Review: Emily Speed: Flatland at Tate Liverpool

Installation view, Emily Speed: Flatland, 2021 at Tate Liverpool © Gareth Jones

Emily Speed: Flatland at Tate Liverpool
Words, Lorraine Bacchus

During a conversation about the creative process, a poet friend of mine expressed the thought that out of struggle things get born that otherwise would not. He was alluding to something all artists know – that struggle is part of the process and can produce exciting, unexpected results. But attempting to bring a major, solo exhibition to fruition against a backdrop of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions … well, the usual challenges for all involved were taken to an unprecedented level. And yet, despite everything, here it is, only five months later than the original planned start date – Emily Speed: Flatland.

Speed was the successful applicant of Tate Liverpool’s inaugural Art North West, an open call for artists based in the North West of England. Its aim was to provide an opportunity for an artist or collective from the region to have their work represented at an internationally known art museum, along with access to 18 months’ of expertise and support from Tate’s staff.

Back in November 2019, Speed expressed her delight at being selected: “I am really excited to start working on a project of this scale, which would be impossible without the support this opportunity offers. This feels like an incredibly significant moment for my practice and I plan to enjoy it to the fullest”. Knowing what happened to the world just a couple of months later, her words now have a rather poignant innocence. As she said at the recent launch of the show: “Everything changed. It did for everyone”.

One thing remained a constant – the part of Speed’s practice that focuses on the relationships we have with architecture, with the spaces we inhabit, both inner and outer.

This is what forms the narrative underpinning all the elements of her show. She works in a variety of media, including film, sculpture, textile and performance, all of which are brought into play in Flatland.

Inspiration for the title and the work came from a 19thcentury satire on Victorian society, where all existence is limited to two dimensions. Edwin Abbott’s novella epitomises the dictionary definition of satire – where humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule is used to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices. The section dealing with the Victorian woman’s life is chillingly reminiscent of how some of today’s patriarchal societies operate, so that it’s sometimes hard to hold onto the humour when reading it. Thankfully, Speed’s Flatland offers a lighter reflection on the issues raised, though no less thought-provoking in its delivery.

In Abbott’s satirical Flatland, men may have any number of sides depending on their status. Women, however, are thin straight lines with points at both ends and are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Abbott gleefully points out the dangers of the Flatland Woman: “Being, so to speak, ALL point, at least at the two extremities. Add to this the power of making herself practically invisible at will, and you will perceive that a Female, in Flatland, is a creature by no means to be trifled with”.

Is it too obvious a jump from this ‘Woman as Needle’ to the fact of Speed’s Flatland having involved so much sewing? Her elaborate, sometimes oversized, costumes, featured in the main film and as standing installations, also reflect garments that are most often associated with women – utilitarian housework items, including an apron, tabard, dressing gown and housecoats. They were made in collaboration with her twin sister, Ruth Eaton, lecturer at Manchester Fashion Institute and Creative Director of Spoon Studios.

Keeping it in the family, so to speak, a second film features a solitary woman, her cousin, Lisa Birtles.  She performs a text in British sign language written by the author, Eley Williams.  The narrative describes a woman’s internal dialogue and relationship with her unseen neighbour upstairs.  It offers a parallel to the main film but has a very different way of examining how we interact with both psychological and actual spaces.

In Abbott’s Flatland the women’s single line appearance makes them semi-invisible, so there is an edict instructing them to paint one end of their line-body orange and to continuously sway their hips to alert others (men) to their presence. Speed has brilliantly taken on this satire in the main film and it’s impossible not to start swaying along with the women as they move to the beat of the music, an original electronic soundtrack by Michael CTRL.

One of the performers in the film is Kirsty Tewnion, shown pole dancing with extraordinary contortions of her body, which require impressive strength and flexibility. In the context of the film’s narrative her inclusion is clearly part of Speed’s examination of the relationship between people and their environment; the woman is engrossed in her own space, in her own pleasure at what her body can do. But that said, it will pose an interesting challenge to some viewers – given that there’s still a lively, on-going debate as to whether pole dancing can ever be separated from its man-pleasing strip club association, and instead be established as an empowering sport for women. All to the good, of course; one of art’s functions has always been to challenge the status quo. Meanwhile, the pole itself seemed to me to be a powerful, playful visualisation/echo of Abbott’s straight-line women.

On entering the gallery space there is a palpable sense of a stage having been set, that something is about to happen. The curating of the costumes, in the films and in the gallery, reflects another of Speed’s influences, that of Japanese Kabuki theatre sets, which can be folded and changed in different directions. One of the costumes has a set built into a fold down flap on the front, an example of Speed’s fascination with architectural models. It’s striking that this is the area of the solar plexus, which chakra therapists describe as the centre of personal power. Originally, the acting in Kabuki plays was only by women but at some point in the theatre’s history, women were prohibited and to this day only men perform Kabuki in Japan. Here, Speed has reclaimed its essence for women.

On a side wall is a painting from Tate’s collection, which at first seems an incongruous inclusion, until one takes in the architectural element of it, which chimes with Speed’s interests. The Corridor (1950) is by the Portuguese artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, whose work depicting allegorical space has long been an influence in Speed’s practice. Its inclusion here is, therefore, an interesting addition to the exhibition but is not an integral part of Speed’s Flatland.

Being selected for this inaugural Art North West has given Speed an opportunity to produce work without the usual financial constraints and worries that most artists face. But such opportunities are rare. And in a pre-pandemic podcast* with the Axisweb platform, Speed joined the discussion about how such difficulties are particularly true for women/mother artists: “It’s difficult to see how to carry on with it (her art practice) in a way, when there are so many profound problems in the way that the art world functions … once you have somebody else to look after, you want to use your time differently … the single, biggest thing that arts organisations can do for women/mother artists is to pay them properly … the end.”

Words, Lorraine Bacchus

The full Axisweb discussion about artists and parenthood can be heard here:
www.axisweb.org/article/live-out-loud/parenthood
Emily Speed: Flatland, Tate Liverpool, until 5th June 2022