Flatland: Tate Liverpool

In 2018, Emily Speed flourished with her application for the pioneering North-West based artists award to mount a full scale exhibition based at Tate Liverpool. With the pandemic delayed manifestation she astounds us with Flatland.

Speed, based in Liverpool, succeeding studying fine art in Edinburgh and the Capital: London, she resituated within the region. Over the last decade her practice has converged upon costume production and performance art. Works relate directly to the afflictions between persons and architectural structures. Through this she identifies with how dwellings configure their inhabitants, but equally, how an individual occupies the physiological confines of their prescribed arena.

Flatland was primarily the title for a late Victorian satirical novella written by a school master: Edwin Abbott Abbott, in which the exhibition pertains. In this he creates a fictional two dimensional world: Flatlands, all its inhabitants only exist in two dimensions. The narration is given through the eyes of  Square: representing the professional classes. The lowest class order are that of women, who are portrayed as simple straight lines. Workmen and Soldiers are isosceles triangles, equilaterals representing craftsmen. Hexagons are the lowest level of the nobility, increasing to the many sided polygons, almost circles, which serve as Priests. Male offspring are allowed to gain a side; Squares children are pentagons, accrediting them to ascend the class ladder. The isosceles triangles of the soldiers and workmen are only permitted to attain several degrees by generation, ensuring reaching the the craftsmen level of equilateral triangle, is a generation-lengthy process. There are restrictions to the number of children higher level polygons can produce, limiting potential leadership challenges.

Square is introduced to the world of three dimensions by Sphere. After initial reluctance, he is able to see the world in 3D. However, Square takes analytics to the next level, realising the potential for the fourth dimension: time, thus leading to him being mocked in disbelief by Sphere. Although the book was not a phenomenal success when published it became more widely acknowledged in the 1920’s after Einstein’s theory of Relativity determined a fourth dimension. Abbott Abbott is often seen as a revolutionary in terms of insight, the novella has inspired many further works on every level conceivable. An episode of the teenage animation ‘Futurama’ draws on the manuscript when two space vessels collide and become one flat sphere. 

Emily Speed’ Flatlands centers around feminist agendas within the novella. Women being of the lowest caste level, minimal individual lines which don’t pertain to geometric shapes.  They are necessitated, by Flatlands law, to make a peace cry as they walk, pandering to the patriarchal notion of hysterical women. Equally, females are required to use more diminished alternative entrances to males. This is due to them being deemed deadly as they can transfix men, their frontal points harpoon-like. This notion is opposed to other feminist concepts within the novella, the potential to scare and maim men. This could be considered empowering, however it could equally relate to the earlier period of whitchcraftery where women were systematically held accountable of acts of depravity which they did not commit.

In the 2D realm of Flatlands, women do scant above staying home and adhering to the instructions put to them by their husbands. Alternatively, in the 3D world they are presented in an entirely new manner. They are colourful, curvacious and even quarrelsome. Although they follow male directions they display intuitiveness, they are not subservient in the way of their 2D counterparts. To some degree, Matilda, of the 3D world, almost goes as far as demancicating Square through her talk of cuteness. Potentially advanced introspective, Abbott Abbott was to relinquish life in the mid 1920’s, a period when women were granted the right to vote.

In Flatland, the novella, having irregular sides is viewed as deformity and harshly frowned upon. Speed offers a contrasting view of disability by championing a deaf performer in the secondary video installation. In this she displays a woman using sign language as a primal and suggestive of, only means of communication. The screen is encompassed by the set used in the  main film. Based on Japanese Kabuki sets it is portable and protracts and retracts depending on the requirements of the performance. Reminiscent of primary sports hall structures, opening into new dimensions as lessons dictate. A second section of the set displays the costumes adorned by the performers.

The exhibition also displays ‘The Corridor’ from Maria Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. A 1920’s cubist painting subjecting one point visions to various planes of angled relations. Although looking to promote a source of inspiration for Speed’ practice it appears somewhat out of place as a single painting in a contemporary Art installation. 

The main focus point of the exhibition is around the video of a compelling performance piece. Commencing with a performer opening out her apron to unfold a series of architectural structures from what appears to transcend from the internal of her body. The all female cast are bestowed in garments for housework in colourless browns and dusky pinks of the Victorian era. The pallid actresses start, in common with Speed’ earlier performance work, zombie-like and alien to one another. They move around the geometric set, facing either straight on or directly behind, grid-like through position. The almost tent-like set is moved around, sections unzipped then re-zipped. A prominent hand motion sequence is accentuated, oblate hands oscillating below, then above on another on linear planes. Dancing takes place, but the women are restricted to confined motions, positioned in a row as they fluctuate their hips, machine-like, from one side to the opposite. 

As the performance progresses the women initiate eye contact and work with one another. House-work-like chores, similar to that of folding sheets and pegging up clothing, are conducted in factions. The music becomes livelier, moving toward the drum and bass tunes of our modern day dance venues. The women begin to shift into new costumes, one a modern synthetic lime-like fabric. Wadding is exploited to make a cube-like skirt and jacket. Developing into a contemporary night venue dancing scene. The women move freely in dancing motions, transcending the stage in illustrious free flow passage.

This is subdigated by a somewhat conflicting, pithy, pole dancing specticle. Despite being clothed to dancer is evidently portrayed within an errotic, as opposed to fitness realm. Through this we endeavor to determine what directive is being portrayed. Does the pole relate to the two dimensions of Flatland, the dancing portraying women as flat sex objects as opposed to intelligent, highly functional individuals? Alternatively, are we being presented with a woman who is allowed the modern day freedom to dance in a sexual way which was denied to females during the Victorian era?

An exhibition which broaches, but does not always resolve, so many questions. Undeniably, significant feminist work which bridges the overlay between performance and fine arts practice. An artist to take notice of as she accelerates within the realms of creativity and the feminist pursuit of gender equality.

A must set aside an hour exhibition, to examine Flatlands with the depth it sanctions. 

Exhibition continues to June 5th 2002, booking essential.


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