Artist Emi­ly Floyd and her Ice­landic Puffins

Romy Ash
The Saturday Paper, 8/4/2017
They start like this,” the artist Emi­ly Floyd says, hold­ing the wood­en body of a puf­fin in her hand. The body is square, blocky. It still looks like a bit of wood. There are two holes drilled in the bot­tom, ready for legs. Floyd and I are in her work­shop. She is hold­ing a puf­fin in progress, but I’ve seen the fin­ished puffins in her oth­er clean” stu­dio, in the Abbots­ford Con­vent. They’re a matt black, with very shiny orange beaks. Beau­ti­ful objects, designed to seduce. They’re to appear in Ice­landic Puffins, a solo show at Anna Schwartz Gallery. The puffins will form part of a land­scape peo­pled not only by the birds but by Ice­landic text that will list cor­po­rate pro­tag­o­nists pros­e­cut­ed by the State of Ice­land fol­low­ing the col­lapse of all three of the country’s major banks: Glit­nir, Lands­ban­ki and Kaupthing”. Floyd has used text as a sculp­tur­al form since the 2000s. Lan­guage becomes mate­r­i­al, some­thing that can be moved, con­struct­ed and decon­struct­ed, as a child might assem­ble a col­lec­tion of blocks. As with all her work, Ice­landic Puffins pulls from a com­plex set of sources and ideas. She sets up a dia­logue between the glob­al finan­cial cri­sis and the seduc­tive pow­er of design, but the work also con­nects with some­thing very local, and with Floyd’s per­son­al his­to­ry. In her stu­dio she showed me a page from Rip­ple, the fem­i­nist mag­a­zine her moth­er helped run and pub­lish in the 1970s. In Far Rain­bow, a sur­vey of her work in 2014, at Hei­de Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, Floyd exhib­it­ed more than 40 large screen-prints extrap­o­lat­ed from pages of Rip­ple, bring­ing to light a large­ly unac­knowl­edged and for­got­ten fem­i­nist his­to­ry. She says, I’ve been think­ing about all these dia­grams – I guess they’re kind of fem­i­nist info­graph­ics.” The page shows a nut­ted-out vision for com­mu­ni­ty child­care. There are box­es and inter­sect­ing lines: it makes a pic­ture of sorts. She links this info­graph­ic to what she knows about the police offi­cer who helped pros­e­cute the Ice­landic banks. She said, It was said that the police­man who put the case togeth­er, that he worked it all out on a white­board. So I’ve kind of spec­u­lat­ed on what that dia­gram would have been like.” We were sur­round­ed by matt black Ice­landic let­ters, piled on tables around us, ready for instal­la­tion, to become the sculp­tur­al land­scape that emerged from her vision of the white­board dia­gram. I’m inter­est­ed in this process, where she gives to the flat a kind of form and weight. The let­ters are made from black­ened steel and feel heavy. She want­ed a mate­r­i­al that could be played with and that they would look bet­ter after they’d been played with for 50 years. They would be more beau­ti­ful than they are now.” She said, They have their own skin.” Back in her work­shop, Floyd holds oth­er dis­mem­bered bits of puf­fin. These are the wings and feath­ers,” she says. The wings are smooth, stylised. A col­lec­tion of them lie against one anoth­er like the wood­en scales of a fish. The beaks are fin­ished, and Floyd opens them up, a part in the cup of each hand. This is Huon pine from Tas­ma­nia, from a bridge,” she says. I have this guy, if some­thing comes through he puts it aside for me. It’s an ide­al pat­tern-mak­ing tim­ber. It’s got very tight grain, and it’s got a lot of oil in it. Which gives it a shine as well. But it’s soft.” Every­thing in the work­shop has a film of fine saw­dust on it. There’s a spongy sed­i­men­ta­ry lay­er­ing of it under our feet. Some places, the saw­dust is thick enough to scoop; oth­ers, it’s more like a sift­ing of icing sug­ar. There are box­es of off­cuts, curls of shaved tim­ber. These