Emily Speed: Body/Building

The apparent simplicity of Body/Building (2012), a series of photographs by Cheshire-based artist Emily Speed, belies a range of complex formal, psychological and contextual concerns. These pertain to the relationships she and we hold with the body, architecture and with space in a broader sense. Speed’s series, comprised of seven Polaroid photographs, show her body variously wrapped in buildings located in Tuscany, or rather, wrapped in large-scale photographs of buildings. These image-buildings enclose, conceal and reveal the artist’s body, playing a role in the reconsideration or transformation of it in relation to specific spaces: the way architecture shapes the body.

Speed’s Tuscan buildings, the Duomo in Florence, the Baptistry in Pisa and Santa Maria della Pieve in Arezzo, were originally photographed on a trip she made as a seventeen-year-old (the Duomo photograph is taken from a maquette of the building). Re-configured into A0 photocopies more recently, these buildings have gone through several stages of alteration. Firstly, from huge multi-dimensional, functional, sensory spaces, the buildings have been flattened and contracted to a size suitable not for many bodies but for just one: the artist’s own. In an odd, almost ghostly layering of spaces, next the buildings are miniaturised into portable and intimate image-spaces. Speed has described the viewer’s encounter with the Polaroids as a concentrated experience, as a one-to-one conversation between the viewer and the work.[1] Although they are self-portraits, that her face cannot be seen enables the viewer to take her place in the images and in the buildings.

Body/Building (2012) by Emily Speed. Photograph courtesy the artist

Body/Building, in its very title, implies a melding or hybridisation of forms. The Santa Maria della Pieve, for instance, becomes, in two of the photographs, a replacement head and a replacement torso for the artist. A whole body split apart and replaced by sections of buildings. There is something a little sinister about these half-woman half-building constructions. Neither body nor building is functional or whole. Instead a series of fragments are formed which move both components far beyond their expected forms and definitions.

The fact that Polaroid film is used in the series is suggestive of a spontaneous, experimental way of working, a playful testing of materials against the body. This sensibility is in line with many of her drawing-based works in paper and card. Often these are extended into three-dimensional constructed models that are fragile, broken, and seemingly incomplete. Her interest in ruined structures is manifest in many materials. The overlapping forms and motifs reveal an interest in architectural temporality, and in the passage of time in a wider way. The Polaroid 600 film used was an early batch made by Impossible Project, whose processes have moved on greatly since. Speed’s images are not lightfast and are deteriorating. In this way, the work is even more temporary and fragile than even Speed had imagined. Body/Building is doomed to disappear. Preservation of the work now comes through digital documentation. The same could be said also, though, for many of her performance based pieces or temporary sculptural works.

The artist’s research into unusual aspects of architectural spaces made for one body influence other of her sculptural works.  Previous projects include Panoply, a structure atop a scaffold designed for her form commissioned by the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool, and Reading Room (Box Man), a movable piece of ‘architecture for one’ which admitted only one visitor at a time, shown at the Bothy Gallery in Yorkshire Sculpture Park.[2] Body/Building certainly seems to share a similar performative investigation of the body’s spaces. The works address the ways that specific spaces are not only shaped by us but over a period of time shape us too.

Many points of reference can be found in Body/Building. The large images of the three buildings become rudimentary shelters for the body in their own right, as they bend to the artist’s body like fabric or a second skin pressed against the wall. This thin photographic façade, a familiar architectural tool that can be seen on many streets concealing building work or a gaping hole, reveals the works to be as much about surface as they are about extending the body’s spaces or those which occupy the mind.

Although her wider practice includes film, sculpture and performance, Speed notes that she often first imagines these sorts of works as still images. For her, photography ‘captures one moment and leaves the rest to be put together by the viewer.’ [3] This is particularly relevant when considering the way she and many other artists use photography to document artworks made in other media. Her use of photographs also relates to her artist books and works on paper such as the Spatial Drawings series. These seek to articulate and interpret multi-dimensional spaces via the flat plane of the page, and to test the potential spatial qualities of paper itself: the shadows cast as paper is folded, as it rests against a wall or stands away for it, as its surfaces soften and its colours alter with handling and with time. The same can be said for the photocopies within and the Polaroids of Body/Building, in their dense layers of time, place and physical space held within each small photographic frame.

Much of Speed’s practice is connected to the ways in which places embed themselves in a person: in thoughts, memories and in the body itself. Indeed, many of her works have been made during residencies responding to unique and often architecturally significant cities such as St Louis, Linz and New York, and she has undertaken commissions in Rome, Lausanne and Cape Ann, Massachusetts. From October she will be spending time in Italy again, this time in Rome as the Derek Hill Foundation Scholar at the British School. She will be exploring the ways that buildings nestle and overlap with one another. Collisions of architectural styles and intersections of time materially visible in specific buildings will be researched through her varied use of media, along with some of the more political facets of Rome’s architecture. Speed will be continuing her exploration of architectural fragmentations, specifically the nesting-doll phenomenon where buildings hide other layers of buildings within them. These ongoing concerns, spaces and places are clearly embedded in the Body/Building Polaroids.

[1] Emily Speed, interview with the artist, 17.09.14

[2]  Speed, Reading Room (Box Man) [online]. Available from: http://www.emilyspeed.co.uk/section.php?name=works&page=Reading-Room [accessed 14.09.14]

[3] Speed, interview with the artist, 17.09.14

Emily Speed: Body/Building
October 2014

Commissioned and published by Photomonitor, October 2014

Read more about Emily Speed at http://www.emilyspeed.co.uk/


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