BY Wes Hill in Features | 17 MAY 13
Featured in
Issue 155

In Focus: Emily Floyd

Utopian Modernism, children’s toys and art in the public realm

BY Wes Hill in Features | 17 MAY 13

Children’s building blocks, as we know them today, were systematized by the early 19th-century German educator Friedrich Fröbel, who encouraged play with objects ranging from simple forms like spheres, cubes and cylinders to sets of wooden geometric blocks in different colours and sizes. Fröbel coined the term ‘kindergarten’ and formulated his ideas whilst working at the Swiss school of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose philosophy of learning ‘by head, hand and heart’ informed Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical approach to education, including the belief that a child’s development should have a foundation in geometry.

The Melbourne-based Australian artist Emily Floyd explores this history of pedagogical play in her work, employing it as a frame for investigations into design, typography, protest, public art and the legacy of Modernism. She presents her graphically arresting art works as linguistic toys, showing how contemporary art itself might function like a set of educational building blocks for understanding culture at large. 

This place will always be open, 2012, installation view in Ian Potter Sculpture Court, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne. Courtesy: the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery; photograph: John Brash.

Like Fröbel’s wooden forms, Floyd’s work combines formalist structures with a sense of process. Working largely in sculpture and installation, the artist has placed an increasing importance on colour; she mainly uses a bold primary palette evocative of the paintings of Piet Mondrian or Theo Van Doesburg. Exhibited at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney last year, WORKSHOP (2012) comprises 1.5-metre-high letters made from geometric blocks of painted steel, spelling out the work’s processual title in a rectangular composition. Floyd’s elegantly designed lithographs Social Insects and Structure and Silence of the Cognitariat (both 2012) similarly make use of a sophisticated formal language as an obscure ‘call to action’. The latter work, comprising a green clenched fist adjacent to illegible words in a geometric font, takes its title from an essay about Western government cutbacks to university funding. Expanding on her series of prints, ‘It’s Time’ (2008), the works were inspired by Australian political posters from the 1970s and reveal Floyd’s fascination with Modernist movements and collectives such as De Stijl, the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, particularly the bold and inventive poster designs of Alexander Rodchenko.

Like many of her text-based sculptures, Floyd’s public art – a feature of her oeuvre – consists mainly of casually arranged and boldly coloured building-block letters that spell out their titles. Commissioned respectively by Melbourne’s Monash University and Docklands Precinct, New Ways of Thinking and This Place will Always be Open (both 2012) invoke associations with liberation and freedom, without disclosing what specific ideological project they might represent. In both works, the balance between formal inventiveness and legibility in typography acts as an analogy for the imperative that public art be engaged and widely accessible.

Whether exhibited inside or outside the gallery, all of Floyd’s work functions as a type of public art. Her use of text, casual modes of display, bold colours and slick, hard-edge materials invite physical interaction; this emphasis on participation parallels the tactile learning promoted in early childhood pedagogy, which Steiner claimed was the first step towards ‘active thinking’. Imbuing contemporary art with the function of public education, Floyd’s Steiner Rainbow (2006) comprises a four-metre-long sculpture of a rainbow with nine moveable coloured segments, modelled on a children’s toy manufactured in the 1970s. Suggestive of the Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s sophisticated toy designs from the 1920s, the connection of Steiner with rainbows also evokes reflection on the hippy ideologies that Steiner Schools in Australia are commonly associated with. In The Garden (here small gestures make complex structures) (2012), which was commissioned as part of the education programme by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney, Floyd again highlights public education in relation to the expanded field of sculpture; comprising coloured felt and a range of crafted wooden toys – such as eggs, squares, mushrooms and cylindrical pegs – that were specifically developed to aid tactile learning for students with learning disabilities. At the centre of the installation are two child-sized wooden figures (Gleaners, 2012), modelled on the hunched labourers in the background of Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners (1857) – providing an art-historical context for Floyd’s own interest in fusing art with social consciousness.

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Despite employing quasi-deconstructivist methodologies, Floyd’s historical references – typically Modernist-era in origin – appear more as signifiers of ‘old-fashioned critical complexity’ than as subjects of critique themselves. In an early work, It’s because I talk too much that I do nothing (2002), sculptural sentences taken from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) snake across the gallery floor, amidst piles of black letters and scaled-down models of the architectural onion domes associated with historical Russian cathedrals. Floyd also nods to literary deconstruction in This door was only ever meant for you (2003), where sentences from Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1914) are formed by red alphabet letters sitting on top of white baroque-style desks. In both of these works, Floyd highlights ‘reading’ as a circular hermeneutic process. Similar to the way in which children play with building blocks, viewers are directed toward the process of engaging with the constructed components of her work, where ‘meaning’ remains open-ended.

Given that Floyd favours seduction and interaction over detached critique, it is not surprising to learn that the focus of her work stems from a source closer to home. Her father has worked as a toymaker in Australia since 1972, and he specializes in traditional European and Communist-era toys, heavily influencing Floyd’s graphic repertoire. Investing in the histories and conceptual implications of pedagogical toys, Floyd promotes hands-on and educational encounters with contemporary art, suggesting that, unlike theoretical discourse, it is art’s insistent material presence that provides a greater understanding of the ‘constructed actuality’ of cultural subjects.

 Emily Floyd lives in Melbourne, Australia. In 2012, she had solo shows at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney, Australia; the Australian Print Workshop, Melbourne, Australia; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. This year, she is completing a Scottish Print Network Commission at Dundee Print Studio, Scotland, UK; and will be included in ‘There will be new rules next week’ at Dundee Contemporary Arts (20 July – 22 September). In 2014, she will have solo exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, Australia.

Wes Hill is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. His book Art after the Hipster: Identity Politics, Ethics and Aesthetics (2017) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.