Interview: Emma Elliott - Unity and Separation

Interview: Emma Elliott - Unity and Separation

Emma Elliott is a British artist who trained as a painter and sculptor in Italy and the UK. Her work combines classical and contemporary techniques; conceptually she is interested in describing the human condition and building a picture of the human as inherently contradictory: brutal and civilised, ignorant and intelligent, lost and hopeful. She is particularly interested in the relationship between history and the contemporary and with the animality of the human. Her recent work Reconciliation examines hope in hopeless circumstances and the influence of the past on the present. Through sculpture, documentary and digital editions, the project brings together biblical stories with the painful recent lessons of World War II.

You were classically trained in painting and figurative sculpture. How do the two kinds of training come together in your practice - do you find that one is more influential than the other?

I initially applied for a number of London art schools, but didn’t find the inspiration I was hoping for, and decided to seek adventure abroad. I was introduced to an art school in Florence and felt that going to the birthplace of the Renaissance was the ideal starting point for my artistic journey.

The techniques taught at Charles Cecil Studios are based on a very traditional and practical approach with a strong emphasis on portraiture, both in painting and sculpture.

On returning to London I further developed my practice and eventually moved on from classical portraits, landscapes and still lifes to more conceptual and contemporary subjects more in line with my personal interests and ideas. I introduced precious metals and string to my paintings and continue to experiment with different media for my sculptures.

I believe that both disciplines inform each other in my practice and are equally rooted in a traditional approach to craftsmanship and materials while my creative motivation stems from a fascination with less conventional themes.

Your works examine the relationship between animality and humanity, primitive and the refined. Could you explain your thoughts on this relationship and how they have come through in your works?

I have always been fascinated with human nature and behaviour, verbal communication and creative expression. My artistic interpretation of these topics began with questioning whether as humans we have evolved or devolved from our primitive origins. How people consider themselves refined, yet often do not see past the microcosm in which they live. I am fascinated by how we study wild animals in their natural habitats, while we dominate over all domesticated animals; how that reflects on ourselves and our planet, and our own position in the food chain.

A lot of my work comes from querying and making sense of the complexities of human nature. Primates may be shown to be the puppeteers pulling the strings of dancers in my paintings, or are recognisable as the primitive compulsions behind the human etiquette in my sculptural work.

Could you introduce your work Reconciliation, the story behind it and how you developed it into a body of work?

The concept for the work had its origin during a trip to Jerusalem a few years ago and is a response to the sense of absolute horror I experienced when visiting the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. I felt guilt and disgust, and I knew that remembering what humans are capable of is of utmost importance and a message that should never cease to be communicated.

Put very simply, Reconciliation is centred around a marble sculpture which includes both the hand stigmata of Jesus Christ and the Auschwitz tattoo of a Holocaust survivor, thus bringing together the suffering of two Jews living almost two thousand years apart. I felt the painful irony, that had Jesus been alive during the Holocaust he would have had a number on his arm and been persecuted by his own followers.

The work has evolved through many stages and across many mediums, starting from clay, then plaster and eventually marble. In order to realise the project I felt I had to find an actual Holocaust survivor and ask permission to borrow their tattoo. Eventually I met the man who was given inmate number 157040 at Auschwitz.

Instead of remaining stuck in the mud of his experience and and base his identity on his past, the message of Eliezer’s life story is one of hope and redefining oneself which I feel needs to be preserved and shared. To symbolise his rising from the mud I have cast his portrait in actual mud to complement the project.

Reconciliation evolved over several years from a simple idea into a comprehensive body of work encompassing two sculptures, analogue and digital editions, as well as a couple of films. The journey involved several trips to Israel and Auschwitz and encounters with many amazing people along the way without whom the project would not have been possible.

The work expands into different elements from sculpture, prints, video to digital editions on Sedition. Can you tell us how you developed these different elements and how they feed into the other to tell a story?

With sculpture being my most natural medium, I instinctively started by making small prototypes in clay. I was drawn to the powerful symbolism of crucifixion and wanted to combine this with the numbers that were used to mark Auschwitz victims. The subject matter is both simple and profound at the same time, which led me to produce a short video to convey the story and artistic journey at the core of the project.

A second film is a documentary based on my conversation with Eliezer Goldwyn, an Auschwitz survivor who lent the project his number. The film documents his attempted escape from Nazi occupied territories, his eventual capture and subsequent liberation. Most importantly it documents his tenacity of spirit even during the most inhumane of circumstances and constitutes an integral part of Reconciliation.

After completing the final arm in marble I decided to present the work against different backgrounds to symbolise the multitude of dynamics contained in the sculpture and possible interpretations of the work. This eventually resulted in the digital edition for Sedition. The interactive medium helps illustrate the relationship between the various stages and illustrates the natural transition from one state to the other - further emphasising the work’s underlying theme of remembrance, learning and not forgetting in order prevent history from repeating itself.

Through the process of research and your interview with the Holocaust survivor, what has this experience of making Reconciliation taught you?

Despite the serious subject matter I have not lost my trust in the goodness of humanity and this is the main lesson that Eliezer has taught me. I was deeply touched by his ability to move forward and pursue his personal goals and enjoy a fulfilled life after the Holocaust. I am in awe of how he was able to place trust in people again. His description of rising out of the mud of his situation to overcome his victim status has had a profound influence on me.

Meeting Eliezer taught me a lot about the resilience of the human spirit and that it is possible not to be defined by past tragedies. He message reminded me to live in the moment , to pursue my dreams and trust my creative instincts.

I consider the work’s theme to be universal and not religious, despite its obvious references to Christian and Jewish history. Reconciliation explores the perpetual extremes and contradictions of human behaviour and as such is a natural progression in my artistic development.

Could you tell us specifically about the work on Sedition, what were the interesting aspects of extending the project to digital format? Did anything exciting or challenging emerge during the process that adds to the rest of the project?

As my practice is all about experimentation and not being confined to one mode of expression, working with Sedition enabled an exciting leap into the digital world. From 2D and 3D to 4D, the edition has allowed me to add a fourth dimension to my work. While painting and sculpting in an artist’s studio can be quite isolating, it has been a fascinating experience to work closely with musicians, editors and filmmakers to transform my visions into digital art.

Sedition work closely with their artists which is important if you are like me, not very techy or computer literate, and I have really enjoyed working with them. It has been very satisfying to see the the seven backgrounds melt into each other in the order that I had previously assigned to them in my mind, but was unable to express in any other medium. The soundscapes originally created by Martin A Smith for the concept video complement the work perfectly.

What message do you hope to share with the project and how might it benefit the cause of reconciliation and the Holocaust?

The central message of this project is of remembrance, an appeal not to forget the atrocities carried out in the past in order to prevent a recurrence. This has become particularly poignant against a backdrop of news dominated by stories of war and unrest, refugees and increasing global discontent with political leaders and the media.

On a more personal level it is about redefining myself and living in the moment while asking how as humans we can live in the world together in peace. I was drawn to Hegel and his theory that ‘beauty contains ugliness’ which suggests that we cannot have good without a measure of bad. I interpret this to mean that we need to learn to live together and accept each others’ differences; to be humane, be good humans. The exhibition aims to create a space for dialogue around these important ideas.

Can you tell us more about where this work will be shown and your upcoming shows?

The project will be launched in London this December.

London Launch: 2-4 December 2016
Venue: Noho Studios, 46 Great Titchfield Street, ​London, W1W 7QA
Private View: Friday 2 December 6.30-9.30pm
Public Open Times: 2 December 3pm-6pm, 3 and 4 December 11am-6pm

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Emma Elliott
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