Q&A with Emma Hart

artBahrain contributing editor Glenna Aquino interviews Emma Hart (Max Mara Art Prize for Women) about her award winning Mama Mia!

Mamma Mia! was the result of a six-month residency in Italy where you immersed yourself in Milan, Faenza, Todi, and Deruta and learned about the systems of patterns on traditional Maiolica. But apart from this, I am curious to know what led you to choose research into the Milan Systems Approach to family therapy in particular.

My starting point for my proposal was to think about how we encounter art works, and how we relate to them. Thinking about relationships led me to want to explore the power of the family, something important throughout Italian history (and obviously something also important in my own life). As well as researching historic examples I also wanted to uncover how relationships and family systems work.

Your installations combine different materials to create a personal commentary that outlines your artistic concerns, themes, and interests. You use light to interact with your materials, create shadows, and patterns that are crucial to supporting the meaning of your artwork. Does Mamma Mia! completely depend on lighting to support it?

Lighting is a key part of the work – it was inspired by the heat in Italy but also wanted to create an the atmosphere in the gallery as you walk around and experience the work. I want people to feel uncomfortable as they step into a pool of light or walk in the shadows. 

Your work has many narrative layers, do these “layers” present themselves one by one or simultaneously when you begin your art making? What is the starting point?

I want to recognise my everyday life in art, not erase it in order to politely contemplate objects. My work is crass, blunt and is contingent on the viewer entering into the situations I have created. I present an up close, intimate experience and probably too much information.

Has your artmaking always revolved around the theme of human behaviour, patterns, familial interactions and dynamics?

I’m inspired by real life – I want to make work which communicates reality, with all its mess, violence, anger and frustration.

During my Italian residency, I wanted to explore a subject central to my life and work: the power of the family. By exploring the unique Italian ethos and traditions of family through symbols, possessions and objects, as well as systems and relationships that exist in Italian culture, I wanted to expose the highs and lows and everyday realities of family life. I also wanted to learn more about ceramics, particularly maiolica.

I observed family therapy sessions at the Mara Selvini Palazzoli clinic in Milan; they have pioneered a therapy which addresses the space between people rather than the individuals themselves, and through the treatment they disrupt the negative patterns of behaviours that families fall into.

I then went to Deruta and learned about the systems of patterns on traditional maiolica – I have since been designing patterns both linked to human behaviour and also referencing how our lives are dominated by patterns of repeated fragments.

Mamma Mia! is a culmination of this investigation into pattern – the patterns I designed are painted inside ceramic lamps which will hang from the gallery ceiling. They can be read as my internal mind and/or simply striking visuals. Each pattern manifests a state of mind, and manifests a specific emotion, characteristic, and related behaviour: from jealousy, anxiety and selfishness. They were developed with traditional maiolica designs in mind: mirroring, repetition and interlocking forms.

How has your family responded to your artmaking? To Mamma Mia!?

They’ve been incredibly supportive – working in Italy was completely different from my home town of London. My life in London is more complicated: I teach, I am a mum, I am busy. In Italy my primary focus was to make work and I have never had that before. Especially in Faenza we had a great balance, my daughter was at nursery, her father was there to collect her in the afternoon – it is a small, gentle town, but also hosts the most important ceramics museum in the world so I was always inspired. We also ate so well out there. It was life at its best, stripped of all the London distractions.

Personally, I view Mamma Mia! as an atmospheric and immersive work that puts me in a reflective mood while teasing my mind. I can’t quite place it in any one category because it affects me on many levels of emotions. Made for a specific space to be shown for a specific length of time, where will Mamma Mia! go from here? My question is, how will it be remembered?

This work is a culmination of an investigation into pattern: visual patterns, and patterns of psychological behaviour, how to design then rupture these and the ruminations in between. I set out to scale up ceramics, to offer not objects but situations, which make a viewer get involved, even if just emotionally, with an artwork. I want to at least make sure the viewer is self conscious and comes away thinking about their own patterns of behaviour, which is something I considered throughout the residency.

After the Whitechapel Gallery, the work is going to be on display at Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, from 14 October 2017. It will then go on to Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh in spring 2018 so there are still more opportunities for people to see the work!

Has your teaching influenced your work in any way?

I wouldn’t say so – I enjoy teaching but see my practice as separate to this.

It has been written that you may have found your medium in this exhibition Mamma Mia!. How has your early work evolved in the past few years?

I originally trained as a photographer and quickly became frustrated with the camera: I felt that photography never captured reality adequately. When I was on a residency at Wysing Art Centre in 2012 I put my hands on clay and it was instantaneous love – as a medium it immediately registers the maker, the physical impact of something, like photography – but it felt much more visceral and real and instantly became a key medium for me.

In Faenza at the Museo Carlo Zauli I was working with ceramic experts who could advise me to stretch my ambitions with the medium further as they knew what was physically possible. It felt like a liberation.

What is the best part in the process of your artmaking? and which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?

One of the most important revelations through the residency which has shaped this new work and I imagine will continue to evolve, is my interest in patterns, pattern-making and pattern disrupting. I spent part of the residency in Deruta and learned about the systems of patterns on traditional maiolica – I have since been designing patterns both linked to human behaviour and also referencing how our lives are dominated by patterns of repeated fragments. So I hope to have more time to evolve and develop my skills in this area.

What lies ahead for you, what are you working on right now?

I just hope to keep developing and making work! I’m looking forward to seeing my work on display at Collezione Maramotti in October, and I’m also working on a project for Frieze art fair so it’s shaping up to be a busy year!