by Courtney R. Thompson
Montréal, Jan. 2013: In his 1970 essay “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making” Robert Morris wrote, “I believe there are ‘forms’ to be found within the activity of making as much as within the end products. These are forms of behavior aimed at testing the limits and possibilities involved in that particular interaction between one’s actions and the materials of the environment.” In this statement Morris was reconsidering his artworks of the early 1960s—moving from closed to open circuits through works such as Box With the Sound of its Own Making (1961) to his felt pieces later in the same decade—this exploration of process became a hallmark for artists like Morris working in the wake of Minimalism and its industrialized fabrication.
Although Emily Hermant’s artworks may resonate with Morris’s process-based approach, her selection of materials and their execution are informed by histories and aesthetics of gendered labor. Her inquisitive approach reveals tensions in our perceived understanding of the inherent properties of materials and their execution. I sat down with the artist over email (Hermant is currently Visiting Assistant Professor in Studio Arts at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec), to find out more about her relationship to her own “activity of making.”
Emily Hermant's upcoming solo exhibit will take place at the Evanston Art Center in Evanston, IL from February 24 - March 7, 2013.
Emily Hermant, Spatial Drawing II, 2012, 46” H x 48” W x 18” D; Courtesy of the artist / Photo credit: Christian Kaye.
Courtney R. Thompson: Can you explain briefly the relationship between your use of materials and how they relate to labor, particularly histories of women’s labor?
Emily Hermant: My background is in textiles, so many of the ideas, materials, and processes in my work have been strongly influenced by histories of women’s labor. Historically, sewing, mending, and embroidering cloth have been domestic endeavors performed by women, and hence materials such as thread, pins, and cloth are imbued with these histories. An important aspect of my methodology has been to extend small-scale handwork to large-scale, immersive environments, and so the materials and sensibilities of handwork, and its histories, are present in these works.
An early, large-scale work, Thumbpins (2007) is a good example of this relationship between my use of materials and women’s labor. Thumbpins was a gigantic, eight-foot by eleven-foot rendering of my thumbprint, made entirely out of dressmakers’ pins (about 70,000) and pinned to a hotel room wall. To make Thumbpins, I took a small piece of physical data, a bodily marker typically used to identify and track individuals, and repurposed it to pierce the space, using the dressmaker’s pins as a drawing tool and as a mark-making device. Though the piece grew specifically out of working with textiles, it resonated with larger questions of mapping, tracking, surveillance, identity and women’s work. The maker became small (and invisible) in relation to the mark, even as the mark of the maker’s body was hyper-visible. My goal was to interfere with that invisibility by making the mark huge and rendering visible and physical the invasion of the body and space.
An interesting relationship between the slowness of making and the speed of communication has emerged over several years in my work. In the case of Thumbpins, it was fascinating to me how long the work took to mount and how quickly the work could be destroyed. It took five people five days of painstaking handwork to install the piece. Then it was on view for one week. Then was destroyed in a couple of hours. Although it was destroyed so quickly, the piece left a remarkable trace of its action: tens of thousands of tiny pinholes remained in the wall. That piece and that experience, along with other works, contributed to my thinking about the slowness and deliberateness of hand labor as a critical strategy for slowing down the speed of contemporary communication. It also suggested to me new ways that materiality and hand-making can lead to a critical re-evaluation of ubiquitous digital and virtual interfaces.
More recently, I have been exploring ideas about the nature of “work,” in particular, how we understand, value, and define masculine and feminine forms of labor. For example, in my recent body of work, Spatial Drawings (2012), I treat hard materials like wood as textiles, emphasizing their softness and malleability. In applying a “soft,” “delicate” sensibility to a hard, structural material, the work in part explores the boundaries often associated with “gendered” work. I have also been incorporating functional objects (for example, my studio broom and dustpan) into the sculptures, so that the sculptures themselves appear to be performing “work.” This is a way of humorously and deliberately obscuring the lines between domestic labor and studio work. I like to think that these objects present evidence that an artistic process is underway, while also confounding the roles and the properties of the site of production. This reference to ordinary, routine tasks has been inspired by Yvonne Rainer’s task-based performances from the 1960’s, as well as Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s maintenance work performances from the 1970’s.
Emily Hermant, Hesitations, 2010, Left image: 96" H x 375"W x 1"D / Right image:10" H x 7"W x 1"D, Thread and nails on drywall, shadows; Courtesy of the artist / Photo credit: Guy L'Heureux.
CRT: In earlier works like Lies, lies, lies… (2004/2009), and Hesitations (2010), your use and execution of materials seem to reveal hidden tensions in the immaterial. A lie alludes to an unspoken truth and interruptions in speech are both conscious and unconscious markers of what may remain unsaid. What drew you to these transformations?
EH: One of my main interests has been to draw attention to emotional complexities in ordinary social interactions by examining what we conceive of as imperfections in speech or embellishments in language. I am interested in materializing these ordinary and overlooked moments or aspects and I am always fascinated with what immaterial-to-material translations can reveal about interpersonal relationships. A single lie or a single hesitation in speech might easily go unnoticed and might not have much weight. But by accumulating such moments and by rendering them physically, all sorts of new potentials and tensions are created.
