Mamma Mia! London’s Emma Hart wins Max Mara Art Prize for Women
By James Brewer
Patterns of family relationships fuse with patterns in art, in a dramatic new installation at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.
London-based artist Emma Hart is presenting until September 3, 2017 her brilliantly formatted display that has just won her the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, a biennial award for female artists in the UK. She is the sixth winner of the prize, which is backed by Collezione Maramotti, Max Mara and the Whitechapel Gallery, since its inception.
Emma’s large-scale installation Mamma Mia! flows from her six-month residency in Italy’s great commercial centre Milan, in the majolica town Todi (Umbria) and in Faenza (Emilia-Romagna), which can claim to be the ceramics capital of the country.
Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia is a private collection of contemporary art including a 20th century section and which supports new projects and mid-career and young artists.
Max Mara is more than makeup, fashion bags, sandals, boots and accessories. The group, founded in 1951 by the late Achille Maramotti and run by the succeeding generation, has taken on cultural sponsorship in addition to its retailing, in which it is a vendor of high-quality ready-to-wear items, with 2,668 stores in 100-plus countries.
Mamma Mia! was a phrase of wonderment that Emma adopted as she delved deeper into Italian sociology, history and ceramics, but she gave that title to her show because a central theme is its examination of intra-family behaviours.
She sets in a darkened gallery, a ‘family’ of 11 large fired-clay lamps that loom like human heads suspended from the ceiling, in uneasy ‘dialogue.’ The viewer gazes in curiosity at all the lamps, except one, from below. Each pod is in the form of a heavy upside-down jug: the spout mimics a nose and the opening a mouth. This pinching to create a spout was palpable for Emma – when she came across certain vessels in a museum “I could feel my own nose being pinched.”
Produced in Faenza alongside ceramic artisans, each sculpture is a considerable technical feat, fashioned in a press mould, then glazed incorporating a series of motifs. The interiors of the heads sport vivid patterns, designed and hand-painted by Emma inspired by her research into the Italian tradition of majolica. These patterns include eyes, tears, fists and fingers, and represent her own state of mind, or conditions and anxieties such as paranoia. A luminous green background in one represents being trapped, for instance.
The emergence of this elision of pattern came about as Emma was invited to see emotional sessions of the Milan Systems Approach, a method of family therapy at the Scuola Mara Selvini Palazzoli. The method involves physical re-enactments of break points in a person’s life and the study of repeated behaviour. The late psychiatrist Mara Palazzoli radically theorised that the problems showing up in an individual child did not develop in isolation, which means that therapy should involve a whole family or relevant group.
At the institute, Emma observed the treatment sessions through a two-way mirror, dark on one side, which led her to the installation concept of a room with only her lamps as light sources, and to casting speech bubbles on the floor.
She identified a link between the kind of actions the centre uses to find the roots of negative behaviour, and the way majolica could capture patterns. Emma spent her entire stay in Italy from June 2016 intrigued by pattern: visual patterns, including those stemming from 16th century faience (fine tin-glazed earthenware), and psychological patterns, which are reflected in the installation by another type of relationship, between the viewer and the pattern in the light.
Of the experience, she said as her London exhibition opened: “It has opened doors [for me] I did not know where there. It was laid bare to me the effect you can have within a family just by your tone of voice.”
Patterns on the outer side of the lamps are part of “a family of objects.” A measuring gauge on one is representative of domestic tension.
She was in Milan in June and July for the first weeks of the residency and was “constantly caught in the glare of the sun” which seemed to add a sense of claustrophobia to the development of the project.
A week in Rome included visits to funerary monuments with Katherine Huemoeller, a researcher from Princeton University who is deepening the understanding of family relationships and structures in ancient Rome. Emma was struck by how after many centuries an atmosphere with a contemporary feel endures among Roman gravestones on which are inscribed more than just a record of the deceased: “They say don’t kiss me, or do not sit on it. They talk to the viewer in the present day,” said Emma.
In Todi and the nearby hill town of Deruta, Emma met conceptual artists and explored the Renaissance techniques of majolica, before ending her residency in Faenza where, working with local artists, she began consolidating her enhanced knowledge and experimenting with ceramic techniques. “This work is a real step up for me, with the help and guidance of experts,” she said back in London. “Italy is steeped in ceramics: you see the expertise and ingenuity. I thought it would be a great time to improve my ceramics skills.
“I have had the most important time of my art life, and probably also my life. I have started to make my most significant artwork to date, whilst also making fantastic friends.” One of the greatest thrills was to meet and learn from craftsmen decorating altar plates.
Earlier in her career Emma worked mainly with photography and video, but in 2012 embarked untrained on ceramics. She said in an interview in 2015: “I do not want to have an intellectual relationship with art but a physical one.” She views clay as a means of going deeper into analysis of contemporary life than screens. It is said that her work “captures the confusion, stress and nausea of everyday experience.”
She was selected for the Max Mara award by a panel chaired by Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery, and comprising Fiona Bradley, director of the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh; Sarah Elson, collector and founder of Launch Pad, a commissioning series supporting emerging artists; Helen Sumpter, editor at Art Quarterly; and Royal Academician Alison Wilding.
Iwona Blazwick said: “Combining ceramics, film and narrative to create her remarkable environments, Emma Hart has used her residency in Italy to draw inspiration from the artisans of Faenza, renowned for Italian ceramics. Her journey into the world of ceramics and into the psychology of the family, now translates into an arresting new installation. We are delighted to premiere this new work at the Whitechapel Gallery.”
Luigi Maramotti, chairman of Max Mara said: “We are proud to see how Emma Hart responded to her time and her surroundings in Italy with such intensity.”
Marina Dacci, director of Collezione Maramotti, added: “Working with Emma Hart was a particularly meaningful experience for the Collection given the family theme of her proposed work, which inextricably connected life with art.”
The Max Mara Art Prize for Women is the only major visual art prize for women in the UK and aims to enable the winners to develop their potential with a degree of time and space. Each year a jury agrees a shortlist of five before the winner is decided. The Max Mara prize was awarded the British Council Arts & Business International Award in 2007.
The latest exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication, with contributions from writer Craig Burnett; Daniel Herrmann, the Eisler Curator and head of curatorial studies at the Whitechapel Gallery; writer Marinella Paderni and guest curator Bina von Stauffenberg.
Max Mara Art Prize for Women: Emma Hart, is until September 3, 2017, at Whitechapel Art Gallery. Entry is free. The exhibition continues to Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, from October14, 2017. It will be part of an exhibition of new work by Emma Hart at Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh in spring 2018.