Emily Prince is an artist who explores how we as humans represent and
remember the passage of time. Her process oriented nature is elegantly present throughout her work. An good example of this is Around and Around Everyday, a piece in which she demonstrated the passage of time by drawing lines around the architectural planes of a room for six weeks. Her processes are also accompanied by an emphasis on spatial distribution and/or maps whenever possible. In 2007 her geospatial distribution of portraits ofAmerican servicemen who died in Iraq and Afghanistan was selected for the Venice Biennale. Her most recent exhibit, Romancing the Stone, was held at the Jack Hanley Gallery in New York City. We recently had the chance to chat about her career so far and get the scoop on future her work.
[ArtSHIFTING] Your work attempts to demonstrate how we record and/or stop the passage of time. What role has technology played in the process, delivery and development of your work?
[Emily] I’m glad you asked this because it brings up an important point. Lately through my work I’ve been exploring nostalgia, this specific psychological phenomena that acts like a past-magnet, encouraging us to remember our own stories, flawed as they may be. However, the work itself is not nostalgic. There was a time when I was superficially drawn to the philosophy of Luddites but at present I’m appreciative of living in these very times with all the tools I get to utilize. I like to use whatever works. Such as my cheap and dying three-in-one HP scanner. It’s provided much mileage for my purposes. Also, PhotoShop comes in handy. Incorporating these media in my process has developed, organically, a stratigraphy that I find slightly provocative and have therefore embraced. In my last body of work, for instance, I made these super labor-intensive pencil drawings of rocks. So far: old-fashioned medium paired with ancient subject matter. At first I tried drawing the rocks from sight but it was almost prohibitively difficult to flatten out the three-dimensions on such a tiny scale. In frustration I decided to make a bridge for myself: take a photograph of the rocks and then draw from the photo, which would have done the flattening for me. And then, only because it was easier and I am at heart lazy, I put the rocks directly onto the scanner to get my images. No set-up involved! Then an unexpected and wonderful thing happened: because I used a scanner instead of a regular camera the images contained a combination of sharp areas where the rocks had been flush with the screen and blurred parts where the dimensions of the rocks went their separate ways and the scanner couldn’t pick up those details. I ended up loving that kind of implicit, subtle artifact and I tried to draw those very details. In the drawings then, you can see that there was a layer of mediation, that this image came from photography and thus there were multiple levels of distance from the subject. Ultimately a pairing of the ancient and the technologically recent came together and this was more stimulating to me, more reflective of the world we live in, than if I was strictly committed to using, say, daguerreotype photography and nothing else. I am more interested in where these different things pile on top of each other, like geology.
[ArtSHIFTING] Around around everyday, The Birthday Project,Familiar and It Will Live Foreverplaced emphasis on the surrounding physical environment in which you work. How often does this play a role in pieces not intended as such?
[Emily] Yes, when I started out I was inclined to make my projects site-specific. But as I continued to work my area of inquiry became more and more specific and I aspired to go deeper and sharper rather than spread out horizontally. So some trimming naturally had to happen. But the interest in the environment didn’t exactly go away… through working on it will live forever the study of space collapsed into the investigation of time in the following way: While working on that project I was volunteering for a native plant nursery that rehabilitated local marshlands and coastal prairies. I was thinking about that as I made the work, asking questions like:
[ArtSHIFTING] The Egyptian Murals for Martyrs project is a street art project that memorializes those who died in the revolution. What parallels do you see between your American soldiers andBury my heart portraits.
[Emily] There is a parallel here for sure. In common to them all is the labor of memory, the desire to feel a physicality for those memories, to replace what’s gone with a tangible remembrance. To my mind they all speak to the way in which we deliberately live with ghosts, building ghost-houses, due to the terror of forgetting. I’m glad you brought this project Murals for Martyrs to my attention!
[ArtSHIFTING] What role does the artist have in society?
[Emily] I guess there are as many different roles as there are artists. I hope my own is something besides self-indulgence.
[ArtSHIFTING] What has been a seminal experience for you as an artist?
