Whether using toy-like puffins to explore the global financial crisis or woodcut typefaces to examine feminist theory, Emily Floyd’s art is grounded in deep thinking and subtle references. By Romy Ash.

Artist Emily Floyd and her Icelandic Puffins

Artist Emily Floyd.
Artist Emily Floyd.

“They start like this,” the artist Emily Floyd says, holding the wooden body of a puffin in her hand. The body is square, blocky. It still looks like a bit of wood. There are two holes drilled in the bottom, ready for legs.

Floyd and I are in her workshop. She is holding a puffin in progress, but I’ve seen the finished puffins in her other “clean” studio, in the Abbotsford Convent. They’re a matt black, with very shiny orange beaks. Beautiful objects, designed to seduce. They’re to appear in Icelandic Puffins, a solo show at Anna Schwartz Gallery. The puffins will form part of a landscape peopled not only by the birds but by Icelandic text that will list “corporate protagonists prosecuted by the State of Iceland following the collapse of all three of the country’s major banks: Glitnir, Landsbanki and Kaupthing”.

Floyd has used text as a sculptural form since the 2000s. Language becomes material, something that can be moved, constructed and deconstructed, as a child might assemble a collection of blocks. As with all her work, Icelandic Puffins pulls from a complex set of sources and ideas. She sets up a dialogue between the global financial crisis and the seductive power of design, but the work also connects with something very local, and with Floyd’s personal history.

In her studio she showed me a page from Ripple, the feminist magazine her mother helped run and publish in the 1970s. In Far Rainbow, a survey of her work in 2014, at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Floyd exhibited more than 40 large screen-prints extrapolated from pages of Ripple, bringing to light a largely unacknowledged and forgotten feminist history. She says, “I’ve been thinking about all these diagrams – I guess they’re kind of feminist infographics.” The page shows a nutted-out vision for community childcare. There are boxes and intersecting lines: it makes a picture of sorts. She links this infographic to what she knows about the police officer who helped prosecute the Icelandic banks. She said, “It was said that the policeman who put the case together, that he worked it all out on a whiteboard. So I’ve kind of speculated on what that diagram would have been like.”

We were surrounded by matt black Icelandic letters, piled on tables around us, ready for installation, to become the sculptural landscape that emerged from her vision of the whiteboard diagram. I’m interested in this process, where she gives to the flat a kind of form and weight. The letters are made from blackened steel and feel heavy. She wanted a material that could be played with and “that they would look better after they’d been played with for 50 years. They would be more beautiful than they are now.” She said, “They have their own skin.”

Back in her workshop, Floyd holds other dismembered bits of puffin. “These are the wings and feathers,” she says. The wings are smooth, stylised. A collection of them lie against one another like the wooden scales of a fish. The beaks are finished, and Floyd opens them up, a part in the cup of each hand.

“This is Huon pine from Tasmania, from a bridge,” she says. “I have this guy, if something comes through he puts it aside for me. It’s an ideal pattern-making timber. It’s got very tight grain, and it’s got a lot of oil in it. Which gives it a shine as well. But it’s soft.”

Everything in the workshop has a film of fine sawdust on it. There’s a spongy sedimentary layering of it under our feet. Some places, the sawdust is thick enough to scoop; others, it’s more like a sifting of icing sugar. There are boxes of offcuts, curls of shaved timber.

“These are templates,” Floyd says, gesturing to sketches on flat bits of wood. “That thing where it goes from flat to sculpture is an interesting part of woodwork.” There are notes scrawled in pencil on offcuts. I read: “15 fat bodies, 10 fat heads.”

In the corner of the workshop there’s a pile of almost-puffins, still in bits. The wood is orange. She says, “That is Oregon, it’s an American wood. It was brought over here to do the Flemington Racecourse.” She holds a head in her hand. “This is a really good bit, because the lines are close together. That piece would carve really well. I started this lot, carving, but it wasn’t tight enough. First-go puffins.” She points to the Huon pine: “This wood worked better.”

She takes me on a tour of her machines: circular saws, drills, a bandsaw that she explains feels more like a sewing machine, that is very exact. Machines that cut, drill, shape and polish. Some of these machines are from her family’s toy-making factory. Her father and her grandmother made wooden block-like toys in a factory on Canterbury Road in Melbourne. “Some of them were designed by a German engineer and then they designed some themselves,” says Floyd.

Much has been made of Floyd’s toy-making past – her and her brother worked in the factory as children – but she distances herself a little from it. “It was a different time; you had to work,” she says. She has this inheritance, these machines. She shows me how the linisher works, a large belt sander. “That was my grandmother’s,” she says. “She used to do the blocks on that. She taught me how to use it, and she used it in a particular way.”