In the work Lies, lies, lies…, I explored acts of deception in communication: how we lie to ourselves, how others lie to us, and how some lies remain unspoken. I collected hundreds of donated lies, embroidered them, and then carefully illuminated them on walls to create relationships among the embroidered lies and their shadows, which were more visible to the eye than the embroideries themselves. I have always been intrigued by our tendencies towards embellishment in spoken language. I found an interesting parallel between the ways in which language embellishes our experiences and how embroidery embellishes the surface of a cloth. In Lies, lies, lies…, a question was how to find ways of keeping track of those embellishments and rendering them visible. Later, as part of this body of work, I created an interactive website so that people could lie or manipulate and edit other people’s lies, thereby building a virtual community of lies and liars.
In Hesitations, I used thread, nails, and sound as primary materials to transform pauses, hesitations, and other communicative glitches (e.g., “ums,” “ahs”) extracted from recordings of intimate conversations into an immersive environment consisting of large but delicately rendered visual forms. There is a sense of play and drama in the installation, which includes a soundscape of human voices performing hesitations. I used a large scale to amplify these small parts of connectivity in language, and I employed a labor-intensive mode of production to slow these moments down and draw attention to their emotive power. The temporary form of Hesitations—built on-site with thread and nails—reflects the fleeting nature of spoken language and our attempts to represent it. Such glitches and hesitations are sounds that we are encouraged to edit out or to disregard, but they are an important feature of language and social interaction. I find that these kinds of pauses, stumbles, and gaps can provide temporary glimpses of human foibles and point to the absurdity and weirdness of the communicative process.
Emily Hermant, Installation view of Spatial Drawings III, IV, V, 2012, Dimensions Variable; Courtesy of the artist / Photo Credit: Michael O'Sullivan.
CRT: Your newest series, Spatial Drawings, appear simultaneously menacing and lyrical. There is a raw energized element to these hand-bent, solid hardwood planks in their construction, and their scale uneasily engages the body of the viewer; however, their curves also visually entice with sweeping lines that cut through space. Can you speak to this intriguing contradiction?
EH: There are a number of contradictions at play in Spatial Drawings. The most noticeable contradiction has to do with expectations of material and form. The body of work is comprised of several large-scale sculptures made of interconnected, hardwood planks, and I treat these planks as a kind of three-dimensional thread whose curves and twists create “drawings” in three-dimensional space. The transformation of a hard, structural material into something soft and malleable plays against our understanding of how hardwood is supposed to or is meant to perform. In the pieces, the unexpected torsion and soft, undulating lines in space counter the hard lines, edges, and geometric shapes that one might associate with wood planks. I think that the way that the planks sweep down, seemingly under the action of gravity, only to twist and bend away again, does help lend the pieces a kind of lyrical quality.
For the past few years, I have been preoccupied with how the drawn line unfolds in space, especially how to draw in space and with space, all around the viewer. In Spatial Drawings, the bends and twists of the planks, and the ways in which the pieces perform their own malleability, are suggestive of tensions, angles, positions, contortions and potential energies of the body. The ways in which the pieces are configured also contributes to the uneasy (and perhaps menacing) feeling of the viewer in relation to the work. I have also found that the use of a near-overwhelming scale has the effect of immersing the viewer in such a drawing while also affecting the viewer’s body in relation to the work. The compositions in Spatial Drawings are held together through careful, improvisational positioning and tensioning. The pieces are not permanently fixed; neither glue nor permanent fasteners are used. Each component is angled, twisted, or placed in a particular way—on a tip, on a side, on an edge, etc., and when bound together the piece finds a balancing point. There is a sense of precariousness in the pieces’ construction that creates a kind of tension, and this in turn heightens the viewer’s awareness of the body and surrounding space.
CRT: Your work seems to bridge a number of disciplines. Do you consider yourself a post-disciplinary artist?
EH: On the one hand, I do consider myself a post-disciplinary artist—if by post-disciplinary you mean an artist whose ideas, practices, and methodologies lead her across and through disciplinary boundaries. On the other hand, I have a deep respect for and appreciation of technical skill, formal considerations, and associated histories, and these are discipline-specific. In my practice, I often approach the use of materials in a very exploratory, hands-on way. I like to play with stuff. I like to make things. I like acquiring new skills and learning about the histories of different materials, processes, etc. I like working with materials like thread, pins, and more recently with wood, because these materials offer contrast: between hardness and softness, strength and fragility, flexibility and rigidity, permanence and impermanence. I let my curiosity and the materials react to one another. For me, an important part of being an artist is being able to identify questions that matter to me and then to pursue the ensuing intellectual challenges that stem from these questions. In my work, such questions have led me to new and unexpected places, such as making large-scale works with bent wood, but also bringing with me ideas, materials, techniques, and sensibilities from other disciplines, like working with fibers. Since my background is in fibers and materials, this has meant translating or transforming these sensibilities and histories to different media. In terms of methodology, I seem to operate simultaneously on different ends of a spectrum: at one end, I have specific ideas whose realizations require me to locate appropriate materials and processes, and also possibly to study or to learn a new technique; at the other end, some elements of my practice are generated through intensive, material play, and hence the techniques, ideas, materials, and methodologies associated to that work evolve together. For example, in my most recent studio work, the questions I have been pursuing have emerged out of this latter kind of material investigation.
—Courtney R. Thompson
ArtSlant would like to thank Emily Hermant for her assistance in making this interview possible.