Emily Lister is a contemporary artist and recent graduate of De Montfort University, now residing in London. Lister considers her work as abstract self-portraiture, manifesting itself in drawing, sculpture, textiles and photography. She has recently exhibited in Ag exhibition at Two Queens Gallery, UK and is now working on her new project Barriers that has been influenced by her current situation on trying to find work and success as a contemporary artist in London.
Seed Creativite Network has interviewed Emily Lister to unearth the meaning of her ambiguous artwork.
Words by Mel Fletcher
MF: What do domestic materials mean to you? And do you believe their typical function changes in your artwork?
EL: I incorporate lots of readymade objects into my work, all of which are designed to add depth to the narrative of a piece. I enjoy playing with function: turning something useful into something useless, as a reflection on people’s misconceptions that art pieces are pointless. The use of items commonly found within a domestic setting helps to ground and contextualise the pieces; while much of my work is abstract in appearance, the incorporated objects serve as useful suggestions that the meaning behind the work is much more routed in reality.
MF: You often work with textiles, which can be associated with feminism. Is there a little more to it?
EL: I like to categorise my work, in general, as abstract self-portraiture. Textile-based practices hold strong historical links to femininity, suggesting a gender-link to my pieces, which, in turn, helps to humanise them.
Image © Emily Lister
The labour-intensive processes of embroidery and weaving also mean that my hands touch every inch of the object that I am making. The more I handle each object, the deeper the affinity I feel towards it becomes.
MF: Speaking of which, I saw one of your pieces ‘Touch Black’ at Ag exhibition, Two Queens Gallery. It was a textile rug of a three-cover drain. Does this work have anything to do with superstition?
EL: I like to believe that I am a logical thinker, and wouldn’t class myself as superstitious. I am, however, an extremely obsessive person, and occasionally my obsessions can cling onto illogical things. When I was about 11 and walking home from school with a friend I stepped on a row of three drains. My friend told me that this was a dangerous thing to do; that stepping on them would bestow bad luck upon me, and to reverse this fate I would have to touch a black object and say aloud “touch black, take it back”. This is totally stupid, but for some reason the idea took hold and became law in my head. The making of this piece was an attempt to rid myself of this silly obsession. It was modeled on the very drains where the story began (I went out in the rain with my tape measure and camera to ensure accuracy). Turning the drains into a woven rug; an object that serves the purpose of being stepped on; was an attempt to mock myself, and my unreasonable belief. Learning to laugh at myself, I hoped, would cure me of my irrational thinking.
That being said, I still won’t step on three drains.
MF: Could you tell me more about your Barriers project?
EL: My most recent body of work, collectively titled Barriers, is a reflection on my current position as an unemployed artist, looking for work and recognition within the art world. The title was inspired by a visit to London’s National Gallery; a world-renowned institution housing some of Britain’s most treasured art pieces. While walking around I became inspired by the rope barriers, which protect the hanging paintings from visitors. The barriers are low to the ground; unassuming and unintimidating, and yet their message is powerful. Passersby revere and obey their message, never deigning to step beyond the permitted boundaries.
Touch Black, 2014 © Emily Lister
I am looking to relate the gallery’s barriers to elements in my own life, which I perceive as preventing me from achieving artistic success and employment. In order to move beyond my current reality and into new territory I must step over my lack of experience, my self-doubt, my jumbled CV, my quiet reserve, my lack of money, my lack of contacts, my lack of promotional knowledge…
MF: I browsed your website and your artist statements are very minimal and poetic – just a few lines. For instance your Nothing Drawings –
“Shallow can be deep
but drawing is just drawing
everything and nothing all at once
and I don’t feel like trying too hard.”
What do you want people to think when they read your statements?
EL: I don’t know if I want them to think too much at all. I like my work to be ambiguous, which I feel can be
Censored Self-Portrait, 2014 - Barriers Project © Emily Lister
undermined by giving too much away through writing. Using poetry helps to make the statement into a piece of work in its own right, and can add to the “What?” factor of the whole piece.
MF: You spent 123 days as a bin, how was it?
EL: The 123 Days as a Bin project was a time capsule; an artistic extract from a period, during which, I was suffering badly from the eating disorder, bulimia nervosa. The actual 123 day period was chosen as it happened to be the length of time in which I was religiously logging the progression of my illness in the form of a diary. The bin was used as a metaphor for myself; the hollow, lifeless vessel becoming an apt reflection on my state of mind. The object itself was far enough removed in physical likeness from my own body, that I felt able to project real truth about the illness onto it. The surreal self-representation was a novel way to relay my desired narrative, meanwhile distancing myself from the story somewhat, in order to avoid embarrassment and painful memories (during the time of making this project I was still seriously unwell).
In truth, the 123 days I spent ‘as a bin’ were, in general, pretty rubbish (excuse the pun), but like any difficult period of any person’s life, sadness was accompanied by occasional happiness and hope. I wanted the project to be truly reflective of the time, with all of its nuances; abstraction of form and the inclusion of readymade objects introduced a playful humor, preventing the viewer from becoming overloaded with doom and gloom.
As the project progressed, so too did my understanding of my illness; a fact which was reflected in the final piece of work, titled el141; a vast, zipped structure, which welcomed entry to the viewer. After being enclosed within its padded walls the participant was able to once again unzip the form and re-emerge into the gallery space. This poignantly echoed my own emergence from my illness.
I stopped being a bin, and I was relieved.
Visual Diary © Emily Lister
el141, 2014 © Emily Lister
MF: You use yourself as the subject in the majority of your work. Is your art a voyage of self evaluation? How do you want people to perceive you?
EL: Yes, it’s a practice of self-exploration. The most successful art pieces, in my opinion, are those, which revolve around a subject or process that the artist has a deep understanding of. I choose to use myself, and my own experiences, as the foundations for making work, since there is no subject that I am more knowledgeable on than my own head. It’s hard to say how I want people to perceive me as a person, and much easier to talk in terms of how I would like my work to be perceived: I’d like it to be seen as intriguing. Intrigue will lead to further exploration of thought by the viewer, and I welcome any conclusions derived at this point. I want to put all of myself into my pieces, while simultaneously not giving too much away. Being me is a unique experience, and my hope is that this inspiration will lead to unique work.
MF: Finally, do you have any upcoming projects?
EL: At the moment I am focusing on continuing my Barriers project, as I have lots of things on the to-do-list still to make on the subject. I am hoping to get some of my newer pieces into exhibitions, and I am also exploring the idea of creating some situation-based work. This will be based on my recent experiences of spamming the London art world with my CV; Moving away from the intangible world of online applications and emailed cover letters, the piece will be brought into the physical, and will focus on environments, which are significant to my cause. I am thinking of it as creative job-hunting.
Article written by Mel Fletcher
Text by Mel Fletcher 2014
Article commission by Seed Creative Network
Images © Emily Lister