Why Now. Why Then. Why Ever!

A Q&A with Emma Elizabeth Tillman

12 AUGUST 2017,
In the bath at the Chiltern Firehouse, February 2016. Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist
In the bath at the Chiltern Firehouse, February 2016. Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist

There is another world, but it is inside this one

(Paul Éluard)

Emma Elizabeth Tillman is an American writer, director and photographer based in Los Angeles. She works with analogue film photography, as well as moving image. She made her directorial debut with the short film The History of Caves in 2013 and her first feature length film is due to be completed in 2018.

Her first debut exhibition: Disco Ball Soul opens at GALLERY 46, London and is comprised of more than 90 small scale collages created over a ten year period. The collages are constructed from photographs taken by Tillman and feature fragments from her personal diaries written in ink onto masking tape. The exhibition also features fourteen large scale photographs.

You say that Disco Ball Soul is a reflection of your desire to hide yourself behind your images yet your images often include yourself. Albeit you are often obscured or faded out of the shot but this feels a little contradictory in message. Can you explain further the title and why it was chosen?

The origin of the title comes from my husband. He once told me I was born with a disco ball soul, that I reflect the world outward and allow myself to be seen only in the glimpses of what I capture. When he said this to me it was a revelation. I think when you are given a gift of such insight into your own work, it is important to make something out of it.

Who takes those particular shots – are they taken on a timer and therefore in essence a ‘selfie’?

Self-portraiture as a means of artistic expression existed long before the notion of the selfie, and holds an important role in art history. My work is part of that tradition. The answer to the first part of your question is yes, the self-portraits are taken with a self-timer on the camera. I am the only person in the room when the photo is taken.

Artists have a role in society to capture moments in time and share them with an audience. However how do you feel your images and ‘moments’ fit within society? What is their purpose other than being an extension of yourself?

I think everyone can relate to what they see in my work. The images are mostly very quotidian; taking a bath, standing with the person you love, images of rearranging my underwear drawer or friends in swimming pools. They are elevating the banal into something beautiful. I wait for the right moment, the right light and it captures something elevated about reality.

I can only work with what I have. I wish I could have contributed to the world by being a scientist or a doctor, but I have only these particular means at my disposal. I create to make people see beauty in my own life and also in their own life. The stories I tell are relatable to most people on a root level. I think that connects people and makes them feel less isolated.

Why collage? And what / who inspired this form of working for you?

The collages came simply from a desire to combine writing and photographs. The tape was really born out of necessity, when I first started making them I had no other materials to work with, and once I started to use masking tape to fix them to the paper, I liked the way they looked. It then became an aesthetic choice. Over time I got better at making it look good.

Have you always carried a diary with you and why is it important to you?

I wrote half-heartedly in a diary as a little girl, and when I look at them now, they were less about my life and more about my dream life. As I got older and started to form as an artist, writing in a diary became a way for me to process my feelings and emotions privately. I don’t like talking about my feelings very much, I want to understand first how I really feel about something before I articulate it to others. The diary is very important to my secret life and a good tool for me to use in my life as an artist and with the people I love.

Why do you feel you need to share these ‘words’ as well as the visuals with an external audience?

I suppose it goes back to the aforementioned desire to share my own experience with others so that they might consider their own within a similar context. I also think the words are important because they play with the mystery. We always want to know more about someone else’s life, just look at the gossip columns! The words provide context for the image, it tells more the story but at the same time they aren’t easy to read. There’s some play between myself and the viewer.

This is your debut exhibition – why are you undertaking it in London and why Gallery 46?

Very simply I was asked to have an exhibition at GALLERY 46. But I’m happy about being in London, I like the history here and the gallery space (housed in two Georgian townhouses) suits my work well.

And why now?

Why now, why then, why ever!

Your works have an essence of nostalgia in both tone and styling making them almost like film stills – is this intentional or accidental?

I am also a filmmaker, so this vision is infused into all I do whether I am writing, taking pictures, or making movies.

Do you have a favourite historical artist and if so who and why?

Too many to count, but what links them all together is their ability to create a language and a world. A few that come to me right away are Sigmar Polke, Louise Bourgeois, Julian Schnabel, Yoko Ono, and Carlo Zinelli.

Favourite place to escape to?

My office.

Which piece within this exhibition are you most proud of and why?

I can’t say if there is one in particular, but the photographs of my time spent living in France are special to me because they point toward my future work while still being so unformed.

How do you see your practice developing and where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I would like to be still taking photographs and making films, making more books, and finding new ways to make art. I would like to be surprised by where I have arrived.

Disco Ball Soul is at GALLERY 46 in London from the 11 to 30 August 2017.