To the Bone: Emma Witter

To the Bone: Emma Witter

In her solo show at Sarabande Foundation, Witter shows a range of complex artworks including the mediums of photography and sculpture to showcase the beauty of bones and the transience of life.

★★★★★

Written by Daen Palma Huse, 18.09.2019

Photograph: Pete Woodhead

Photograph: Pete Woodhead

Emma Witter is a creative that lives and breathes her art. When I met her at her studio at Sarabande Foundation in London, she captured my attention with a spark in her eye, talking about the process of making her sculptures in much detail. She mentions her childlike curiosity which has always fuelled her desire to uncover and discover things – “breaking things apart and seeing how they were made,” which ultimately led her to become an artist. Loving nature, being outside, and even wanting to become a scientist when she was a child, Witter is interested in organic material, momento mori and vanitas works. She understands her works as a contemporary version of vanitas works. Despite the title of her new solo show containing the verb ‘to die’ Witter stresses that she wants to narrate in a “gentle and romantic way” rather than stressing dark connotations. Bones in themselves are culturally loaded with meaning, which Emma Witter tries to break from. 

Photograph: Pete Woodhead

Photograph: Pete Woodhead

We hear witter exclaiming “I remember I started thinking that it is such a shame to throw these away!” when she is talking about how she started working with the material. Oxtail bones, chicken feet and cow hips are completely transformed when they are incorporated into Emma Witter’s work. The connection between bone as an organic material and bone china is apparent. This has become clear when, in several instances, Witter’s sculptures have been thought to be made of porcelain. Indeed, the very nature of the bones reminds of porcelain with its fragility and lightness. In reality, though, the bones are considerably lighter than porcelain facsimiles would be.

Having become an expert at the painstaking process of ‘excavating’ the bone from its bed of flesh and joints, partly as a result of fruitful collaborations for example with Hix Gallery, Witter has retrieved a large amount of bones, cleaned and bleached them, and made them ready to become part of her art.

Witter’s background is in food sculpture, she even mentions playing with mashed potatoes to construct sculptures for an immersive dining experience. “I really liked the fact that we used materials that we shouldn’t be using – the fact that it doesn’t last – and there were no rules to it!” Rather than approaching her art from a fine art perspective, Witter has studied Performance Design and Practice, which comes apparent when entering the show at Sarabande Foundation. Knowing previous works by Witter, we are in for a surprise as we can see several new works that Witter has particularly created for this exhibition. 

“Bones are really porous so they will take to salt crystals very well” which Witter has experimented with for the show. It is exciting to see the typical materials that Witter uses for her sculpture but interpreted in new ways. Moreover, we can see collaborations with the photographer Ade Okelarin, one of which we can see below. 

Collaboration Emma Witter and photographer Ade Okelarin

Collaboration Emma Witter and photographer Ade Okelarin

It comes as no surprise that Witter mentions the following places besides the obvious Natural History Museum that she likes to visit: “I absolutely love the Barbican, especially the cactus garden which is only open on Sundays. I love going to Kew Gardens, the Horniman Museum and I used to love going to the Huntarian Museum!”

That said, Witter’s interest reaches far beyond the natural collections and she finds vintage fairs inspiring to find special objects, and she says “I always return to the jewellery and furniture collections at the V&A.” Wherever Witter’s inspiration comes from, we are looking forward to explore the ways in which she has chosen to present her work at this solo show. The subtle subversion of the material in Emma Witter’s elaborate designs transform the three-dimensional objects into ephemeral storytellers, and we are ready to listen to these stories and immerse ourselves.

Emma Witter reminds us, in the most beautiful way possible, that we must die.

Photograph: Pete Woodhead

Photograph: Pete Woodhead

The exhibition Remember You Must Die can be seen at the Sarabande Foundation from Wednesday 18th September to Sunday 22nd September, 2019.