Artist Emma Hart’s strange cast of ceramics heads – all funny little noses, doleful eyes, and jaunty patterning – seem cute, in a Sanrio sort of way at first. On second glance, they have slightly darker connotations: pantomimic cutlery blades spin around, cutting the faces off below the nose. There’s a David Shrigley-ish black humour to it all, coupled with a sense performativity: to see the patterns inside the head, the viewer has to stand almost completely inside them. By default, you become part of the installation.
Hart’s vast room-spanning installation, entitled Mamma Mia!, is currently on show at the Whitechapel Gallery, and is the result of her being awarded the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. Previous winners include Laure Prouvost, Andrea Büttner and Margaret Salmon, and the prize includes a six-month artist’s residency in Italy. This saw Hart visit Italy from June until December last year, dividing her time between Milan, Todi and Faenza.
Her time in Milan explains a lot about the piece, formed of a collection of heads each projecting a speech bubble-shaped beam of light into an otherwise dark space. The heads feel resolutely individual, all hung at slightly different angles and heights, yet are all in a strange sort of dialogue with one another. In Milan, Hart studied the Milan Systems Approach, a method of family therapy that focuses on “what happens in the space between people and how we form relationships,” Hart explains. “They wouldn’t treat individuals, only the space between people.”
Along with her partner and then 30-month-old daughter, Hart worked with psychotherapist Matteo Selvini to study his methods. “They were intrigued by having an artist observe,” says Hart, who adds that her use of spotlights references the way psychologists project themselves onto people they’re treating.
Ideas around motherhood and the family also loom large in the piece, not only in the frothy title, but in the interactions between the various elements in the installation. “I always understood I was making a family of objects – I worked with a strategy of glazing that made them all different but somehow related. They all speak as one but they’re all different,” says Hart. The cutlery hints at the more violent or sinister aspects of domesticity. “The fans are slowly executing or slicing through [the heads’] speech,” she adds. They were also a not-so-subtle reference to the heat she was working in in Italy: when she was on the residency, she simply needed a fan.
Pattern neatly links the maiolica, motherhood, and therapy strands: a green illustration of mermaid-like female forms, for instance, directly recalls maiolica “greenware” and also represents jealousy. “The lady might be me, I don’t know,” says Hart. “She’s trapped in jealousy and can’t get out, always looking over her shoulder. We’re all stuck in feedback loops or habitual modes of behaviour that trigger things. At the therapy centre I saw things I recognise in my own loops and learned a lot about my own behaviour, like how a certain tone of voice someone uses will always trigger a certain behaviour in someone else.”
She adds: “I had an epiphany that in Deruta I saw the maiolica patterns, and in Milan I’d been observing patterns of human behaviour. Could patterns harness or capture the problems of repetitive human behaviour?”
Hart deliberately positioned the light beams as spotlights, illuminating the viewers once they step inside. The only way to properly view the ceramics’ interior illustrations is to brave these spotlights, and the artist is aware of the “awkwardness” the situation engenders. She sees the work as “creating a reality”, albeit a rather surreal and at times, pretty humorous one. “I was trying to think of a real way my sculptures could affect a viewer,” she says. “You could see the light as speaking to you, spitting on you, vomiting on you – you choose.”
This subtle nod to violence comes through in the otherwise benevolent shape of the heads, too. Hart was drawing on references from traditional Medieval jugs to create the forms, created through spinning clay and then pinching it to create the shape of the spout.
“I was always taken with the violence of the pinches,” she says. “I could feel my own nose being pinched.”
As well as honing her ceramics skills (Hart claims to have previously learned most of what she knows about clay from YouTube tutorials), the project also reassured the artist that she could actually draw. “I’ve learned a huge amount – I’ve transformed the way I work really,” she reflects. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could be the next Cath Kidston!’ Not really.”
Emma Hart’s Mamma Mia! is on show at the Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX until 3 September 2017