She picks up a piece of wood that already has two Ks cut out of it. “This is another machine,” she says. “I use this a lot for just cutting out the letters. Again, it’s like a sewing machine. You can turn the corner –” she cuts into the piece of wood. “It’s got a nice quality that’s different to laser cut. But then while I’m doing it, I’m, like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Sometimes I cut out 100 and just work through it, and then I think this is ridiculous and I just machine cut everything else. I try not to glorify the handmade and to move between the two.”

In her studio, Floyd said, “I’ve been researching this science fiction language by Ursula Le Guin and it’s a feminist matriarchal language with an alphabet.” She said she’s not a science fiction buff but that she likes “imagining another world, which is what art does”.

“I grew up in a sense – where everyone was trying to create this other world – and seeing it crumble. Seeing the co-operative fall apart as well. I’m always looking at both sides.” Ideas exploring utopia is a common theme that runs through Floyd’s work. Her childhood was spent in the socialist children’s programs of Melbourne in the 1970s and ’80s. She explores alternative educational philosophies: ideas of pedagogy and play.

Floyd has made a typeface of the Ursula Le Guin language and from this created a large sculpture to be installed in the entrance to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She took me on a sort of virtual tour of the gallery space, showing me a photo by Max Dupain, with her sculpture transposed over the top of it. “So you come in that entrance there,” she said. “So, firstly it’s like a Greek temple, just bizarre. This kind of transposed, stupid colonial-classical thing, and then it’s got the names of male classical artists on the front.

“To the left, that’s the colonial section, and to the right, that’s the modernist display there, and I just noticed when I would come up and sit there, they don’t very often have women artists in that colonial space. They’ve made quite a concerted effort in this space to canonise women modernists, which is great, but … if you keep going, you get to the contemporary art section, that’s the John Kaldor collection, and that strangely has no women – or one woman. It’s the perfect artefact of patriarchal misogyny. Especially in regard to the contemporary collection: it sort of raises the question, should it be allowed to be called contemporary art if the feature of modernism, even, is Marxism, feminism, Freud? It’s like if you just have the other two and forget about feminism,” she says and laughs. “My token moment – in the middle of that – and also the space is completely inhabited by women. There are some really interesting contradictions.”

Her large colourful sculpture will dominate this space, unavoidable, inhabiting the entrance to the gallery. I asked her whether it’s rare to be a woman working in the field of public art and large sculpture and she said no. She’s part of a long history of women artists working in this field. “Going back to Barbara Hepworth,” she said. “There’s this interest in creating these large public structures, which you could say: they are part of a male domain of industrial fabrication, building; and they also occupy public space as a replacement for the body. That’s where I come from, this idea of occupying – putting this big object in the public space as a kind of declaration, as a protofeminist thing. Inge King is like that. She didn’t see herself as a feminist. But if you look at what she was doing … she came from Germany, and established this studio out in the bush. She made the big black arcs outside the [Melbourne] Arts Centre. That one’s called Forward Surge. She established this field in Australia.” 

Floyd draws me deeper into her workshop, which she tells me is an old dairy. She takes me to a room where they used to make butter. There’s a little window that opens out onto the street, where they sold to customers.

“In here, is a little bit of a graveyard,” she says. “There’s a thin head. This is a really old one. I reckon this is five years old.” She holds the unevolved puffin head in her hand, and ponders: “I suppose – I don’t know whether or not I chuck stuff like this out…”

She points out a pile of Russian text from a workshop at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia. Around the corner is a large wooden sculpture from Far Rainbow, with dusty lifejackets thrown over the top of it. In the butter room there’s books, a Pinocchio with his long nose, detritus from exhibitions, lengths of timber laser cut with URLs. She reads some of them aloud: “systems theory … documentary about people still living at the Chernobyl site …”

“This is an ancient kauri timber that they dig out of swamps. It’s been saved from becoming a salad bowl. See how they present it ready to become a salad bowl,” Floyd gestures towards two stumpy pieces of timber. They look like thick rudimentary wheels, one flat and the other she’s placed on top of it with its face out. The cup of the bowl, yet to be carved out. “They’re just really nice just like that,” she says.

We step out into the garden, where the onion dome from her work Gulag Archipelego (2016) sits in a monumentally sized box, covered in a silver tarp that’s roped down around the edges. It’s beside a boat with a faded yellow hull. A vine is encroaching.

“This all needs to be fixed,” she says, referring to the work in the dairy we’ve just stepped out of. “It’s this kind of state of, like, I don’t know: decay. But you need this really messy, chaotic space to make something perfect.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 8, 2017 as "Think Floyd".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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