Emma Hart is a 42-year-old artist known for her expressive installations that often employ a mixture of video, photography, ceramic and even sound. Hers is the pursuit of the “real” – the everyday and its generation of stress and confusion. “I want to make work which communicates reality, with all its mess, violence, anger and frustration,” says the artist to Bazaar. “I originally trained as a photographer and quickly became frustrated with the camera: I felt that photography never captured reality adequately.” It was while the artist was on a residency at Wysing Art Centre in 2012 that she fell in love with the medium of clay. “I put my hands on clay and it was instantaneous love – as a medium it immediately registers the maker, the physical impact of something, like photography – but it felt much more visceral and real and instantly became a key medium for me.”
Hart was chosen by a panel of expert judges from a five-strong shortlist including Ruth Ewan, Ana Genovés, Tania Kovats and Phoebe Unwin, all of whom presented proposals for an artist residency in Italy. As the winner, Hart spent six months in Lombardy, Umbria and Emilia-Romagna during 2016 on a residency tailored to her interests. As the latest recipient of the biannual Max Mara Art Prize for Women – a collaboration between Collezione Maramotti, Whitechapel Gallery and Max Mara – Hart will be showing Mamma Mia!, a large-scale, multi-part installation of ceramic heads at the Whitechapel from 12 July – 3 September 2017.
Among the alumni of the Whitechapel Gallery are Picasso, Pollock and Rothko. Artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Frida Kahlo, Eva Hesse, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Isa Genzken, Gillian Wearing and Sarah Lucas had their first major solo shows at the gallery. With Mamma Mia! Emma Hart now joins this league.
The exhibition is the result of an investigation into pattern. From visual patterns to patterns of psychological behaviour, Hart synthesises her research through her artistry. Additionally, the work showcased takes a look at the design and rupture of patterns around us and Hart’s ruminations on the subject.
What is the concept behind Mamma Mia!? What medium have you chosen to work with for the project and why did you choose to take on the concept as part of your residency?
One of the most important revelations through the residency, which has shaped this new work and I imagine will continue to evolve, is my interest in patterns, pattern-making and pattern disrupting. I observed family therapy sessions at the Mara Selvini Palazzoli clinic in Milan; they have pioneered a therapy which addresses the space between people rather than the individuals themselves, and through the treatment they disrupt the negative patterns of behaviours that families fall into.
I then went to Deruta and learned about the systems of patterns on traditional maiolica. I have since been designing patterns both linked to human behaviour and also referencing how our lives are dominated by patterns of repeated fragments.
Mamma Mia! is a culmination of this investigation into pattern – the patterns I designed are painted inside ceramic lamps which will hang from the gallery ceiling. They can be read as my internal mind and/or simply striking visuals. Each pattern manifests a state of mind, and manifests a specific emotion, characteristic, and related behaviour: from jealousy, anxiety and selfishness. They were developed with traditional maiolica designs in mind: mirroring, repetition and interlocking forms.
How has the Max Mara Art Prize helped you realise your potential as an artist?
Working in Italy was completely different from my home town of London. My life in London is more complicated: I teach, I am a mum, I am busy. In Italy my primary focus was to make work and I have never had that before. Especially in Faenza we had a great balance, my daughter was at nursery, her father was there to collect her in the afternoon – and I could just concentrate on being an artist. It is a small, gentle town, but also hosts the most important ceramics museum in the world so I was always inspired. It was life at its best, stripped of all the London distractions.
Mamma Mia! will travel to Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia on 15 October 2017 and will be presented there as part of an exhibition of Hart’s new work at Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh in spring 2018. For more information, visit www.whitechapelgallery.org