[Emily] I used to work in such a way that the process was everything, and as a consequence, every single part of that process ended up being the final “product.” But while making the wall drawings of it will live forever, which took months, I realized the most practical thing: as much as I loved working site-specifically, it wasn’t totally realistic for every future project (imagine needing to spend months anywhere on an installation – it just isn’t really possible), and so I made a conscious decision to learn how to work on mobile objects, like on paper rather than directly on the wall. Once I began to work like this it freed me up tremendously. Suddenly I had this new capacity to edit. And then I ended up editing A TON, like a writer who just chips and chips away until only the essentials are left (hopefully). As well, and maybe more significantly, I was allowed the space for trial and error and this opened up countless cracks for accidents to occur. My job has turned into being a sentinel, on watch – with my best peripheral vision – for good accidents. Almost everything in my work now is the result of one. It’s a looser way to work, inviting chance. It’s like in science when a profound discovery is made by route of an experiment that was intended to study something else.
[ArtSHIFTING] How has your practice changed over time?
[Emily] I used to be more diligent – I could work for eight hours straight, twelve hours of solid work in a day. But when I went to grad school my schedule was fractured into all these hour or two-hour long time-slots and my attention span has never recovered. Only recently, though, have I stopped whipping myself for this. Like with Minister Dimmesdale of The Scarlet Letter, except with me it’s on the inside. I’m trying to make peace with it, call it pacing. Because perhaps it’s just my body talking to me and trying to prevent blindness, since my drawings of the last two years have required turning my eyes into microscopes. I guess the answer to your question is that I’ve become all loosey-goosey.
[ArtSHIFTING] What’s your strongest memory of your childhood?
[Emily] Hmmm… Nothing in life for me really classifies as strongest or bests. I’ve got endless strong memories of my childhood, but here’s the earliest one:
[ArtSHIFTING] Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?
[Emily] I was always interested in how we navigate the passage of time and relate to the past but when my Grandmother, to whom I was close as can be, died, the subject of memory and coping with loss all became totally real and personal rather than merely abstract.
[ArtSHIFTING] What memorable responses have you had to your work?
[Emily] I’m shy to the point of being handicapped and so I can’t go around announcing my work like I ought to. (Almost everything’s happened in one long chain of good luck.) However, over time my project American Servicemen and Women… has become known to a few people, having been shown in a few different cities, and I’ve now been approached by some family members and friends of people whose portraits I’ve drawn. Those emails often make me cry. They turn the abstract into the concrete and are immensely humbling.
[ArtSHIFTING] What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
[Emily] In my MFA program I had an advisor (who happened to study martial arts on the side) who gave me a high-five so sharp it almost hurt, while saying, “Yeah – Nostalgia’s where your money’s at!” It was he who crystallized this idea for me, calling out the heart of my inquiry, and for that I’m grateful.
[ArtSHIFTING] Professionally, what’s your goal?
[Emily] To make art like Randy Newman made music between 1970 and ’77.
[ArtSHIFTING] What are you working on now?
[Emily] Roses have been a draw lately. It seems I’m interested in classic American luxury (living) objects, like horses and roses. These things seem to touch on our own special sense of roots, in that they’re a little English too. The idea they both bring up for me is longing/desire. Always entwined in my curiosities over time is a fascination with the longing that comes with having a memory, being tethered to a past that’s now gone. Horses and roses share this poignancy of longing, to my mind. I was never a “horse-girl” because we were on the poor side, but we lived in this rural area where our nearest neighbor was a ranch and the horses lived closer to us than the people. Everyday my mom would indulge me by walking me to see the horses. And sometimes they’d get loose and come straight to our house where they could eat the fresh grass in the lawn… once one reached its big horse mouth over my dad’s shoulder and took a bite out of his sandwich. Anyway, for me it was never about riding horses but rather about longing to ride horses. And I think that roses are similar. I remember in To Kill a Mockingbirdthere’s a trope running through the book having to do with flowers. The working-class lady has geraniums planted in old toilets or something, and the rich person down the street has roses. Roses are another object of desire to which we might aspire, to long for.
I’ve been looking at old catalogs for roses and I’m planning to make drawings based on the black and white photos in them. I’m thinking of the experience of just pouring over theses pictures of roses, imagining them, anticipating them, maybe never even being able to afford having them but longing after them through the pictures. To me the mail-order catalog brings up a spatial separation that is akin to the divisions between the present and the past. In both there is something on the other side that we desire.