Installation view of “Emily Floyd: The Dawn” at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2014. From left to right: A Human Scale, 2014–15; The Outsider, 2005; and It’s because I talk too much that I do nothing, 2002. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne/Sydney. 

EMILY FLOYD, Temple of The Female Eunuch (detail), 2007–08, pokerwork and polyurethane on wood, vinyl, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne/Sydney. 

The Dawn

Emily Floyd

Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

The Melburnian summer this year has been brighter than ever with the retrospective of Emily Floyd’s colorful sculptures, currently on view at the Ian Potter Centre: National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Australia. Remember the little, colorful wooden building blocks from our childhood days? The stackable but pesky spheres and cones that you could never quite figure out how to assemble? Here, the toy blocks of yore have made a return—only this time on a goliath scale and with a little more adult oomph. The NGV Australia survey presents a selection of the Melbourne-based artist’s works from her 15-year career, ranging from some of her early sculptures to several new commissions specific to the exhibition.

Although her works appear deceivingly minimalistic, and echoing the Bauhaus and De Stjil aesthetics, Floyd’s sculptures are conceptually complex and richly informed by critical theories relating to pedagogy, feminism and utopian ideology. The geometric shapes and bold primary colors that comprise her sculptures resemble children’s educational toys pioneered by Friedrich Fröbel (1782–1852) in 19th-century Germany. Pedagogical references resonate deeply in Floyd’s works, whose father and grandmother were toy makers specializing in handmade wooden toys.

At the NGV Australia exhibition, occupying the ground foyer of the daylight-filled gallery, is one of her new commissions—an expansive sculptural installation-cum-library entitled The Dawn (2014). Literature sourced from a local co-operative bookstore, famous for its stock of rare books, are scattered intermittently between circular sculptures of varying sizes. Exemplary of Floyd’s ongoing interests in community participation and social history, The Dawn invites adults and children alike to sit, relax and peruse the installation’s book selections. “The Dawn” is also the exhibition’s title, which, in turn, was inspired by The Dawn: A Journal for Australian Women, a feminist journal founded in Sydney in 1888. On the third floor of the gallery, is a rare first edition of the publication on display—a special loan from the State Library of New South Wales and a rare glimpse of early feminist publishing.

Temple of the Female Eunuch (2007–08) exemplifies the intrinsic nature of literary texts and feminist philosophies in Floyd’s oeuvre. A sculptural installation comprised of 100 individual parts, it is a deconstruction of noted Australian feminist Germaine Greer’s seminal 1970 book, The Female Eunuch. Intriguing and detailed, Floyd has inscribed excerpts from the book onto wooden blocks of varying sizes in psychedelic typography, which reflects the utopian thoughts of the 1970s. The blocks stand in a winding formation, like dominoes along the floor, inviting closer inspection as one attempts to make sense of the fragmented sentences. Nestled between the blocks are six forms that resemble a woman’s torso, whose curvaceous figures accentuate the sharpness of the geometric, text-inscribed blocks.

EMILY FLOYDSteiner Rainbow, 2006, epoxy paint on composition board, 181 × 361 × 180 cm. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne/Sydney. 

Installed nearby are An Open Space (2011) and Steiner Rainbow (2006), which both reference a pedagogical philosophy that believes children should learn through the use of open-ended, tactile play. Facing the entrance of the exhibition, An Open Space comprises a playground created from geometric cubes, rectangles, spheres and triangles that spell out the installation’s own name. A flock of adorable, colorful bird sculptures, sitting atop the three-dimensional shapes, evoke playful thoughts and also exude a sense of guardianship over the installation. Steiner Rainbow mimics, on a grand scale, toys designed under Bauhaus aesthetics and the philosophy of the Waldorf education, which emphasizes the importance of uninhibited creative play to a child’s development. Here the rainbow is displayed in deconstructed form, with the nine colors “un-stacked” as separate blocks, tempting the passerby to engage with each piece.

Text again appears in The Outsider (2005), which is the centerpiece of a different room in the gallery and takes as its departure point Albert Camus’s 1942 existential novel of the same title. Set on a slightly raised stage, the installation’s building blocks evoke the cityscape of Algiers, where Camus’s novel takes place. Individual letters are randomly scattered on the floor and around the colored blocks, which resemble architectural maquettes topped with golden onion-shaped domes. Meanwhile, other letters stand in strong, formations, spelling out sentences from the novel, including the grim opening line from Camus’s book: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” The heartrending words are a sharp reminder of forgone memories of the book for those—such as myself—who had once studied Camus’s text with interpretative detail under the Australian school system.

EMILY FLOYDAn Open Space (detail)2011, synthetic polymer paint, lacquer and epoxy paint on composition board, Wenge (Millettia laurentii), Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghamii), Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana), Huon Pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii), Ash (Fraxinus sp.) and Oak (Quercus sp.), silicone, polyvinyl chloride, steel, 660 × 220 × 60 cm. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne/Sydney. 

The works of Emily Floyd are appealing on many levels and have the ability to engage with audiences of all ages. Floyd’s sculptures are abundant with interpretations of critical theory and art history. Echoes of childhood memories that appear in her work draw on the warmth of nostalgia, and it is particularly relatable for locals of the artist’s native Australia. Nonetheless the sculptural installations are neither defined nor restricted by homegrown social history. Multidimensional and cross-disciplinary in her practice, Floyd’s interest in children’s educational development is evident, particularly with the interactive children’s events and activities developed in conjunction with the exhibition. The kaleidoscopic colors of her wooden blocks are teasingly playful for viewers, regardless of their age. The temptation to touch the glossy smooth surfaces is difficult to resist even as an adult. In a jovial conversation with a security guard at the gallery, he pleasantly told me how, for this exhibition, his job has been not so much guarding the safety of the works, but repeatedly having to explain to children how these are not real toys. This, I pointed out, was a task that was perhaps made more exhausting by the Melburnian school holiday season, which had recently been in full swing.

The Dawn is on view at the Ian Potter Centre: National Gallery of Victoria Australia, Melbourne, until March 1, 2015.