There has been a bit of chat lately about the definition of mosaic. What is it? Is it important to have one? Is there more than one definition? We find the conversation quite interesting and are looking forward to participating in it as part of a panel during the SAMA conference in February.
It was while preparing for the panel that we first saw Tide (above) by mosaic artist/teacher/author Emma Biggs. Our first thought was: Now THAT is a mosaic. We promptly gave our head a good shaking and the better light bulb appeared: No, THAT is a beautiful work of art.
The seamless warp and weft of water created from disparate pieces of hard materials is technically superb and sensually appealing. And the story it tells — of scavenging and making and history and refuse and the beauty of the worn — is incredibly engaging. Tide goes far beyond the current fascination with “repurposing” and creates something movingly reverential.
Ms. Biggs and her partner in life and art, Matthew Collings, are friends of MAN. We featured their 2009 installation Five Sisters at St. Mary’s, York in the 2010 edition of the magazine and showcased their collaborative work on the blog in this post. The duo also were jurors for MAN’s Exhibition in Print 2011 sponsored by LATICRETE (results of which are forthcoming).
We threw a few questions Ms. Biggs’ way and she was kind enough to answer them with a great amount of thought and openness. It is damned good reading. Don’t miss a word. And let us know what you think. All photos are courtesy of the artists.
Enjoy — Nancie
Emma, you and your partner Matthew have just had a show at the Charlie Dutton Gallery in London. The show was called ‘Mudlark’. Could you tell us why?
Yes, of course. Well, firstly, a mudlark is the name given to a particular kind of scavenger – someone who reclaims rubbish from river mud. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, some of the very poorest of London’s poverty stricken – mostly women and children – made their living from mudlarking – often by picking coals from the Thames foreshore. It was a dangerous and insanitary job, as the city’s sewers emptied directly in to the river. It was not unusual to come across animal or even human corpses. The river was not the clean, placid body of water you can see today. It was dirty and dangerous, a busy working river. Huge quantities of goods were traded through the docks. The river was more or less the Heathrow Airport of its day.
So our recent show was called ‘Mudlark’ for two reasons. We collected material by mudlarking on the banks of the Thames, and used it as the starting point for the show. But there was also another reason for the title. We wanted to foreground the idea of mudlarking as a job, a specialised activity amongst other activities. Work itself is often a focus of what we do, whether it takes the form of mosaic or painting.
What was in the show?
There were two mosaics, a painting, and a sculptural installation.
The mosaics are made entirely from pieces of broken ceramic – found on the banks of the river. All the work in the show is abstract in nature, although the mosaics play a complicated game with abstraction.
The material itself may be recognisable – fragments of broken china – handles, bowls and stems of pipes and so on. These familiar objects are reassembled to take on an abstract form. But this abstract layout is intended subliminally to suggest water – in reference to the place they were found.
The painting is based on triangles – oil paint on canvas. It attempts to set up a sense of an imagined space, one without recognisable properties, other than geometric ones. The colours used in the painting are taken from the objects used in the mosaic.
The sculptural installation is constructed from pieces of broken clay pipe, also found on the Thames – pieces of which date from a long span of historical time – from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. The colours and forms of this installation – where ceramic fragments hang on transparent nylon thread which moves with the slightest breeze — relate to our interest in an indeterminate three dimensional but imagined space.
What is this interest in labor about? What does it have to do with the way the show looks?
The idea of labour might seem to be an obscure interest, irrelevant to the way the work in the show is made, but it underlies how the work is visually organised.
To give a practical example –the entire layout of the mosaics is based on presenting, in a subtle but self-evident way, the great variety of work undertaken when ceramic is made under factory conditions. Each mosaic groups together a series of similar found objects, pipes, rims, and bases of cups and plates or moulded decoration, or transfer prints, for example. These both embody and represent the variety of ways in which ceramic workers have worked over many centuries. Roles are divided, according to the possession of particular skills, but also according to gender. Women do the decorative work, men do the more sculptural labour.
In these mosaics you are invited both to see these parts on their own — similar materials are laid in sections, so the viewer notices their particular qualities — but also to observe how they mutually relate one to another. It’s not intended to be a slavish complete record of the skills found in a potbank, or ceramic making factory, but rather it is a grouping based on the chance relationships suggested by the material we found. Chance is created by material conditions — there are laws that govern it. It is constructed by the way we organise ourselves in society.
And what does that have to do with the painting? I can see how the mosaic is constructed from objects made years ago by others — sometimes by a whole team of others — and perhaps you could say it has something to do with the ‘division of labor’ but what does the painting have to do with labour, or your ideas about work?
In answering this question, I feel we should point out the relationship we see between the painting and the mosaics .We have chosen to make them both of a similar size — four by four foot square. This is just one way we established a relationship between them, but there are subtler relationships as well.
The mosaics have a three dimensional aspect, partly coming from, and partly relating to the sculptural form of the fragments from which they are made. In the painting, we try, within traditions established by pictorial language – tone, and colour — to mimic these three dimensional properties, but to strip them of associations given by literal meaning. So the paintings are not trying to resemble the mosaics. They are entirely abstract. They don’t represent anything. They are not pictures of anything, but they do demonstrate the same organisational strategies found in the mosaics. In this case though, they respond to the colours and tones of the ceramic material we found. We aim to create an illusionistic space – something the sculptural properties of the ceramic have as an intrinsic quality – and to create a sense of mutable, ever changing configurations of space. We strive for balance, but also for unpredictability, so the image never entirely settles down. This unpredictability makes the viewer have to do the work. The painting is a proposal, but not a fixed idea. It’s not an ideal, and it resists being ‘knowable’.
But you asked about how this relates to the idea of work.. Well, we think it does so in two different ways. One comes from our experience. Matt is used to working, thinking and writing about art, about the work of other artists, and he carries this idea about the ‘work’ into his own practice. There is a curious conflict here, because he is the hand, but not the decision maker about the paintings. I make these aesthetic decisions. So the division of labour is part of our practice, and perhaps helps explain why we are alert to the subject of work.
But there is another way in which our work ties in to our painting — one that is not easy to convey. Our knowledge and understanding as a society is an accretion of the work of others. We are able to communicate in the most highly sophisticated ways, technologically speaking, because of a history of people who have enquired and investigated and experimented and drawn conclusions from these experiments. This labour is handed down. It’s a sort of legacy, but it is often unseen. In just the same way, historical knowledge from the art world is often unseen. Rules about colour, and how it works for example – all this isn’t reinvented every time in the mind of an artistic genius – it’s a body of knowledge. It’s knowledge that really interests Matt, and one that he attempts to explain in his TV programmes. And I think it’s still relevant to me, as a maker – someone who is probably more associated with ‘craft’ than ‘art’. I think in the world of ‘craft’, there is still a sense of technique as a body of knowledge with some real use value. It is not so relevant in the art world, for understandable reasons.
So would you say there was a psychological element to this interest in the idea of labor?
Well, there may be. It is impossible to escape your own psyche.
For further discovery: