‘Emily Floyd: Heide Museum of Modern Art’,
Frieze Magazine online, 29th May 2014
Emily Floyd: Far Rainbow
Heide Museum of Modern Art
15 March – 13 July 2014
A comprehensive survey of Melbourne artist Emily Floyd, ‘Far Rainbow’ teems with exquisitely constructed and thematically layered works poised between enlightenment and didacticism, exuberance and restraint. There is a feminist agenda afoot: Modern Ladies (2006) takes its point of departure from the 1970 edition of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch with its iconic cover image of a truncated torso body stocking, here writ large as three monumentally scaled black-lacquered figures gouged with eye-holes. A series of screenprints, Ripple (2013–14), rework the covers and pages from a local feminist broadsheet of the same name published in Melbourne between 1976 and 1984, which galvanized the community child care movement., It was edited by the artist’s mother, Francis Floyd, and boldly designed by esteemed industrial designer Mary Featherston. Floyd’s graphic interventions dramatize the original compositions.
Further apparitions of modernist women artists appear – from British sculptor Barbara Hepworth to pioneering but lesser known Bauhaus toymaker Alma Siedhoff-Buscher. Floyd’s reference to toymaking has antecedents in 19th century education reformers Friedrich Fröbel and Maria Montessori, the latter’s advocacy of ‘constructivist’ learning emphasizing the importance of sensory materials such as fabric and wood in childhood development. The bold polychrome wooden rings of Nomadic Shepherds (2013), for example, suggest a magnified version of a kaleidoscopic game of quoits. But the toy theme is more personal; not only was Floyd’s Hungarian father a toymaker but she and her brother worked in his toymaking factory in adolescence – a legacy amply evident in her adroitly fabricated work.
The simplified geometries, primary colours and polished materiality of Floyd’s objects point to this pedagogical design history, conjuring not only Bauhaus but also a Russian Suprematist and Constructivist precedent; the theosophical symbolism discerned by Kandinsky in primary mathematical shapes are reanimated in Floyd’s Far Rainbow (2014) as a series of brightly-edged hefty plywood triangles and rings.
‘Far Rainbow’, the title of the exhibition itself, is eponymously gleaned from the 1963 Soviet sci-fi classic by the postwar authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Set on an outstation on the fictional planet Rainbow, the novel’s focus on experimental physics – in particular teleportation – and its portrayal of a community’s uncritical subscription to scientific advancement resulting in the planet’s destruction is a withering satire both on the nuclear arms race and technocratic utopianism. Only the planet’s children are saved before the apocalypse, packed like sardines into the planet’s sole airship and shunted into space, adding a dash of black comedy to the narrative. It’s an odd choice on which to hitch the exhibition.
A thumbed 1960s copy of the novel is one of an assortment of intriguing objects carefully arranged on a broad shelf; historical artefacts such as a wooden toy named Contura designed by Johannes Scharfenstein, a poster announcing the public launch of the short-lived 1980s Australian leftist movement the Rainbow Alliance, a vintage copy of Ivan Illich’s Celebration of Awareness (1971) and founding member of the Communist Party of America Bertram D. Wolfe’s autobiographical text, Strange Communists I Have Known (1965). In between are nestled a Zapatista revolutionary doll and a portable wooden spinning wheel. Known in Hindi as a charkha, this type of spinning wheel was invented by Mahatma Gandhi to foster the modest action of spinning in public – a form of pacific dissent against the imposition of British rule. Floyd purchased it during her visit to Gandhi’s Ashram in Ahmedabad. This miscellany of objects reads as an archive of leftist texts, but there are unshakeable traces of nostalgia, a niggling sense of an artist mining her parents’ bookshelves to present a compendium of sources which function as a catalogue of historically bracketed socially progressive thought.
Floyd’s typographic prowess has emerged as the distinctive strength of her consistently notable practice. A series of lithographs featuring the chunky abstracted font of her own design, cryptically spelling the title of each work are highlights in this impressive show, as are the relief paintings of phrases extracted from the Strugatsky novel formed as an interplay of two and three-dimensional letters. Puckish and clever, these works hover beguilingly between abstraction and legibility. Other lithographs emblazoned with emblems of solidarity, such as the clenched fist or the monument to the Yugoslav Partisan Army, further develop the theme of dissidence.
The gamboling delight of Floyd’s sculptures is quelled by the artist’s compulsion to stamp them with declarations of leftist allegiance. There is a push and pull between minimalist flair, ebullient playfulness and the doctrinaire in these works, an insistent tone of political earnestness. For all her multiple references to collectivism, communism and social reform, however, Floyd seems less concerned with the failure of these ideological experiments than absorbed by their artefactual residue. And there’s the rub. If ‘Far Rainbow’ is barefaced in its highlighted pointers to the activism of the 1960s/70s radical left, it is simultaneously a retreat from the era’s underlying civic republicanism. Perhaps it’s less of a withdrawal and more of a transposition. It’s not that art which identifies as political bears the imperative to social change, but for an exhibition which wears its politics on its sleeve it does so while eschewing clear-eyed critique and activism per se in preference of citation and the commodifiable allure of the crafted object.
Emily Floyd, Far Rainbow, 2014 (on floor); Ripple, 2013-14 (on walls); Help from the Periphery, 2014 (wall painting).