I make, and then I know I come to know myself - A Conversation with Emily Russell

Emily is an artist based in London and one of my Art Academy peers. She was working toward our Grad Show in July on a few pieces around the Academy
buildings. Although the lockdown means she had to leave these behind, she 
continues working actively from home, during these unsettling times.

Can you tell me what you are working on at the moment?

I started devising work that met the restrictions I’m living under, because I couldn’t really continue with the other work… I had to make work my kitchen table, and so it has to be possible to clear away all of our meal times.

I can’t remember what came first, but I decided to do an embroidery piece. I was thinking of doing a circle for every day that we were in lockdown… And then I felt like this was a bit limited, so I decided to record all the daily coronavirus cases of deaths through embroidery. It’s taking quite a lot of time because it’s quite a big project.

How are you finding this new situation of working at home?

Um, I think it probably has its peaks and troughs. But I think I’ve got into it more and more.

One of the things that I’ve really been thinking about is that people talk about creativity as self-expression. I used to think that that meant someone knew something about themselves and they wanted to express that. And for me, I feel like I make, and then I know I come to know myself.

And sometimes that’s caused me anxiety. I have one like completely unrealistic fear where I imagine that I’m locked in like solitary confinement and I don’t have access to make anything. And in that situation - I think, well - maybe I’d make marks on the wall or something. But I suppose that anxiety for me stems from the idea that I only really exist in so far as I can make. I suppose I’ve been thinking about that idea… And thinking that, well, in my case I make something, and therefore express myself and therefore come to know myself.

That part that you’ve come to know is always there, regardless of whether you access it through making. Making is just like a… like a conduit sort of thing. So this occasion I feel has given me cause to reflect on that because you are so much more restricted. This idea of being an artist who doesn’t have to make something… if you see what I mean.

I’ve been reading The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh. The pieces of work that I’m really interested in are one where he didn’t look at or think about or talk about or make art for one year. And then he had 13 years where he made art but he didn’t show it to anyone. And now he doesn’t make art at all. He’s an artist who doesn’t make art! I just really find it fascinating so I’ve been thinking a lot about that at the moment.

That is a very interesting idea.

I mean… most of us in our society we sort of put our wealth, our worth or our self worth on how productive we are. So we feel good about ourselves if we produce a lot and other people will approve of us if we’re productive and we feel bad about ourselves, if we aren’t productive and likewise other people will be critical if they think that we don’t do anything. But I’m really sceptical about this idea that our worth is dependent on what we produce. And I think it probably relates to a kind of Protestant work ethic, first of all, but it’s developed into more of a like a, like a capitalist kind of view that worth its product.

So I’m trying to think about that in relation to my work. So, not only think of myself as doing well when I’m very productive and not well of myself if I’m not productive. Just be aware of that and try not to base myself work from what I produce.

Can you tell me about the close-up photos you have started taking?

I’m trying to be aware of the ways that this situation affects the way I think about, what I make and how to make.

I suppose creativity as being something that you can do anywhere in any context. It’s a quite creative activity to say okay, I can only work with this one thing: how many different variations of things can I produce? And in this instance it’s just photograph in one room. How many good photographs of photographs that I like can I get out of this space?


It’s a good activity do I recommend it.

Her work at: emilyrussellthomas.com

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