Emily Speed interview: Bodies and buildings (2014)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 06 November 2015
This interview was previously published in Sculpture 33(8), October issue, pp. 32-5.

Emily Speed: Bodies and buildings

Emily Speed works between performance and sculpture, exploring the body, architecture, and their interrelationship— with surprising results. Since graduating with an MA from London’s Wimbledon College of Art in 2006, she’s been quite active, working on various projects and exhibiting in a number of international group shows. In 2013, she had a two-person show at Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery and was shortlisted for the U.K.’s Northern Art Prize based on works exhibited at the Leeds Art Gallery. She lives and works in Northwest England.

[To learn more about Emily Speed’s art, R.J. Preece interviewed her. The following are excerpts of the conversation:]

R.J. Preece: Could you explain the sorts of issues that you think about when you’re making and performing your wearable, architectural works?

Emily Speed: Bodies, buildings, and the relationship between the two. The internal space that we occupy in our heads and how the spaces that we inhabit shape us as people.

R.J. Preece: How did you get interested in wearable-performance work?

Emily Speed: I’d wanted to do it for a long time, but I didn’t really have the confidence and it seemed slightly ridiculous. It was during a residency in Linz, Austria, that I finally took the plunge. I’ve always been interested in costume, and I wanted to animate my sculptures in that way. I love the absurdity of two legs poking out of something usually static— maybe because of my childhood doing pantomime.

R.J. Preece: How does it feel to walk around wearing the Inhabitant works? What were the challenges?

Emily Speed: I feel pretty hysterical in them. It’s exhilarating, but they’re heavy and hot; I also feel incredibly vulnerable because I can’t see well. In St. Louis, it was a fantastic way to start conversations, especially in the North side, where a whole bar’s worth of customers came out to see what was going on. That ended up being almost fun.

R.J. Preece: With Mattdress and Drawers (2011) and Panoply (2012), which are architectural, your legs are photographed with the rest of your body encased in the space. Do you see these works as expressing a kind of entrapment or alienation?

Emily Speed: The photographs from Mattdress and Drawers were taken in buildings at Yorkshire Sculpture Park earmarked for demolition. They opened as student halls in 1949, so they’d been occupied by hundreds of people. It seemed poignant to inhabit those spaces once more. The furniture that I found there had so many traces from bodies that it seemed an obvious material. Maybe that makes the work more like a memorial, because the building itself seemed like a body.

Panoply, on the other hand, was more about entrapment. The title suggests armor, and I suppose the sculpture was made as such— strong cladding with only small holes through which my legs, hands, or hair appeared. I got in via a ladder that was then taken away. So, I was in the situation once more of being stuck, but safe and protected, like in Inhabitant.

R.J. Preece: Human castle (2012), which is performed with acrobats, with cloth resulting in architecture, seems to be an opposite sort of construction. Is this how you see it?

Emily Speed: Perhaps, though it still plays with private / public and inside / outside. The final structure of the work uses a curtain wall to close the acrobats inside and leave the audience— and me— on the outside. It started with Catalan castells [human towers] and how their creation depends on a huge number of people. There is real precariousness in these kinds of human structures, and I’m attracted to their vulnerability and fleeting nature.

R.J. Preece: Façades / Flats and Ruins / Fragments (Rome) (both 2012), installed at the Oredaria Gallery in Rome, create an interesting contrast in material and form.

Emily Speed: I often work between the two scales of those works: the architectural, model-size pieces and the work big enough for one body. I’d spent a lot of time exploring Rome and got really interested in closedup buildings from the Mussolini era [that were closed up]. They were perfectly good buildings, but too difficult to use because of their history. All of the sculptures, large and small, consisted only of façades; in Façades / Flats, you could go in between, but never inside.

R.J. Preece: What do you see as your artistic influences? I read that you were very taken by a detail in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of earthly delights [as I have been].

Emily Speed: Small details like the “Tree Man,” who has an egg for a body, are often the start of works. It could be the place where I am working for a specific project, specifically the stories of its inhabitants. I love dance and costume, and a couple of years spent living in Japan have probably impacted me more than I acknowledge. I find that literature often creeps into my work, and I love [The Box Man by] Kobo Abe, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Ayme, Italo Calvino. There are incredible descriptions of impossible things in these writers’ works.

R.J. Preece: I like your wall intervention Nothing is finished, nothing is perfect, nothing lasts (2012). Did it start a new series of works for you?

Emily Speed: That was a fantastic opportunity to work on an architectural scale. It was a fairly small commission, but with the support of Corian, I had use of their thermoforming ovens, free Corian, and people to silicone the work onto the building. At this stage in my career, my work is often led by someone else’s budget because I don’t really have one, but to intervene in architecture is something I imagine quite often.

Read more: R.J. Preece; Emily Speed