I feel attached to, so it’s hard to find that balance and brace myself for the performance side of the work. It was strange being safe and anonymous inside the work, and also finding myself incredibly vulnerable (dependent on someone to guide me and at the mercy of the public!).
I did make a couple of works in 2005/6 that were photographs of choreographed movements made with chairs and other furniture, but they felt incredibly personal and too revealing so have been tucked away in a folder since. I have continued to make photographic sketches with habitable, portable spaces since Inhabitant, but subsequent work that I have exhibited has been devoid of human presence. In a way Inhabitant has been a hard act to follow. I will make more work to be worn, but I’m taking my time over it and will show it at Yorkshire Sculpture Park next year. Pace of work is important and too often there is a feeling of needing to do everything now, but if I'm honest with myself, I don’t think I can make this kind of work like that.

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