Sarabande Spotlight Emma Witter's Memento Mori

19 August 2019

Ahead of her latest solo exhibition, writer Brodie Weir speaks with Emma Witter to discuss playing with food, ritualism and the residency at the Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation.

Ahead of her latest solo exhibition, writer Brodie Weir speaks with Emma Witter to discuss playing with food, ritualism and the residency at the Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation.

McQueen was renowned for the macabre. It's no surprise the artist-in-residence at Sarabande (the Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation), toys with death and the typically grizzlier aspects of nature. Emma Witter's Remember You Must Die, is a solo-show created with bones collected from friends, restaurants, butchers and even the banks of the River Thames. For Witter, introducing the medium of bone into her work was a natural progression from her previous practice, in which she explored human waste and excess.

Before the show opens, we caught up with Witter in the studio to hear more. Boxes labelled with the varying bone and cast names line the shelves; bowls of teeth and chicken feet sit next to wilting flowers in pig shin-bone vases. A conversation ensues.

Image courtesy of Pete Woodhead

Are there particular experiences or inspirations which drove you towards your artistic approach?

I was always interested in a cross disciplinary practice; thats why I did PDP [BA (Hons) Performance: Design and Practice, Central Saint Martins]. I was interested in scenography and prop making. We did an external project where we chose food as the starting point and set up this immersive dinner. It was about food fetish and greed. It was wild to just play around. And it always started from food; finishing meals and thinking it was a shame that the bones were thrown away. Like oxtail, how it already looks so much like an orchid – it’s beautiful. My friends would know the drill: we’d go for dinner and they would pass them down the table to me. After Christmas I’d get everyone’s turkey carcasses!

This process of collecting the bones and repurposing them into sculptural materials seems ritualistic. It’s like a performance in itself – the process of sharing and eating food to reveal the bones!

Exactly. It’s funny that it effects the way you cook and eat; I’ve tried so many new foods just because I like the bone shape. We have such a disconnection with where our food comes from, just shopping in a supermarket. It’s given me a nicer way of cooking and eating. I’d prefer to buy a whole animal, boil the bones and use the entire thing.

And the flower shapes, where do they come from?

I never wanted to copy a species of flower; it’s more about them feeling familiar but surreal. Flowers are recognisable and non-offensive. Using bones, a material that is so loaded and heavy with associations of death, you always want to bring it back to being beautiful. And at the moment I'm exploring the way certain flowers die; I love the way it can sometimes be so dramatic.

Image courtesy of Asiko

How has coming to the foundation allowed your practice to develop?

I’ve become more confident in my work. It feels like a seal of approval being here. Everyone is a specialist in their own thing; there’s an engraver who is one in three in the world who can do that particular engraving, a girl that designs prosthetics for aerialist paralympians. It’s all really interesting to work with.

I can imagine it’s what Sarabande is trying to birth by having the residency, this collaborative approach between incredibly talented, but niche craftspeople.

It’s so open-door and they really push you to talk and collaborate. I started in October [2018] and I’ve started to do the things I wanted to achieve whilst here – and they were wishes back then.

Remember You Must Die is on view at Sarabande Foundation, 18 - 22 September 2019. An edit of Witter's work is also being presented in STABLE, Sarabande's 2019 group show, 8 - 25 August 2019.

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