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The surface of the body has no edge. It folds and involutes into spaces of breath, sustenance and reproduction. At the same time, the skin is a membrane between the internal and the external: a threshold within the continuum of embodied experience.

Top Gallery,

Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart,

December 1, 2023 - January 28, 2024

Opening Words for Continuum - Eliza Burke, December 1, 2023

I’d firstly like to acknowledge we are gathered tonight on the Country of the palawa people, and that sovereignty of this land has never been ceded. I extend my acknowledgement to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community, the traditional owners and continuing custodians of the land and waters of lutruwita, and acknowledge the deep importance of Aboriginal knowledge and culture to the arts in our community. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.

I wanted to begin tonight on a personal note – not something I would normally do, but when I discussed it with Emma, we felt it was a nice entry point for talking about her work. So, today is my mother’s birthday. Had she still been alive, she would have been 83, a good age, her father’s age at his passing, and several years older than her own mother at her passing. Whilst it is normally a day I would acknowledge with some melancholy, being asked to talk tonight got me thinking about why we celebrate birthdays, how they mark our moment of entry into the world and our first breath in the continuum of life beyond the womb.

The experience of being born is usually something of which we have no conscious memory, although some would say that this memory is held in our bodies. Birth marks a departure from the most protective space of care, the womb, in which we do not distinguish between our mother’s body and our own. Being born entails the loss of this fundamental protection where biological boundaries are encountered for the first time. Some say birth is the primary experience of separation from which we spend our lives recovering, seeking love and connection with others to replace. So you might say birthdays are certainly worthy of celebration year after year, as they acknowledge this moment of survival, they celebrate our mothers’ body and the beginning of our lives in a continuum much greater than ourselves.

When I mentioned that today was Mum’s birthday, Emma said ‘Oh, amazing! because you know that when I printed the sheets in ‘Continuum’ it was Clare’s (her daughter) birthday, and there are 13 pieces - the number of lunar cycles in a year, and therefore of menstrual cycles, and the size of the sheets is not arbitrary but in total add up to 1.7m, the surface area of my body... numbers are never insignificant in my work, the number of circles in ‘Holding Pattern’ is 54 which is my next birthday, did you know this?’ she said, ‘well no, not exactly...’ I said. She went on ‘and you know the surface area of the body is always changing, it really begins in the womb, cells divide and grow, bodies begin to take up space, it’s always changing not in leaps, but in a continuum, I mean look at this form’ she said, holding up a beautifully moulded hollow paper form resembling a small bowl ‘do you know what this is? It’s the cast of a woman’s pelvis, and of course what does it look like and is the exact size and shape of?.. a baby’s head, I mean, of course it is!’ she said.

Emma’s work and mind goes like this, and it is a joy to behold and to converse with. It’s not that her work is about birthdays, but it is about the felt and material forces that begin in the womb and accompany us throughout our lives. The works presented here tonight represent the rich relationships between her life and practice, the continuums between her art and her work in the care professions - Emma is the only person I know who has worked at both ends of the life spectrum in both neonatal and palliative care. They represent continuums between her body and the materials in her works, the paper that holds the memory of her body in print and crease, the cloth that echoes the shape of her hand. They are conversations between surface and volume, and between life and death, just as the body changes over time, sheds skins, is cared for, evolves and renews. In a fundamental sense, they explore relations between the body and art, Emma’s body and her studio here in Salamanca as home of the senses, her work a living language of gesture, material and form.

Emma began her practice as a print-maker, a medium referenced in all the materials and processes of her works, perhaps most notably in ‘Continuum’, the series of monoprints created by directly pressing her body onto paper and ink. Printing like this reminds us of the continuum between the body and the material world in gestures of care, the hanging paper recalling cross-sections of the body, skins touching surfaces, crumpled bed sheets, the bodies we lay down to impart care, the surrender of our own bodies to others. In other works, such as ‘Holding Pattern’, her processes of drawing and erasing 54 circles not only mark the years of her next birthday, but evoke a breathing space, a pattern of rhythm and pause, reminiscent of cells or eyes, life forces coming and going, processes of filling and emptying, never exactly repeating, just as prints are never all the same. These are interior spaces as much as marks on a surface, their circular forms shift in and out of focus, reminding us that in holding we must also let go.

But Emma’s work doesn’t stop here. Paper is porous like skin, energy slips between surface and form to become cloth in other works such as ‘Amnion’ and ‘Mantle’ where each piece of paper, the average surface area of her hand, is stitched and bound to make a whole. Taking on the weight and volume of a body, these cloths suggest protective wraps or shrouds, exploring the lightness of breath and touch, and the densities of flesh, shadow and age. Emma’s work always returns us to the skin as site of feeling and connection. Hers is a porous way of making, her cupped vessels, ‘With and Within My Hands’ evoke continuities between making and care, embodying thresholds of internal and external feeling in their folds, ‘there’s a reason they’re shaped that way’ she tells me.

The body as a site of care is a space Emma rightfully claims. Anyone who has cared for someone knows these gestures of holding, embracing and comforting from the hand to a full embodied response. And you will know the emotional boundaries, the links between vulnerability and survival, the feelings of sacrifice in the smallest of gestures, the complications of love and fear - this is the deep work of caring and of living.

Emma’s work distils these complexities in deceptively simple forms. Avoiding the intellectualism of abstraction they are soft and referential, infinite in their suggestiveness, there’s an intelligence in their layers. They invite us into their living space, asking us to see where they have separated and come together again, how they create continuums not defined by form but a boundlessness of feeling. In this gallery, the works spark other conversations with the materials of the space, their textures connecting with its plasters and timbers, stone-work and windowpanes, catching the light in new dimensions, revealing traces of where they’ve been, their birthmarks, the contours of life passing through, unfolding the body onto new surfaces and inviting it to begin again.


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