Do you still paint? Why did you start doing installations? (Go into enormously lengthy and vivid detail).

A friend asked me this, so I will try my best to answer…….

The official and received answer to that, of course, is “Painting is Dead”.

Not a view I entirely subscribe to,  even though I have not lifted a paintbrush in anger since about 1994. The real reason is that painting is actually extremely difficult to do well, and although competent, I am not good enough to make anything sufficiently outstanding or noteworthy……which is probably the reason I decided to “change tack” half way through my degree course – be noticed or be damned. It worked.

This served me well, and bizarrely got me a place on the MA in painting at The Slade, without ever submitting a single painting.

I think much more effectively in three dimensions (architectural space), although I still think aesthetically (as a painter – these are my roots). The first installations were literally three-dimensional paintings, without the canvas. I shredded the copy of the Guardian, in 1991, which carried the death notice of my friend Robin Senior, and made a rather strange but lovely floor-piece – it’s a pity he never saw it. We had been talking about these installations just two weeks previously.

This is probably what led me into shredding “information” – and in a way, I have never really stopped, apart for a brief sojourn back into painting when I first moved to Ipswich (believing it to be “more practical”)

The easiest way to explain why I make installations: it is a way to channel my latent OCD into something creative as opposed to letting it spill over into real life – which it doesn’t…. you should see the state of the kitchen.

The with the exception of video / photography, the content of my work is almost always defined by my initial response to the materials, rather than imposing concepts or ideas from elsewhere.
The work often shows aspects of domesticity, hoarding, and recycling – taking the form of collections or multiples of objects.
References to the fragmented nature of memory, time and history – over the years this has become an increasingly important influence.
The work displays order/chaos and often uses grids, or highly obsessive methods of categorisation or intervention. The objects/materials are often transformed by removing their original function, but not by significantly changing the appearance other than the configuration (for example, books are no longer “readable”, nor are maps, or letters – but the information is still contained within, albeit inaccessible).

“Between the Lines” for example, is a piece about the fragmented nature of memory, time and history – linear communication made illegible. The piece is made from a collection of forgotten letters which have been deconstructed and made unreadable, but reconstructed into an artwork (a curtain across the altar of a church) which stands as a tangible and symbolic presence of the memories contained within.
I became aware of the significance of the fragmented nature of memory and history when I was making this piece – although these letters had been written to me, some of them over 20 years ago, I had very little recollection of what they contained or sometimes even who they were from. The process of shredding the letters and then reassembling them into strips to make the curtain was a long and drawn out process, but I found to my surprise (and horror) that while I was doing this I was having vivid flashbacks to things I thought I had forgotten, and was even hearing voices….. I may have destroyed the letters and made them into something else, but as an object it still retains all that history and information.

Even conceptual aspects can come from the materials themselves. Found objects are chosen for their inherent qualities – history – use, collections.
On a personal level, it is within my nature (a) to hoard / archive objects, and
(b) deconstruct / destroy them. As an inherited trait, this interests me a great deal: not only do the objects themselves contain a history, but so does the obsessive way in which they are treated.
The transformation of a crisp new paperback from a bookshop, to the comforting and familiar feel of a well-thumbed novel with pages yellowed, corners curled is evidence of human contact and interaction. When a book has been read, it has physically changed shape, and this new shape contains its own history. This changing of the physicality of an object was taken one step further with “Against the Grain” and “Volume”.

Although I have always had an obsession for objects, and in particular, multiples of the same thing, there is one thing which has influenced me in this respect more than any other – seeing the “Heaps of Stuff” at Auschwitz in Poland.
The most terrifying and powerful thing I have ever seen – the “heaps of stuff” were outrageous – giant mountains of suitcases, spectacles, shoes, clothes, chamber pots, shaving brushes, you name it – they took my breath away.

It was the multiplicity and sheer quantity of these objects which gave them their power, combined with the personal histories contained within – each object had belonged to someone… represented one person, a life…..but here they were, all heaped up in this gigantic pile, discarded and de-personalised. These were haunted objects – objects of significance and uniqueness, taking on a whole new power and significance en masse.

4 Responses to “Q&A”

  1. Chloe Says:

    Hi Emma, I have been looking at your work for my A-level Textiles studies. Your work is brilliant, I love it. I was just wondering if you could briefly explain the processes you go through to create the 3D layered maps? Also, where you get your books from with the map paper inside?
    thank you.

    • emma johnson Says:

      Hi Chloe, Thanks for your comment!
      Most of the maps I use are divided up by some sort of grid. I cut along these lins to make squares, and then use a very sharp scalpel to cut out the paper between the roads (this takes a long time). Then I layer all the squares ontop of each other.
      The books are small scale atlases, and are quite difficult to get hold of – so far I have managed to find them at car boot sales, ebay, etc.
      I hope this helps!

  2. Alessandra Prentice Says:

    Hi Emma,

    I really like your work. Do you currently have any pieces for sale?

    Best wishes,


  3. emma johnson Says:

    Thank you Alessandra!

    Yes, after next weekend there will be pieces for sale on Etsy again (I need to keep them available this week for an open studio I am participating in), but as soon as that is over I will upload them to my Etsy page (see link at right hand side of this blog’s homepage)

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