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Regional Art Stories Emiko Artemis on the creative brain, materiality and shifts in practice

Emiko Artemis is an Australian artist living and working on Ngarrindjeri lands in South Australia. In 2012 she received her PhD for a research and studio project exploring the medicalization of women’s bodies and minds. Emiko has continued to investigate this concept in her practice, particularly how body and mind are connected and disconnected by the experience of modern life. Her current work explores how truth is made, and how belief shapes that truth through an investigation of the grotesque and bizarre.

Regional Arts Australia chatted to Emiko about her multi-disciplinary practice, and the ways in which her experiences and connection to place inform her practice.

Regional Arts Australia: Can we begin by learning a little about where you live and how this distinct place shapes your practice?

Emiko Artemis: I live in a magical area of South Australia, the Fleurieu Peninsular. On my doorstop I have breathtaking coastal cliffs, surf beaches, calm bay waters, inland forests, rivers, and waterfalls. It really is special. It is also very affordable which for a visual artist is important!!

I have always loved nature and went on a lot of camping trips as a child and my love for the outdoors has only gotten deeper as I have gotten older. This love and understanding of the natural world deeply shape my practice, as does the area I live in. A lot of my work investigates the changing relationship with nature we have as a society and how we navigate this on a personal level. So, this sees me responding to my local natural environments—photographing, drawing, writing, and then creating. Different aspects of my local environment—forest, coast, farm, and river, has been integral to the creation of my work of the last two or three years. I am informed by my local places on a conscious and unconscious level in a way that simply could not happen if I was living in a metropolitan area.

RAA: I know you've had a long term interest in truth-making and notions of post-truth in your practice. How has the last year provoked or impacted your work along these lines? Have there been any jolts, surprises, or shifts?

EA: I have always been a bit of an anarchist and a bit of a hippie so these two elements of myself have helped me navigate the confusion and drama of 2020—a good amount of questioning and fact checking and a good amount of acceptance. I think it is important as a creative to be able to stand back a little from what is happening around us so we can allow the creative brain space to work. This has been even more important due to the events we have been through and the mass of information that is available and unavoidable. I have felt for a long time that artists have an important role to play in creating cultural dialogues and now if ever is the time to be stepping up and getting into the thick of speaking. So my work has definitely been shaped by the events of the last year. Most definitively by the sense of urgent gravity—that there is so much at stake right now and so many without a voice- human and non-human. Those of us that have a voice must speak now in thoughtful and meaningful ways. On a practical level I am moving more into video work and creating immersive environments in my practice. I think these formats cut through the sense of image and information fatigue that so many people feel right now. It’s both gentler and more immediate. And I’m really enjoying exploring this new shift in my practice.

RAA: Your work encompasses many different mediums. How important is materiality in your work, and which aspects of the process most engross you?

EA: Materiality is central to my practice. Even if the final result is a two-dimensional artwork, the lead up to that has been exploring ideas of materiality—the body, the space around the body, the layers between skin and object and how these all interact. How we interact with the corporeal world is an area of my practice and research that I could explore to the end of days! It is so rich and that is why I work across so many mediums. Each medium tells a story in a different way. The sensation of touch has always been special for me so when I am working with fabrics—feeling them, exploring which fabric to put together and how—that is when I am fully engrossed and can literally work for hours and not notice. You wouldn’t want to eat at my house when I’m making costumes or masks—I work mainly in my living space and my kitchen table is the hub so at these times there are boxes of fabrics sitting around, bits of thread all over the floor, off cuts of laces everywhere and the table is covered in whatever I’m sewing. It’s a colourful mess. Just ask my kids!

RAA: I am curious to know about your experience undertaking a PHD. What did it give to your practice? How would you approach it if you were to do it now? How beneficial has it been to your ability to maintain an income as an artist?

EA: Doing my PhD was vital to my practice. It allowed me to focus completely on ideas central to my creative thinking and explore them both theoretically and artistically. Cultural and philosophical theory and research has always been an important aspect of my work, so my PhD strengthened and validated that. At the time, my children were young, and we were moving around a fair bit, living in Tasmania, Queensland, and New South Wales, so this gave me a lot of time and space to immersive myself in the research that would be central to my final body of work. The ideas I explored then and the ways of practice that I cemented are still in place now. It would look a little different now. I’m older and a little more grounded which means I’m more pragmatic and organised. Back then I would have a smudge of an idea, know it would all fit together somehow and then wing the rest. This allows for a lot of risk taking and freedom to be crazy in your thinking. I still work that way but its much more refined. So, if I was doing my PhD now, it would be more…dignified and less sweaty! How did it help my income as an artist? Can you ask me when I’m super wealthy?

RAA: I have heard you speak about how art can tell a story through personal experience. Can you tell us a little about your experiences as an artist, and how your own work draws on personal experience?

EA: I have always had a creative drive and have been making art for as long as I can remember. In my late 20s I moved from Victoria back to NSW to be with my mother who had terminal cancer. I started a certificate in ceramics at TAFE , thinking it would be something easy while I was with my Mum. What happened was I realised I wanted to become a professional artist. My journey to this point has been at times exciting and frustrating. I think when life has thrown some curves it has been my practice that has kept me steady. I use my own self a lot in my work, particularly when I am exploring themes of corporality. I also work in self-portrait mode quite often. In this way I am self-sufficient and not always dependent on a studio. I am also able to mould my practice around my family life. For me, art is all encompassing and subjective. I filter my practice through my own life experiences, for instance my work is feminist because as a woman I have so often experienced the harsh reality of gender-based discrimination. Speaking through my own experiences in what I hope are relatable ideas is the most authentic way I can be in my art.

RAA: What do you hope to achieve through your work in the long term? Why do you make? What do you hope it gifts to the world? Or if this last question is too big, perhaps: Can you tell us a little about what future projects you have in the pipeline?

EA: I love big questions!! I hope in the long term my work has made some sort of positive impact somewhere to someone or even better to many. Artists, and creatives in general, are in a unique position to dialogue with culture. As an artist I try to take ideas that are important and create conversations. I take this role very seriously. Culture is always moving and as has happened in many places lately, if we sit back and do nothing or not enough the loudest and often most unpleasant voices will take over. Artists are able to speak about issues in ways that impact. This is why authoritarian governments seek to harness and control the arts quickly. Art is powerful. Art forces us to think in new ways and it causes us as a society to question what we are doing. It can also be magical when it is quietly elusive in meaning. Sometimes it is just simply beautiful or strange and that is also important because it adds to our experience of being human. I want to be able to look back on my art practice and be able to say I did something to help the world be a better place and my art made a positive impact on someone somewhere.

Vale. Artist and Photographer Emiko Artemis
Vale. Artist and Photographer Emiko Artemis