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Story time: Emily Bates

We spoke with British artist and photographer Emily Bates whose series Lost Spring is presented in the exhibition Onward & Upward – Art in the Garden of Life. Emily is from the UK but has been based in Amsterdam for the past twenty years, often travelling for work. With all plans cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she was forced to work from home. It was last year, early in the pandemic, the series Lost Spring came into existence.

“It’s still strange looking back at this series. It’s a project that evolved without the intention of it being a work. More out of a need. It’s playful, and yet it has some very important and heavy references in it,” starts Emily.

In the first lockdown, in early 2020, Emily sought comfort in the approaching spring. During daily walks through the parks of Amsterdam, she wandered off the busier pathways into wilder, wooded areas, thinking of her past work, of discussions about face masks, about people she knew who were enduring more extreme lockdowns elsewhere, and of those who had lost loved ones.

She started taking flowers and twigs back home, where ideas intuitively came together to create these playful self-portraits in which the flora serves as a face mask. Emily shared them on social media to interact with friends and family all over the world.

But the work became much more than a series of playful images. It was an encouragement to get out each day and to have a purpose on her walks. Creating the pictures became a way to go inwards and deal with not being able to come together with loved ones. Some of the photos are made with closed eyes, referencing mourning and death masks. And when Emily heard of the passing of a friend from Sweden, she sourced flora in the blue and yellow colours of the Swedish flag as a small gesture to her friend. The pictures are all shot on iPhone, to enhance the feel of intimacy. Trying out more professional cameras, she felt the energy complete changed.

To Emily, the process became a daily ritual. “We need some kind of structure or handle or motivation. I think that’s been hard for people, when everything is uncertain, when many things are postponed or cancel. You can make work and be productive and inspired and use that as your advantage, but you don’t know when it will be shown and shared. But the other side of the problem is that it has made place for a lot of new and beautiful initiatives and creative ideas as well, for example the Artist Support Pledge on Instagram. That’s been a very special aspect of this year.”

Emily never expected to still be in the same situation a year later. “It is interesting to revisit each plant and to follow their natural rhythm. It is like the Japanese traditional custom of Hanami, when at different moments of time each year (depending on the blossoming of the cherry tree) the transient beauty of flowers is enjoyed.”

Emily Bates, Lost Spring, 2020

Nature always has an important role in Emily’s work. Usually she works travelling, to rural communities in Asia or Europe, to mountainous landscapes, glaciers, volcanoes and sub-tropical forests. “The role of nature is not a separate thing to be used and consumed and exploited. It’s like a family member. Something to be revered and respected and to be in dialogue with.”

Visual artist and photographer Emily Bates studied textiles at Glasgow School of Art. She became known in the 1990s for a series of dresses constructed from knitted human hair, which were exhibited worldwide. A recipient of the prestigious Scottish Arts Council artists prize, Emily has been based in Amsterdam for the past twenty years. Her work combines photography, sound and moving image into compelling installations that explore the ways in which humans interact. The project Lost Spring has evolved into a printed form and will be exhibited in a touring exhibition The Smile of The Sphinx, launching in Sarajevo in March 2021. In the early summer, Emily will be in residence with the Van Gogh House in Zundert in the Netherlands.