ArtNow: Emma Fitts, 'Thinking out Loud'
ArtNow: How does research begin for a project like Lapping at Your Door? Is there a process of thinking back through figures and texts who have left some mark on your practice and finding threads that seem to fit? Is it organic and free-ranging or methodical and structured?
Emma Fitts: The more I work, or the more I get to know my practice, it feels like a process of both thinking backwards through past research and influences while also looking forward to new ones. I feel like I’m getting to a point in my practice where I’ve developed a vocabulary for thinking through my interests in tactility, histories, queerness, Modernism, painting, and architecture, among other fields. I think that, as artists, we are in the privileged position to draw on multiple points of interest and research and then synthesise them through our own tools and material vocabulary. To me, my research feels structured, but I know that to others it seems free-ranging and organic. I guess this is because, through making this kind of work, I’ve become familiar and practised at it.
I saw the Objectspace project as an opportunity to try this approach in a different space and under a new set of conditions. As an artist working primarily with canvas, it was a unique opportunity to make a work for the outdoors, and to engage with an architectural façade rather than an interior. I wanted to make something that acted like a part of the architecture, rather than a folly or an aside.
AN: Thinking more generally, what role does the influence of other creatives play in how you think about your own practice and go about making your own work?
EF: My research methodology continually draws upon multiple practices, disciplines, and the biographies of other artists and makers. I’m interested in the lives of other artists, how they lived, who they got ideas from, what was happening at the time that they lived—perhaps because this is exactly what isn’t ordinarily recorded. I find it’s easy to find documentation about the work they produced, but not as easy to find information about all the intangible factors that combined to aid them in the making of it. My own work often comes out of this search for a fuller understanding of an artist's life and the time in which they were making—not just the biography, but the intersecting ideas of society and thinking at that time.
T'ai Smith, Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)
AN: What do you find interesting about the Bauhaus, and especially women working within the Bauhaus model? Are there specific individuals within that school that have really spoken to you?
EF: I’m interested in the different Bauhaus workshops that investigated the limits of specific materials—like the Weaving Workshop—with a focus on a particular technology, material, and set of structures. Of particular interest to me is the fact that the Bauhaus weavers were writing a lot at the time—producing essays that helped to develop parameters for their woven work. T’ai Smith is really engaging in the way she re-examines the Weaving Workshop, and the Bauhaus as a whole, in this light. Smith’s writing looks to a traditional craft that’s been denied a meaningful place in mainstream art history and art theory. In bringing to light the texts that the Bauhaus weavers were writing, Smith’s work has given me strategies for incorporating other disciplines into my work.
I’m drawn to Anni Albers’ time at the Bauhaus, which informed much of her later work and especially the book, On Weaving, which is hugely influential. It was at the Bauhaus that she began to articulate a theory of her own material field, that would be formed and reformed as her career developed. The writings of Albers—and other Bauhaus students and teachers like Otti Berger and Gunta Stölzl—are fascinating, and demonstrate to me ways of looking to other disciplines to reorganise the one you’re in. They looked to the rhetoric of painting, architecture, and photography to write about their field, and in doing so defied the categorical boundaries that defined Modernism.
Jasmine Renault, Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2016)
AN: Eileen Gray is a really interesting figure, and one whose work and influence are often hidden in traditional histories of Modernism, what brought you to her?
EF: When researching the artistic circles of the early 1900s, Eileen Gray’s name kept coming up across circles of writers, artists, and designers. I don’t know much about Gray’s personal life, it isn’t well documented, but Renault explores a lot of the context of the time she was living in. She worked in this fluid moment where the term “lesbian” was only just being solidified as a subject, and so was in the rare position to be able to reject this regulatory term. I like this idea of being able to exist in something without it yet being named as such.
We’re often so focused on the public image of an artist, and see success in those who step forward to operate in that arena. But for me, Gray illuminates the idea that there is also a strength in turning away, or staying in, thinking about a private self as much as a public one. Gray created spaces, objects, and events that are personal, and seem to purposefully challenge the heteronormative discourse of her time.
AN: Does Jasmine Renault, in particular, shed light on Gray in a way that made you think about her differently?
EF: Yes, Definitely. Renault casts a wide net in her research, looking far beyond Gray’s limited biographical details and out into the intersections between architecture, design, communication, art, and literature of her moment. She’s helped me to think of Gray, less as a figure in isolation, and more as one among many other sexually dissident female designers, visual artists, and writers of the twentieth century. When you start to connect the dots between these individuals, you begin to recognise more of a social history—one that isn’t just focused on new objects, interiors, or architectural spaces, but on encouraging new people and new ways of being in these categories.
‘The Magic of Art and Math: Dorothea Rockburne in conversation with Philip Ording’, public talk presented at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, 26 February 2020
AN: Black Mountain College only ran for a quarter of a century, but has this outsized list of luminaries among its staff and students. What do you think was so special about the place and the pedagogy, and what do you take from it?
EF: There is something so elusive about Black Mountain College to me. It feels like a place that, for a short while, did everything that you dream of in a school—it was interdisciplinary, non-hierarchical, and set in this remote and surreal landscape. Black Mountain allowed students to be involved in a wide net of education, art, and cooperative labour. The criss-crossing of this type of interdisciplinary art practice is, once again, difficult to document and historicise, but it can be read through the wide-ranging work of the school's luminaries. These artists were not taught to jump on the spot, but to explore and invent their own languages for supporting their experimental work.
