by Beata Kozlowska
Loss and fragility are recurring themes in Elaine Mullings’ multidisciplinary practice. Her sculpture and installations reflect an interest in architectural spaces while the varied cast of materials she uses are designed to ‘unravel the emotional and cultural values woven into ‘things’ ’.
I had the honour to meet Elaine Mullings several years ago while studying together at Camberwell College of Arts in London and since then I became fascinated by her true mastery in working with anything from tissue paper and plastic bags to copper pipe and later also broken glass – as she states, 'delicate or fragile ‘things’ that hover like residual low level noise’.
After working in television as a producer/director for 14 years, Elaine Mullings left broadcasting for a career in visual arts. Her undergraduate degree in Drawing at Camberwell College of Art and Design was immediately followed by an MFA in Sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art. There she won the Red Mansion Art Foundation Prize. The resulting art residency in Beijing, PRC has had a lasting impact on her work.
Since graduating from the Slade and after a brief spell as a studio assistant to the sculptor Briony Marshall at Pangolin Studios, Mullings has continued to exhibit work in London and Sussex where she now lives. She has also developed her practice as a printmaker and she taught printmaking at Sussex Coast College in Hastings.
In 2014, Mullings was invited to become an Artist Pension Trust artist (APT Global). She also completed two large, site-specific wall sculptures, commissioned by Conran + Partners and Barratt London for The Courthouse in Westminster. This followed a commission in 2013 by Conran + Partners and D&D London for four large permanent wall pieces for the new Duke restaurant in Istanbul. In 2015 she was one of just two finalists considered for the new art installation in Vesta House, formerly the Athletes' Village during London’s 2012 Olympics. Recently, Elaine has been invited to submit a proposal for a large international art commission.
How would you describe your practice? How your previous film and digital media experience led you to your current means of expression?
As a producer/ director, I had to develop ideas from my page to screen and organise every aspect of that production process from recruiting the team and finding contributors to commissioning postproduction and music. I liked bringing all the pieces of the puzzle together in the editing process to make programmes. I suppose I still see the creative process as a production and my practice as ever evolving and multi-discliplinary.
What inspires you in choosing the themes of your works? Do you have structured approach to the series or individual pieces you create?
Primarily, I’m a sculptor. I love to create work around materials and structures that pose questions or confront issues. Anything can ignite my approach to work. It could simply be a material or a whiff of an idea. But it can also be a response to an issue or a problem. For example, take something seemingly innocent like black tissue paper. I used it extensively in a body of work to think about where the true costs of such an ‘inexpensive’ material really lay. I used the same material in further work inspired by the often negative beliefs and myths about crows. I was interested in exploring how these same negative ideas are aimed towards various groups of people based simply on skin colour. Exploitation and prejudice are great motivators in my work. So is waste. Even with all the attention and information about over consumption and global warming, we still don’t get it.
You use sculpture, installation and quite recently printing medium.
How do they all relate to each other?
What are your favourite media to express yourself?
I’m interested in space and form and I like building or creating things from fragments to make a whole to animate the space. I may use a material to make a physical statement so that it has a kind of ‘presence’ or creates a sense of unease. For me the work has to deal with a challenge on every level. It can be a very slow process of just thinking before the work develops.
With printmaking, however, I am completely infatuated with the process, with colour, with ink, with the image, with depth, with spontaneity. And so it goes on. It's addictive. Over the past couple of years, focusing mostly on printmaking, I really wanted to pin down a skill as a printmaker. I started out with etching - intaglio. But after an arts residency in China, I became fascinated with colour and with iridescence and found myself increasingly drawn to screen printing. Now I want to unite these two strands of my practice with more installation work. I made work in the past that incorporated both sculpture and prints that i developed from the sculpture. I’m very happy working between two and three dimensional processes. I can’t say which media I prefer. I’m about to start making sculpture again, so I’m interested to see how printing and my 3-D work will coexist.
What is the main message in your art? How important is the audience in your work?
I prefer not to have a big shouty message. I think that can be limiting and off-putting. Instead I prefer the work to quietly respond or draw attention to something. I like my work to develop as an ongoing dialogue and a way of seeing or presenting things - familiar things - differently. If the audience is to be considered, then I want to create work that moves people. It’s not necessary for them to like it. But I do want them to engage with it. I think the audience should do some of the work and not be given everything on a plate Especially today, when we are so visually saturated with digital images, people need to question what they are seeing. So much stuff comes hurtling towards our brains that it’s become a sensory overload. I want to step away from that bombardment to slow down the looking and prompt the questions.
Could you please tell us about the creative process since initial thoughts to completion? How did you start your journey with printing?
Over the past year or so, I’ve been developing a technique for creating mono screen prints. And recently, I’ve used colour and abstract images to reference the sea. At the same time, I’ve been following the Ghost Boast investigation. In the summer of 2014, a boat carrying 243 refugees, mostly from Eritrea, was due to sail from the Libyan coast to Southern Italy. But, the boat never arrived and vanished without trace. Since then, a group of journalists have been carrying out an international investigation of the refugees’ disappearance and reporting their findings online. They also put out global calls for people to help them with information and research. But to date, no trace or evidence of the boat or its human cargo have been found.