are tem­plates,” Floyd says, ges­tur­ing to sketch­es on flat bits of wood. That thing where it goes from flat to sculp­ture is an inter­est­ing part of wood­work.” There are notes scrawled in pen­cil on off­cuts. I read: 15 fat bod­ies, 10 fat heads.” In the cor­ner of the work­shop there’s a pile of almost-puffins, still in bits. The wood is orange. She says, That is Ore­gon, it’s an Amer­i­can wood. It was brought over here to do the Flem­ing­ton Race­course.” She holds a head in her hand. This is a real­ly good bit, because the lines are close togeth­er. That piece would carve real­ly well. I start­ed this lot, carv­ing, but it wasn’t tight enough. First-go puffins.” She points to the Huon pine: This wood worked bet­ter.” She takes me on a tour of her machines: cir­cu­lar saws, drills, a band­saw that she explains feels more like a sewing machine, that is very exact. Machines that cut, drill, shape and pol­ish. Some of these machines are from her family’s toy-mak­ing fac­to­ry. Her father and her grand­moth­er made wood­en block-like toys in a fac­to­ry on Can­ter­bury Road in Mel­bourne. Some of them were designed by a Ger­man engi­neer and then they designed some them­selves,” says Floyd. Much has been made of Floyd’s toy-mak­ing past – her and her broth­er worked in the fac­to­ry as chil­dren – but she dis­tances her­self a lit­tle from it. It was a dif­fer­ent time; you had to work,” she says. She has this inher­i­tance, these machines. She shows me how the lin­ish­er works, a large belt sander. That was my grandmother’s,” she says. She used to do the blocks on that. She taught me how to use it, and she used it in a par­tic­u­lar way.” She picks up a piece of wood that already has two Ks cut out of it. This is anoth­er machine,” she says. I use this a lot for just cut­ting out the let­ters. Again, it’s like a sewing machine. You can turn the cor­ner –” she cuts into the piece of wood. It’s got a nice qual­i­ty that’s dif­fer­ent to laser cut. But then while I’m doing it, I’m, like, Why am I doing this?’ Some­times I cut out 100 and just work through it, and then I think this is ridicu­lous and I just machine cut every­thing else. I try not to glo­ri­fy the hand­made and to move between the two.” In her stu­dio, Floyd said, I’ve been research­ing this sci­ence fic­tion lan­guage by Ursu­la Le Guin and it’s a fem­i­nist matri­ar­chal lan­guage with an alpha­bet.” She said she’s not a sci­ence fic­tion buff but that she likes imag­in­ing anoth­er world, which is what art does”. I grew up in a sense – where every­one was try­ing to cre­ate this oth­er world – and see­ing it crum­ble. See­ing the co-oper­a­tive fall apart as well. I’m always look­ing at both sides.” Ideas explor­ing utopia is a com­mon theme that runs through Floyd’s work. Her child­hood was spent in the social­ist children’s pro­grams of Mel­bourne in the 1970s and 80s. She explores alter­na­tive edu­ca­tion­al philoso­phies: ideas of ped­a­gogy and play. Floyd has made a type­face of the Ursu­la Le Guin lan­guage and from this cre­at­ed a large sculp­ture to be installed in the entrance to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She took me on a sort of vir­tu­al tour of the gallery space, show­ing me a pho­to by Max Dupain, with her sculp­ture trans­posed over the top of it. So you come in that entrance there,” she said. So, first­ly it’s like a Greek tem­ple, just bizarre. This kind of trans­posed, stu­pid colo­nial-clas­si­cal thing, and then it’s got the names of male clas­si­cal artists on the front. To the left, that’s the colo­nial sec­tion, and to the right, that’s the mod­ernist dis­play there, and I just noticed when I would come up and sit there, they don’t very often have women artists in that colo­nial space. They’ve made quite a con­cert­ed effort in this space to canon­ise women