Emily Young Interview
I interviewed ‘Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor’ Emily Young for The Resident magazine’s August issue ahead of her UK exhibition Call & Response. We spoke about the ‘professional transgressors’ of the art world, 1960s Notting Hill and her teenage encounters with Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. View the article in print here: Emily Young
From her home in Southern Tuscany, a 17th Century former convent with parts of its roof missing, sculptor Emily Young describes herself down the phone as a ‘bit of a recluse’. She lives up a mountain, not far from Carrara, the home of Michelangelo’s favourite quarries, and spends much of her time scouring the landscape, waiting for the right piece of stone to reveal itself.
Emily works with material that other sculptors might deem too difficult to carve, dolomitic limestone, onyx boulders, quartzite; some so hard that they can only be cut with a diamond-edged tool. From them she creates monumental half-formed human heads wearing still, silent expressions, ‘you get that in Buddhas and in the faces of the Madonnas a lot; it’s not that they are asleep, they are aware of their inner reality and it’s a quiet one,’ she says. She describes the carving process as a two-way conversation, exploring the ancestry of a material which often dates back millions, even billions of years, ‘recently I was working with stone left over from huge volcanic activity, and there was a lot of boiling gas that just gnawed through a piece of stone and boiled out parts of it, so they have great big holes in them; but they are very beautiful, complicated, like a great cave. I actually don’t know what’s going to be inside, so when I make a choice, it’s from experience’
Her approach isn’t what you’d call didactic, in fact Emily seems utterly uninterested in projecting her view of the world onto the sculpture or creating a pre-conceived image, desiring instead for the viewer to consider the history and universal significance that can be found in the stone’s anatomy. Growing up, Emily had an awareness of ancient art practices, informed by her very early years in Rome with her father, left wing politician and conservationist Wayland Hilton Young, 2nd Baron Kennet and mother Elizabeth Young, a respected British writer and commentator. ‘There was a huge sense of being in the origins of Western culture. You could come across a water fountain that’s beautifully made and it could be 1,000 years old,’ she says.
Her grandmother, who died before Emily was born, was the baroness Kathleen Kennet, a talented sculptor who studied in Paris with Rodin, and later married Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott. ‘There were sculptures all over the house, so I knew that women could be sculptors which is very rare; there weren’t that many women carvers, apart from Barbara Hepworth; but for a woman to make a living was unusual, which my grandmother did because she was a widow for a long time.’
The whole art world really has no idea what to do with me, I’m
truly a maverick
The Young family later returned to a smoggy, post-war-looking 1960s Notting Hill, where Emily evolved into an artful and iconoclastic teenager. At 15, she spent her time reading William Blake and drinking in the countercultural shift happening at Notting Hill’s London Free School, ‘I was pretty grumpy with the status quo, I thought school was a contrivance to make us all obedient citizens. I wasn’t a very good hippy, but I was quite a good beatnik. I used to go to the All Saints Hall where Pink Floyd started. Lots of drugs, dancing; excellent, crazy conversation, people coming for all over the world: America, Europe, Africa.’
Such is the media’s habit of aligning women’s achievements with the men of their past, I’m reluctant to bring up the part Pink Floyd played in Emily’s history; that in 1967 Syd Barrett wrote the song See Emily Play about her. But I ask, despite myself, and she tells me it’s not quite that simple, ‘I don’t think it’s about me. He just saw me and thought I looked a bit poetic. From my point of view he claimed me as his muse, but he didn’t know me, he didn’t know my life story. When you dream about somebody it’s not a biography is it? It’s about him, that whole feminine and creative spark was about to go out; he was in terrible danger because he had taken all this acid. That’s all it was.’
Convention has never sat well with the sculptor. Back in 1968, she tried a term at Chelsea College of Arts, but only lasted ‘about a month’ before choosing to travel the world instead, traversing India, Africa, and Asia, finding her artistic education in the Buddhas and temples. She practised for years as a painter, taking up sculpting in the 1980s when she happened upon some stone carving materials left behind by a friend. Chipping away at her marble kitchen worktop, she found herself making a relief, and with a slightly heavy heart, left painting behind for a life in stone.
Emily’s disdainful view of the kind of cultural obedience she tried to escape in her teenage years is something she has carried into her professional life; for her the contemporary art world is a disaffecting one, one where she sees a lack of respect for the ancient methods like stone carving. ‘There is very little good quality figurative sculpting going on. Basically none, there’s terrible kitsch… They can make a little maquette and then they take it to the technicians in Carrara or China, and they will do it with computers, they’ll make the piece you’ve imagined already. But I don’t do that,’ she says.
As Grayson Perry touched upon in his Reith Lecture, Nice Rebellion, Welcome In! Emily believes there is a phenomenon today’s art world of ‘the professional transgressors’, the artists that choose be ‘be naughty’ and value the power to shock above all else. The focus on art wholly as a commodity is something that she appears deeply troubled by; the trend of artists selling on and selling out to ‘the other guys, who LOVE to be naughty… I think that the artists of the last 20 or 30 years, a lot of them were the babies of Margaret Thatcher. [Thatcher] said “there’s no such thing as society”… Everything is a marketplace. I think that everything we’ve had in the last 20 or 30 years has been part of that ideology… I don’t want to be a part of that, I get by.’
She is worlds, even centuries apart from the conceptual approach of artists like Jeff Koons, who doesn’t necessarily need to be in the same room as his pieces to see them come to light. Having spent much of her career followed by the ‘female’ prefix, it was refreshing to see the Financial Times dub Emily “Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor”. Is sexism still an issue for her as an artist? ‘Completely. The whole system is run by fellas. The whole art world really has no idea what to do with me. I’m truly a maverick.’
Emily’s latest exhibition, Call and Response at The Fine Art Society is described as a show about ‘earth and humankind’. She explores how ‘every moment of every day and night humankind is called by the earth, and we respond to her.’ The language can seem a bit hippy-mystic, but Emily’s views are deeply pragmatic as they are holistic; she simply cannot abide how little consideration the majority offer to environmental atrocities, ‘We’re destroying huge numbers of life forms on earth.. Someone’s got to shout about this stuff, and I’m allowed to because I’m getting on a bit now and I’m an artist; oh and I’m a woman!’, she laughs.
Her work is a protest in stone; a way of diverting the viewer’s gaze from the navel to a larger sense of the world’s history and posterity. ‘One thing I want to do is to show great respect for the material, and not have it as my servant onto which I, a great superior being, I’m going to impose my will. That’s a kind of imperialist view which anyone with two brain cells to rub together will realise is no way to treat the earth. If we don’t treat her right; god knows she isn’t going to treat us right.’
Emily Young’s exhibition Call & Response at The Fine Art Society is on now until 27 August 2015; 148 New Bond Street W1S 2JT; faslondon.com
Image by Annie Hanson