Emily Allchurch is one of these artists that, you discover by the chance of an exhibition in an enchanted museum (in my case the Manchester Art Gallery) and her work strikes you so much that it was not only a personal pleasure to walk through her exhibited works but that gave me also this sensation that the artist takes you as a serious and intelligent “see-er”, talks to your brain but also your memory and sensations. I had later the immense luck to follow a workshop with her and she had the kindness to give some of her time for this interview, in the middle of the preparation of her next exhibition, at the Lakeside Art Gallery, Nottingham.
During the past 12 years I have developed a technique of re-creating old master prints and paintings through a 21st century lens, by meticulously assembling numerous photographs I have taken using digital software. The resulting images tell a story about an event or place compressed in to a single image, revealing a social narrative for our times. There are two parts to my making process. The first is a brief, intensive encounter with a city, where my role is one of an observer/witness, to document and absorb an impression of the place, using the original image as my guide to create a comprehensive image library. I enjoy discovering a place by foot, camera-in-hand, to capture the twists and turns of my navigation, allowing chance and intrigue to guide me as much as the map.The second is the intricate construction of each artwork back in my studio, carefully selecting and composing the photographic details that will build my story. I am interested in revealing narratives that link the work to the message in the original artwork, but update it to have a resonance and relevance to a modern-day audience. This gives the work a voice of its own, allowing my own creativity to emerge.
It is fundamental to my work that I am working with photography and digital composite techniques, rather than painting a scene. Each photographic fragment I use in my compositions is a record of a real place or object as it was at that particularly moment in time. In this way it functions as a form of documentary record in the classic sense of photography, even though it is then stitched together with other elements to give it a new existence and context. It makes the work seems very real and tangible. People often say how the works look three-dimensional, as though they could simply step into the picture and wonder around. Using photography to make my compositions tricks the mind to believe in the fictitious space presented. I like this resulting play between illusion and reality. Having said that the tools I use to create the subtle and intricate effects in my work: erasing and blending layers, and modulating colour, contrast, perspective, focus, highlight and shadow, does require a painter’s eye and skill, except that the traditional canvas has been replaced by a computer screen.
What are your daily challenges?
Being an artist is certainly a high-risk strategy. I feel very privileged to be an artist and it is exciting and liberating to not know what you might be doing 12 months from now. That uncertainty can also be daunting in equal measure, as you don’t know what, if anything, might lie ahead and therefore what income you might earn from one year to the next. I am fortunate that I have a commercial market for my work and I try to keep enough in surplus to fund the leaner times between shows.
There is still funding out there, but you have to be prepared to work hard for it and the competition I’m sure is greater then when I graduated 16 years ago. I won a small Arts Council England grant back then which helped me buy some vital camera equipment. I also secured Arts Council England funding for a group show at Pitzhanger Manor House & Gallery in 2012, which helped towards equipment, production costs and catalogue publication. Since 2010 Arts Council England’s budget has been cut by 30% and its administrative costs have been cut by 50%. It is noticeable that it is less easy to get advice and feedback from them, but with tenacity and perseverance it is still worth pursuing.
My current show at the Djanogly Art Gallery in Nottingham In the Footsteps of a Master (18 July – 31 August) has a significant participatory element, which has been totally funded by Arts Council England. This time, the funding was achieved through collaborative with the education department at Nottingham Lakeside Arts. For the project I have worked with a large cross-section of the community in Nottingham to make artworks in response to living in the city. These works will be exhibited in the main gallery as part of my show, forming a collaborative ‘Tower of Nottingham’ structure inspired by my ‘Tower of Babel’ works.
Included in the exhibition is my most recent commission for Manchester Art Gallery, funded through a crowdfunding campaign called ‘Art Happens’, a new initiative by the Arts Fund. There are numerous crowdfunding platforms now and it strikes me that this is a viable way for artists and arts organisations to take control over funding and make things happen at a time when traditional sources of revenue and support are dwindling.
Participatory practice has always formed an important part of my working life. Rather then pursing a regular teaching role at one institution, I have worked as a freelance arts educator, with a large number of galleries and art schools. I find it rewarding and challenging to work with people from all ages and backgrounds, and to be in a position to encourage, inspire and give something back. For many artist’s gallery education is a vital means of income and despite the increasing pressures of budget cuts we have to hope that gallery education is ring-fenced. Having worked with Nottingham Lakeside Arts over the past 6 months, it is clear they have a vibrant education programme, with a talented stable of associate artists.
All your art works are linked, anchored in territories (architecture, public furniture as lamps or surveillance cameras, …), how do you define your relation with territory?
The old master prints and paintings I choose to recreate are often based on ‘models’ of a city or landscape, fantasy prison spaces or an impression of a place rather then accurate representation. For me the challenge and intrigue is to update them from photographs I have taken from very real spaces around us today. By using photography and digital collage to do this, the resulting image draws you in to the message or observation I am making about contemporary life, rather then the style in which I portray it. I could take you to the place I photographed any of the buildings or examples of street paraphernalia in my pictures and they still have integrity to their original setting. However, I feel that the process of extracting them from their original location and choreographing them into a fabricated composition, enhances and reinforces the story I am trying to tell.
Following the London terrorist attacks in July 2005, a tangible feeling of fear and paranoia permeated its population. It coloured my own interactions and drew out a deeper, personal memory of danger, which I felt compelled to embrace. I became acutely aware of the culture of surveillance and control enveloping the city dweller, seemingly at odds with the freedoms we enjoy as 21st century citizens of Europe. It brought to mind the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) and his Carcere d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), first published 1743-45 and reworked for even darker menace in 1760. They spoke strongly to me with added poignancy and seemed as fresh and relevant to a modern audience as to his own. Piranesi’s prison fantasies; haunting meditations on the human condition, thought to have come to him in the delirium of fever, could be seen to exist all around the city today. Thus began my endeavour to recreate a number of the original plates from a collage of real architecture and street paraphernalia sourced in contemporary London, Rome and Paris.
‘Tokyo Story’ based on Utagawa Hiroshige’s ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ (1856-58), posed a new set of challenges, primarily how to respond to a culture very different from my own, where much of the landscape he depicted has changed beyond recognition, with the encroachment of the modern city. Whilst I attempted to travel to as many of the locations as possible in Hiroshige’s scenes, I also photographed landmark buildings and places of interest, which would be on the list of ‘famous views’ today. It became apparent that my ‘updated’ series should not be a slavish record of specific places, but present and modernise generic themes and symbolism Hiroshige explores: temple and shrine culture, bridges, gardens, views by night, riverside settings etc, throughout the changing seasons. Just as Hiroshige made reference to people, objects and places that had a social relevance to his audience, so the inclusion of familiar modern-day motifs and signage such as the Tokyo Metro sign, supermarket chains, vending machines, karaoke clubs, LED advertising, the Rainbow Bridge, NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, discarded beer bottles and street signs can be decoded by a contemporary audience and offer a vision of underlying control and compliance.
- Emily website
- Nottingham Lakeside Art, Djanogly Art Gallery: “In The Footsteps Of A Master” Emily Allchurch exhibition, 18.07-31.08.2015
- Storify of the opening night at Djanogly Art Gallery
- Manchester Revisited: A new commission by Emily Allchurch
- Manchester City Art Gallery: “In The Footsteps Of A Master” Emily Allchurch exhibition
- Tate page about Emily Allchurch
- Art: Emily Allchurch – In the Footsteps of a Master, Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham Post article