Emily Floyd

Emily Floyd’s works are immediately inviting. Be it sculpture, print or public artwork, Floyd’s bright palette, expertly rendered geometric forms and the incorporation of text invite interaction. But while the works are accessible, they are never simple. Each is imbued with hours of research and a vast knowledge of topics ranging from alternative education, to feminist theory, to typography. Rejecting the pressure on Australian artists to think globally, Floyd is particularly interested in local social history and draws on her Antipodean context.

Born into a family of toymakers, Floyd learnt the craft early and still works with the machines she grew up with. These were not mass produced toys, but beautifully constructed wooden objects that were inspired by Eastern European traditions with roots in Modernist movements. They also connect to the idea of tactile learning, which has interested Floyd throughout her career. And just as the right toy can encourage active thinking, Floyd’s practice reveals that interaction with contemporary artworks can lead to great public benefit and education.

I’m interested in your background, and how you feel this influences your practice today?
I’ve always made artworks, but I didn’t go straight to art school. I did a degree in Sociology and Psychology, studied graphic design and then I went travelling. When I returned I learnt metal work, and noticed that the work I made was really huge. When I finally made the decision to go to art school in my mid-twenties, I applied to both the sculpture and silver smithing degrees at RMIT, and the lecturers looked at the folio and said to me “you’re a sculptor.”

My background in toy making has given me an understanding of objects – their relationship to the body and to the world, as well as the ideology that can be embodied within them. I was fortunate because this is an era where art schools struggle to teach skills, and doing all these different things meant that I came to art with a good deal of technical understanding.

Your work contains a wealth of references. What major sources do you draw from? Do you think it’s important that people pick up on them when viewing your works?
I always approach the making of an artwork from a position of learning, being curious about new ideas and embedding them into objects. I read a lot of books, look at archival material in libraries, listen to the radio and enjoy experimenting with new technical processes in the studio. I’m really interested in how knowledge can be conveyed, and am drawn more to the history of didactic art. I’d rather look at an enigmatic illustration than a sublime painting. I definitely don’t expect the audience to be across all the ideas that I am interested in, in any case I hope most things are thrown out the window by the time the work comes to fruition. I think it’s important for artworks to go through many stages of transformation to avoid the literal.

Will you have an idea for a work and investigate it, or will you read something that then inspires a work?
I look at the context of where the work is going to be. For example in 2008 I was in a show called Optimism at Gallery of Modern Art [inBrisbane], and the work wouldn’t have been made if I wasn’t going to present it here, so I felt it was important to use it as a starting point. I wanted to think about that idea of optimism in relationship to Australia and in particular Queensland, which drew me to ideas of Permaculture. After I have chosen a set of ideas I look for forms and motifs in the research, a figure that can anchor the sculptural forms – for example the Russian domes, or the giant egg, or the female eunuch form. A motif provides a hook and makes the work more accessible.

What role does accessibility play in your works and how important is it to you?
My work is definitely geared towards a more tactile engagement, and it is an aspiration for me that the audience has the freedom to interact with a work if it’s possible. I guess like all issues of free content, the question is who supports its production, and I can’t always afford to do so. I’m always trying to juggle the different contradictions around value and free access to works. Many works I’ve made can’t be touched because someone else already owns them, so it’s no longermy choice. But people regularly send messages of complaint to me that they’ve seen one of my exhibitions and they were not allowed to touch anything!

I imagine venues also have their own requirements regarding the public’s interaction with the works.
Sometimes it’s not manageable. If you want to have a tactile work in a museum you have to approach it collaboratively. You’ve got to work out how it’s going to be managed. For example I made an installation for children at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, and the objects were so small that there could have been problems in children throwing them at each other – basic issues of managing a group. And museums have massive numbers coming through now – in 2013 the National Gallery of Victoria clocked 800,000 people through Melbourne Now. So it’s an issue that you have to solve together.

Do you like this collaboration, or do you feel like you lose some of the control?
No, I think it’s good. I’m for having lots of different ways of working, and think that’s the only way artists can survive now. I don’t approach it like “I’m a genius, I’ve got to be uncompromising, you’ve got to follow my way.” I approach art in a collegial way – “what can we do together?” But then sometimes it’s just nice to be in the studio, to make something small, and it’s just for me – I control all elements of it. And if I don’t like it I can throw it away. That’s also a very important part of any artists’ practice I think.