AN: The intersection of art and pure mathematics is a pretty rare one, but was very present at Black Mountain. What is it about their meeting that interests you, that makes you think about making art in different ways?
EF: Dorothea Rockburne is an artist I was looking at for the Objectspace project, and it was exciting to discover not only had she been at Black Mountain College, but that she had studied pure mathematics there with Max Dehn. Rockburne has a comprehensive understanding of mathematics, and the intersection of pure maths and art is central to her work. For me, I like the idea of applying different thinking structures to my practice, and I’m attracted to pure mathematics, probably because the subject seems so foreign. Recently I’ve looked at the work of astronomer and astrophysicist, Beatrice Tinsely, and her work on the life cycle of stars. I’ve also been reading George Kubler’s The Shape of Time, and the writings of Marilyn Waring. These people have a way of breaking down information on often impenetrable subjects through clear language, diagrams, and research. I’m interested in both this approach, and in pulling aspects of their work into my own practice in the hope that it will open up new ways of thinking.
Natalie Barney’s garden at 20 Rue Jacob
AN: Natalie Barney isn’t a particularly well-known figure, can you tell us something of who she was?
EF: Barney was a key figure in the literary and arts circles of the early-twentieth century. For over sixty years she hosted a literary salon at her home, on a Friday in Paris, where people would come together to talk about art, literature, poetry, or any topic of interest. For Lapping at Your Door, I began to look more specifically at the garden of Barney’s home and the part that this played in bringing people together.
AN: How did gardening and garden design come into your thinking while you were researching and preparing for LAYD?
EF: I was interested in Barney because I wanted to introduce elements of a garden space into Lapping at Your Door —gardening as a structure to loosen things up a bit. It’s tied up with my interest in exploring domestic/interior spaces while still feeling a connection with plants and nature—wanting to collapse the space between these two experiences. The work has a reference to the large windows in my living room that look out to our small courtyard garden. The windows are floor-to-ceiling, and help give the sense of pulling the garden into the room. The New Zealand landscape is so large and open, which I love, but I also find a sense of insecurity in such wide spaces. I wanted to make a work that looked to landscape in a domestic setting, in a way that mixed the senses and feelings of public and private, open and closed.
AN: ‘Garden design’ has some very manufactured connotations. Barney’s approach was something totally different that struck at some very different values. What is it about the way she cultivated this space that interests you?
EF: Yes, sometimes I feel like it’s just better to say ‘plants’ rather than go down a miscommunication over the word ‘garden design’. Barney’s use of plants was loose and messy, which I like as I think it allows for more of the many overlaps and relationships that happen in these spaces.
From the images I’ve seen, and what I’ve read, 20 Rue Jacob was full of objects, textures, colour, curves, hidden corners, food, poetry, conversation, and decadent aesthetics—all of which had an effect on the senses. To me, Barney treated the garden as an extension of these ideas. It wasn’t manicured or overly pruned, but encouraged to ramble and show its systems of growth. I like the idea that, in a garden, both decay and growth are given visibility. Barney’s garden also embodies a lot of things that Eileen Gray’s designs do—she introduces spaces and objects of varying heights and textures that force socialising to operate in new ways, opening up new connections and ways of movement.
Lisa Robertson, Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Astoria: Clear Cut Press, 2004)
Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’  in Denise DuPont (ed), Women of Vision: Essays by Women Writing Science Fiction (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988)
AN: The dialogue between literature/poetics and visual arts can often feel muddy or like they are talking across each rather than to each other. What is it about Robertson’s writing that feels like a natural fit for thinking about art projects?
EF: I don’t know that I find it a natural fit, but I definitely do see literature as another tool in my armoury of influences and research. It doesn't take much for me to grab on to something, or to bend it into a new body of work, and in a way the more porous the object the better. Perhaps this is why I like Robertson’s work, and the work of writers. To me, they begin to address that space of the void, which is maybe the area you are calling muddy—I like the way they directly engage with this murky area, that space between the word and its understanding.
It’s a brave area to try to work in and comprehend—that space between the garment and the body, the equation and its application, the structure and its flex. Robertson is so good at mixing these things up, she gently leads her reader through a new, and at times disorientating, understanding of space. There’s a confidence in the way she does this that I really admire.
AN: How does a science-fiction author like Le Guin fit into this picture?
EF: In this short story, Le Guin helps us to understand that one of the first and most important tools for humans would have been a woven bag for carrying things. So, alongside weapons, there was also a textile—a bag for gathering and providing, rather than a tool for force and domination. I love how a simple shift in storytelling can reframe our understanding of evolution and history. In her writing, Le Guin takes the bag and its criss-crossing structure to weave together an understanding of history that relies upon a net, or web, of criss-crossing understanding, rather than a linear, heroic telling of evolution. She’s an important figure in feminist thinking as her science-fiction stories remind me of the importance of reimagining worlds so that positive change can continue to happen.
AN: How do you, as a maker, translate the thoughts/emotions/ideas you’ve absorbed from written text into your material practice. What does that act of translation look/feel like for you?
EF: I don’t have a concrete strategy for this, so I’m not sure how to answer this question. I think with literature I’m most interested in how writers can hold multiple ideas in their heads and are able to convey these through text and lapping pages and this is something I’m constantly working on.
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