mod­ernists, which is great, but … if you keep going, you get to the con­tem­po­rary art sec­tion, that’s the John Kaldor col­lec­tion, and that strange­ly has no women – or one woman. It’s the per­fect arte­fact of patri­ar­chal misog­y­ny. Espe­cial­ly in regard to the con­tem­po­rary col­lec­tion: it sort of rais­es the ques­tion, should it be allowed to be called con­tem­po­rary art if the fea­ture of mod­ernism, even, is Marx­ism, fem­i­nism, Freud? It’s like if you just have the oth­er two and for­get about fem­i­nism,” she says and laughs. My token moment – in the mid­dle of that – and also the space is com­plete­ly inhab­it­ed by women. There are some real­ly inter­est­ing con­tra­dic­tions.” Her large colour­ful sculp­ture will dom­i­nate this space, unavoid­able, inhab­it­ing the entrance to the gallery. I asked her whether it’s rare to be a woman work­ing in the field of pub­lic art and large sculp­ture and she said no. She’s part of a long his­to­ry of women artists work­ing in this field. Going back to Bar­bara Hep­worth,” she said. There’s this inter­est in cre­at­ing these large pub­lic struc­tures, which you could say: they are part of a male domain of indus­tri­al fab­ri­ca­tion, build­ing; and they also occu­py pub­lic space as a replace­ment for the body. That’s where I come from, this idea of occu­py­ing – putting this big object in the pub­lic space as a kind of dec­la­ra­tion, as a protofem­i­nist thing. Inge King is like that. She didn’t see her­self as a fem­i­nist. But if you look at what she was doing … she came from Ger­many, and estab­lished this stu­dio out in the bush. She made the big black arcs out­side the [Mel­bourne] Arts Cen­tre. That one’s called For­ward Surge. She estab­lished this field in Aus­tralia.” Floyd draws me deep­er into her work­shop, which she tells me is an old dairy. She takes me to a room where they used to make but­ter. There’s a lit­tle win­dow that opens out onto the street, where they sold to cus­tomers. In here, is a lit­tle bit of a grave­yard,” she says. There’s a thin head. This is a real­ly old one. I reck­on this is five years old.” She holds the unevolved puf­fin head in her hand, and pon­ders: I sup­pose – I don’t know whether or not I chuck stuff like this out…” She points out a pile of Russ­ian text from a work­shop at the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Aus­tralia. Around the cor­ner is a large wood­en sculp­ture from Far Rain­bow, with dusty life­jack­ets thrown over the top of it. In the but­ter room there’s books, a Pinoc­chio with his long nose, detri­tus from exhi­bi­tions, lengths of tim­ber laser cut with URLs. She reads some of them aloud: sys­tems the­o­ry … doc­u­men­tary about peo­ple still liv­ing at the Cher­nobyl site …” This is an ancient kau­ri tim­ber that they dig out of swamps. It’s been saved from becom­ing a sal­ad bowl. See how they present it ready to become a sal­ad bowl,” Floyd ges­tures towards two stumpy pieces of tim­ber. They look like thick rudi­men­ta­ry wheels, one flat and the oth­er she’s placed on top of it with its face out. The cup of the bowl, yet to be carved out. They’re just real­ly nice just like that,” she says. We step out into the gar­den, where the onion dome from her work Gulag Archipelego (2016) sits in a mon­u­men­tal­ly sized box, cov­ered in a sil­ver tarp that’s roped down around the edges. It’s beside a boat with a fad­ed yel­low hull. A vine is encroach­ing. This all needs to be fixed,” she says, refer­ring to the work in the dairy we’ve just stepped out of. It’s this kind of state of, like, I don’t know: decay. But you need this real­ly messy, chaot­ic space to make some­thing perfect.” 
This arti­cle was first pub­lished in the print edi­tion of The Sat­ur­day Paper on Apr 8, 2017 as Think Floyd”. 
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