I imagine that undertaking a large-scale public artwork is quite different. How do you manage this process?
With the big projects, you start off with lots of meetings, which can be really frustrating. I might put forward an idea to ten people in suits, and some of them like it and some don’t and some have really inane suggestions, like “is it going to attract snakes?” Everyone looks to you to drive the project forward and to be flexible at the right moment. It’s a creative process, but it’s more akin to the processes of architecture I guess. It’s not for everyone, and public art can have a tendency to dissipate an artist’s practice. I’m conscious of that, and so focus on why it is good to have this work in the public sphere, on how my work might find its locus in public space and why it is good for people to interact with art and feel like they own it. And maybe because I came from a background where the public good was always central, where community was really important and there was a kind of utopian veil around it, I’m always willing to have another go. Even though public projects can often fail, that’s what Utopia is about – when it falls apart you try again.

Do you approach works created for sale at a commercial exhibition differently to lareg commissions?
No, not really, I think all my work has always been really impractical! Even the small things are not very practical; they fall over in people’s houses! I have been working with Anna Schwartz Gallery for over a decade; Anna approaches contemporary art with the same expansive vision as a public museum, so there’s always been the opportunity to make a major presentation.

I’m interested in your art making process. Can you tell me how you go about starting a work?
I work in three main languages. In sculpture I make a lot of models, prototypes and drawings. Because I work through construction, I draw directly onto wood and then cut out and combine things together. It’s like drawing in space. In printmaking I use a lot of graphics processes – working with [Adobe] Illustrator, then going to print in screen or plate. Designing public programs is very much a collaborative process – working out what are the expectations, who are the audiences, how many people, where’s it going to. It just depends on the different contexts. There are lots of processes of making, and I use them to communicate the ideas, to get things happening, but I also see them as works in themselves.

Tell me about your studio practice – where and how do you work?
I’ve got two studios. I have a woodworking workshop in my backyard where I work on the machines that were in my family’s toy workshop when I was growing up. By about 2000 these kind of manufacturing industries had all but died in Australia, so I took the machines and I do the same thing with them that was always done, just in a different context. And then I’ve got a clean studio space at the Abbotsford Convent, a complex in Melbourne, and there I do all the painting, printmaking and works on paper.

When do you like to work?
If I could choose I would work in the afternoon and night, but to be honest I just do everything when I can. I think the problem for artists now is the amount of administration required to service content and relationships for art institutions. My work is extremely labour intensive so I need to work for 8-10 hours each day in the studio, and on top of this is heaped a huge amount of administration.

I was in an exhibition called Still Life ten years ago at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and when I was looking through emails for that project recently, I found only one message for the entire show! There has been a huge shift and the time of artists is captured in an unprecedented way.

This year marks two surveys of your work – one that recently closed at Heide Museum of Modern Art and one opening in November at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). How did these come about?
Yes I’m very lucky! Both asked at the same time, and through conversations with everyone we felt there was enough work and ideas for the two. And the collegial relationship was there between Heide and the NGV.

Was the choice of works similar for each survey, or do they explore different ideas and facets of your career?
The Heide exhibition, Far Rainbow, was very much a quiet exploration of ideas of alternative education. Each room is like a different kind of world combining various material approaches, including aspects of alternative education that I grew up with myself. It combines autobiography with works that I’ve made over the past 10 years. The exhibition also presents an archive of material that my mum collected in the ‘70s and ‘80s around ideas of childhood, childcare and feminism, and there’s a public project at the entrance to the museum.

The Dawn at the NGV is a shift in scale – it shows the larger key works from my career and it has three major new projects. The exhibition focuses on the form of the manifesto, the declaration of ideas. Different manifestos weave their way through the exhibition and are seen in relationship to each other. In some ways they don’t make sense, they may contradict each other, or be curiously outmoded. The show explores the search for a position in a kind of playful way.

How did you find the experience of looking back over your career and choosing the works?
I’ll have a show and the work will go and I won’t see it again – I’m not like a painter who might have a lot of their work around them all the time. So there were strange distortions because I had different ideas of scale – sometimes I thought works were really huge and I saw them and they were small or vice versa. I was also quite apprehensive about seeing the condition of works but I’ve been really heartened – people have looked after them so well. It’s like seeing old friends.

Emily Floyd if represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Sydney

Emily Floyd: The Dawn
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
21 November 2014 to 1 March 2015

Courtesy the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, and the National Gallery of Victoria

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