Evolutionary Art That Would Make Darwin Go Ape

The question of whether humans are evolving or devolving gets explored in the work of conceptual sculptor and painter Emma Elliott.

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Nov 3 2016, 12:00pm

Dancers ii. Images courtesy the artist.

The back-and-forth between enlightened advancements in human evolution and devolution into animalistic behavior that is human history plays out in the artworks of the UK-based painter and sculptor, Emma Elliott. For her, it’s a way of exploring that which is instinctive human behavior and that which is learned.

In the sculpture Echo, for example, Elliott embeds a bronze monkey head inside a clear resin portrait of a man. In the conceptual painting series dancers she depicts a monkey playing puppet master to male and female ballet dancers. And with Spin Head, Elliott pays homage to Italian futurist Renato Bertilli’s famous sculpture of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Just as Bertilli’s sculpture shows Mussolini’s sculpted profile in 360 degrees, Elliott’s sculpture depicts a young female in profile with a zipper across her lips symbolizing the loss of free speech in fascist states.

Echo

“My work explores the relationships between the refined and the primitive, the physical and the spiritual and the influences of our collective past on present behavior,” Elliott tells The Creators Project. “The chimp in my work represents the primitive human, our basic instincts and the animal within us that we so often try to refine and repress.”

Elliott began creating Echo by sculpting the piece with clay, before settling on bronze for the monkey and resin for the man (modeled on her husband). She chose resin as the finish so it would have a high polish, and bronze for the monkey so viewers could get a clear look while peering in.

Echo at various angles

Echo represents the primordial animal inside humans—the one that wants to acquire, conquer, and reproduce. The animal that can either be peaceful and harmonious with nature, or self-destruct and leave a giant footprint.

“It also looks at the Buddhist teaching which says that we should use meditation to control our animal urges in order to free our minds from chatter, and tame the ‘drunken monkeys’ vying for attention, which is encouraged in order to promote moderation and restraint,’” says Elliott. “[It] also pays homage to those extinct animals that preceded us, and questions our own holistic future within our ecosystem of which we are also an integral part.”

The Sacred And The Profane

Vaginas crop up in two of Elliot’s sculptures—L’Origine du Monde and The Sacred And The Profane. The first features an umbilical cord connecting the vagina to a model globe. And in The Sacred and The Profane, Elliott created a triptych of vaginas sculpted in bronze, plaster with gold leaf, and rubber.

“[This] for me celebrates the divine in the feminine and questions our place in the Universe,” she says. “I wanted to create a vagina that looked from one side like an Alien birthing-pod, and the other side a Human birthing-pod. As I was working on the vagina in clay I noticed within the image a familiar scene of the cloaked Madonna and Child within the labium, and so developed that idea and thus the concept for the triptych of The Sacred And The Profane came about.”

Paradise Lost

These and other works explore what Elliott feels is art’s duty: to wrestle with puritanism and how it creates rigidity and imperialism. Again, Spin Head symbolizes the precarious nature of free speech and expression, but also the first victims of fascist ideologies: women. “The work questions if our fear of insulting others causes society to ‘zip’ up and shut down, thus distorting and restricting our ability to communicate, as well as evading discussions on important issues,” Elliott says.

For Lend Me Your Ears, Elliott created a bronze sculpture centered on a once-wooden, 22.5", 1920s milliner’s hat stand. This, she says, is considered the perfect size for a woman's head. The sculpture, according to Elliott, represents the human fascination with perfection and preservation, and our tendency to gaze at these things.

Lend Me Your Ears

To make it, Elliott had people from different backgrounds “lend” their ears for casting. She placed these on the sides of the hat stand, then attached a gold vintage “dove” hat-pin atop it as a symbol of peace. The circular top leading to square base represents the ancient geometry idea of squaring a circle, an impossible task, which is a metaphor here for trying to attempt the impossible.

“[T]he work reminds us to reject our narcissistic tendencies, and represents the importance of listening to one another in order to achieve an open and eclectic society,” says Elliott.

Click here to see more of Emma Elliott’s work.

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