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Artist profile: Emily Floyd

Photography credit: Arsineh Houspian

Artist profile: Emily Floyd

Written by: 
Fiona Gruber

When Emily Floyd was a child, she’d go on protests with her mother and father, demonstrations that focussed on the rights of working women and the need for state-subsidised day care centres for children.

Her parents were toymakers as well as activists and this world of child-centred play, learning and consciousness-raising is something Floyd has carried forward into an international career in sculpture, public installation and print making.

“Sculpture for children is a special interest of mine,” she says (a new child-centred sculpture commission opened in February at the Shanghai Library East) but it can include work that isn’t obviously so; she cites a favourite among her works, Abstract Labour, a series of 14 colourfully-painted aluminium letters spelling out these two words. It conjures a world of creative endeavour and engagement and stands beside Heide Museum of Modern Art. Since its installation in 2014, it’s become a vibrant part of the outdoor sculpture surrounding the gallery and a magnet for kids.

“There’s a sign next to it that reads ‘Please Don’t Climb on the Sculpture’ and children love to subvert that,” she says. “It seems to encourage small acts of anarchism.”

These rebellions and spurts of exuberant colour are part of a modernist and feminist tradition that redefine and re-examine the politics of public space and public engagement.

In Sydney’s Curtin Place beside Australia Square, another text-based work, Public Space! goes to the heart of this debate. It introduces colourful building-block letter shapes into a severe grey and white environment, beside one of the icons of 20th century Australian architecture, Harry Seidler’s Australia Square Tower. This thrusting example of modernism is one Floyd admires, she says, but she’s just also keen to look at and reference more modest structures.

“My grandmother made Bauhaus-inspired building blocks, a series called ‘Block and Rod’  that many architects of that generation would have used. She also made blocks for Waldorf [Steiner] and Montessori Schools”, she says.

Floyd might have been raised in an atmosphere of modernist Utopianism but she observes that we’re now at the tail end of some of these ideas.

“We need to reflect on the failures of some of them as well,” she says “and look at them with a tinge of irony; sometimes that Utopianism can feel rather empty.”

Floyd’s animal-centred sculptures are equally well-known and she relishes the unsettling quality of works such as her black, four-metre high Toy Rabbit, (2004) in Melbourne’s Docklands, that is both cute and threatening, part bunny, part Darth Vader.

Public Art Strategy (2006) part of the Eastlink Motorway art corridor, features a giant blackbird devouring a bright yellow bird.

It’s a cartoonish rendition of the life cycle that also manages to echo several other signature sculptures in the city including Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault, Inge King’s Forward Surge and Bruce Armstrong’s Eagle (Bunjil).

These animal works also reflect an interest in re-examining how we view the world.

“I’m fascinated by the burgeoning interest in post-human studies,” says Floyd, of a trend that recalibrates and deprivileges the homo sapien gaze. But this obviously doesn’t exclude humans, she adds, stating that she has ambitions to build “a post-human philosophical playground,” one, she says, that will help children see through different eyes. “It’s all about de-centring the human experience.”