In a single calendar year it’s rare for an artist to score one major museum show, let alone two. Such is the stature and prolific nature of Melbourne artist Emily Floyd, whose The Dawn exhibition at NGV Australia opened this week and runs through February next year. The Heide Museum of Modern Art honoured Floyd in an expansive show titled Far Rainbow, earlier this year.
“My father and my grandmother were toymakers, and my mother was a community activist around childcare and women’s rights to it,” says Floyd. “Those ideas permeate both shows, but I think this NGV project really takes up the scale. There’s new works that really take public artwork into an interior space.”
Case in point: Floyd’s colossal, boldly coloured circular structures, which greet visitors to the Ian Potter Centre at the ground floor. These tri-purpose forms (they are sculpture, seating and shelving all in one) are very much of the “honey, I blew up the kids’ toy” ilk. “All the key projects that I’ve done are brought into this show and it re-imagines each one as proposition for an activity or a way of learning that may be outside the square,” she says of the survey’s educational focus.
Floyd is one of Australia’s best-known contemporary artists and her highly conceptual, visually dramatic and often text-based creations are held in various institutional collections from the National Gallery of Australia to The Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Those who don’t know her by name probably know her work: the towering steel sculpture of a black bird and a bright yellow worm on the side of the Eastlink Motorway, for example, is a Floyd.
In the NGV’s cavernous third-floor galleries, her vivid, large-scale creations easily fill the space – its expansive white walls punctuated by works in high-pigment colour such as cadmium orange, red and yellow, and cobalt blue, teal and magenta. “It’s hyper-intense use of colour in the show,” Floyd says, adding there is a thread of fluorescence throughout.
She worked for more than two years with collaborators to develop A Human Scale, a 2014 work that features LED lighting – “A new technological experimentation for me,” she says. A hypnotic, sculptural tableau that transitions through different fluorescent colours, it’s one of the exhibition’s standout pieces.
She’s also produced two enormous interactive installations in which visitors – specifically children, though adults are welcome – can publish their own manifestos or play with and arrange individual white alphabet letters scattered across the floor of one of the galleries.
“These new works are given over to the audience. That’s a big development for my practice,” Floyd says. “It takes up the idea that contemporary art can be a form of education in itself.”
The title of the exhibition is taken from a progressive women’s newspaper called The Dawn, published in Sydney between 1888 and 1905. Floyd’s career is a tribute to rigorous research and investigation; she delves into often-untold local histories of feminism, community activism, socialism and early learning systems, using those stories as the starting point for a piece.
The wonderful thing about Floyd’s work is that even if you’re not familiar with the underlying and complex theoretical or historical context of each series or piece, her work is engaging on a purely aesthetic and tactile level. The work is, according to curator Jane Devery, “Very visually seductive.”
Polished woods; bold primary and secondary colours; oversized geometric shapes that hark back to childhood; thorny but decipherable textual games – Floyd’s creations are tactile and absorbing and compel us to explore.
“There’s all these layers of meaning and theory beneath the work,” Devery says. “But there’s a strong visual and spatial presence that you immediately engage with, which then provokes you to investigate these other ideas. That’s the real power of her work.”
Given Floyd’s big year, she could be forgiven for taking some time to unwind as summer approaches. “I will actually be going on to the next thing, straight away,” Floyd says. “I just keep working. I don’t take breaks.”
Emily Floyd: The Dawn runs from November 21 2014 to March 1 2015 at NGV Australia in Federation Square.