Preview interview from December print issue
Emma Witter is young and brilliant and her career as an artist developed quickly, since her early years in college. Many contemporary art critics have been interested in her work and have assured her, to date, a place at the Sarabande, the Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation that continues the will of its founder and offers support and opportunities to talented and, above all, brave young artists. Emma Witter fits perfectly into this description and her work, though delicate and fragile in appearance, has a special expressive force.
The solo titled Remember You Must Die was held last September at Sarabande, the Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation in London.
We had the pleasure to interview her for you and this is what we found out about her fresh point of view on a “stale” topic.
Still Life is a genre which goes back centuries throughout the history of art: what artistic education do you have and how important is the still life in your practice?
I’m very inspired by classic Vanitas still life paintings, representing the transience of life and futility of pleasure. Such as decaying flowers contrasted with rich objects. Writer/curator Paul Carey Kent came recently to see my exhibition and I liked how he described my bones flowers as “a sort of Memento Mori squared”. I don’t have any formal art history education but last year I enrolled on an incredible 10 week evening course at the Royal Academy called “The Vogue of Vanitas and Mortality” where a where a great selection of speakers swept us through the history of Vanitas and Memento Mori, to contemporary practices. Ann Gallagher (Director of Collections of British Art at the Tate) gave a particularly interesting talk about Vanitas still life artists and got me really thinking about my compositions.
You are part of the Sarabande Foundation, the artistic community created by Alexander McQueen, whose aesthetic we all know pretty well. You share the same fascination for caducity and death which, despite being central topics in art for obvious reasons, are still perceived as difficult subjects. However, your artworks seem to issue a sense of lightness and beauty. How do you think the perception of death has changed throughout the centuries and what angle do you look at it from through your work?
I think we’ve become increasingly detached from death, especially in the west. It’s very apparent when you compare funerary traditions across the world, and in our own history. We’re very detached from it physically, no longer caring for the bodies ourselves or even being able to look at them. We’ve created a kind of taboo and darkness surrounding something very natural, and something it’s perfectly okay to be curious about. There’s a similar detachment to do with the way we eat – people often do not think about where their food has come from. Meat does not just appear magically skinless and boneless in super marketing plastic packaging. I’ve heard a number of people that have been disturbed late into their childhood when realizing that their dinner is from a particular animal! I think that opaqueness is really unhealthy. In my work I’m always trying to challenge the perception of bone as a signifier of death and darkness. It’s a really incredible and beautiful material. We have a huge problem at the moment with waste and manufacturing, and so I also hope to highlight it’s wide availability as an industrial by product by creating works with it that appear harmless and beautiful.
What are your plans for future? You seem interested in different types of art: would you like to explore other avenues other than sculpture? Moving forward I’d also really like to thinking about cross disciplinary works and collaborations – for example creating a hybrid between sculpture and photography, sculpture and jewelry, sculpture and furniture etc. There are a few things that I started to explore during the making of my recent solo show that I’d really like to alienate and develop more thoroughly, such as 3D printing, copper electroforming, going back to using food as material for sculpture-based photography, and starting to scale up my pieces. Oh and I painted with food! I wanted to see if I could make a food based vanitas work on paper, and I used different condiments to put down a floral painting. I would love to develop a series of these, and see where you could push that idea.
Words by Giulia Greco