I am distressed by the whole situation of war and personally I am fearful of water. So for me, following the Ghost Boat investigation and the news about the refugees escaping war and oppression, it’s inevitable that this percolates down into the work. So although the prints that I’ve made recently are abstract, they are really imaginings about the anxieties, fears and the hopes one could experience travelling across the sea under those treacherous conditions.
Making the prints is quite an intense process that operates somewhere between painting and printing. Starting with a formal shape like a circle or a rectangle I build up the layers of gestural marks within it during the printing itself. The results are intensely coloured, layered abstract images contained within formal spaces. The aim is to create prints that share tones, contrasts and gestural marks but are individual and therefore unique. Initially, when I’ve finished printing it’s difficult not to be overly critical so I'll leave the prints aside for a while to get some distance on them. I’m often surprised when I come back to them and discover new things within the image which are often suggestive of three-dimensional spaces. I want to keep pushing the technique as far as possible perhaps incorporating it within sculpture and forcing the scale up.
My love of printing started many years ago at art college and specifically began with a photograph of a tree that I took in winter in Blenheim Park. It was such a beautiful, physical stark drawing of skeletal black lines against the bleak grey sky. I exhausted the image by processing it again and again: photocopying it, turning the photocopies into scrolls, incorporating them into a sculpture, then photographing that, then photo-etching the image of the sculpture which I then printed. By going through several two and three dimensional formats, what started as a digital image, ended as a hand printed etching. I had to learn how to print in order to thoroughly process that image. I got the printing bug then.
What would be your dream collaboration?
That is such a difficult question because I admire so many different artists. I guess my dream collaboration would be with the artists Mark Bradford, Kara Walker, Rashid Johnson, Martin Puryear, Wangechi Mutu, Leonardo Drew Lee Bul and El Anatsui. Here in the UK it would be with Yinka Shonibare, Karla Black, Claire Barclay or Sonia Boyce. I’d also like to work with Keith Piper. or Richard Deacon. All the artists I mentioned are just the tip of iceberg dreams in a field of so many amazing artists out there with wonderful skills and ideas.
A dream printing collaboration would be with Kit Gresham at The Print Studio in Cambridge or the Jealous team or Pauper Press in London and the master printers at PACE prints or maybe the Durham Press both in US. I have my eye on a couple of print residences in Europe that would be just perfect. I’m ready!
Who has influenced you the most?
I try not to be influenced by anyone. But initially, I looked to the Arte Povera artists like Giuseppe Penone and Jannis Kounellis and Japanese Gutai and Mono-ha artists like Lee Ufan. Later I looked to artists like Ann Hamilton, Mona Hatoum, Lorna Hamilton and Tom Friedman. I really like the dextrous work of people like Lee Bul, El Anatsui and Leonardo Drew.
What other artists do you admire? What is your favourite piece of art?
I really admire artists such as Lee Bul, Theaster Gates, Ann Hamilton, Karla Black, Kara Walker, Ellen Gallagher, Phyllida Barlow, Liza Lui, Bharti Kher, Terasita Fernandez Surprisingly, I also look at lot of contemporary painters. People like Sam Gilliam, Frank Bowling, Hurvin Anderson, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville, Julia Dault, Stephen Chambers, Kehinde Wiley and Ryan Mosley. The list is endless and it’s constantly changing. For example, seeing Agnes Martin’s work last year at the Tate Modern was extremely moving.
I’ve recently fallen in love with the work of painter, Nijdeka Akunyili Crosby. My favourite or an important work of art for me is Leonard Drew’s Untiled #25, 1992 which comprises stacks of bales of raw cotton. It measures nearly three metres high, four metres wide and nearly a metre deep. It doesn’t have a title but it says everything.
How would you describe the current art scene in London and UK?
London’s current art scene is nothing short of intoxicating. It’s so vibrant it makes your head spin. Luckily, some of that vibrancy has spread across the UK which makes it very exciting. What’s great about London is the mix from the uber galleries and museums like the Tate or the V&A to small, pop-up shows in the edge-of-city spaces and loads of art outlets in between. The most interesting development for me is the way artists have taken control of getting their work out so that they are less dependent on the traditional gallery culture. The internet and social media are providing amazing benefit for artists. We’ve also seen the growth of art collectives, art fairs and of course along with the huge amount of art being seen and sold online.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your forthcoming projects/ Exhibition?
I’m pretty busy at the moment. I’m an Artist Pensions Trust artist, which means I submit work to the APT Global collection every year. I’m looking forward to setting up a new sculpture studio over the summer and working on new sculptures to show and submit to the APT collection. I’ll also be taking part in two art fairs in May and July and possibly later in the year where I’ll be showing my prints. Plus, I‘m currently working on a proposal for a permanent installation in a new residential development in Sweden.
More information about the Artist available on www.elainemullings.co.uk