Interview by Julie Uusinarkaus | Artwork by Emily Wardill | Photographs by Jussi Tiainen, courtesy of Kohta

Bi is a new work by Emily Wardill (1977, England, lives and works in Portugal). Walking into the room exhibiting Bi feels like interrupting a play, although you cannot just sit and passively watch. The entire work is on two screens back to back, and the idea opens up as you watch the beautiful set on the front screen, listening to the rhythm of the voices, whose identities are shown more clearly in the more raw footage on the other side.

The play-like atmosphere is also supported by the theme of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, the source of the lines spoken by the actors, adapted and edited for Bi. The work is half of a diptych, the other half of which will be premiered in Vienna in June 2020. 

The house on the set side is a masterpiece of modernist design by a Portuguese architect, with breathtaking views into Lisbon. Each room is a jewel box filled with modern design pieces, filmed at the golden hour when the light of sunset is at its most magical. The voices of the five actors, playing members of a family both isolated and together, fill the rooms with a presence. On the back side, the actors are seen in Emily Wardill’s studio in scenes that are more background than finished production, almost as if venturing backstage.

The Finnish audience will very much connect to the idea of design and the architecture of the space. Can you share some details about this with us?

This was the family home of the Portuguese architect António Teixeira Guerra that was built just before the Portuguese revolution. The architect liked people to visit during the magic hour, since it is built on a piece of land (at that time empty) with a certain quality of light and a view of Lisbon. I found a picture of the house in a book about Portuguese architecture, in black and white, but he is not so celebrated as other architects and it was a bit difficult to work out where it was and get access.

I was looking for a building from that era that had not been renovated but was a family home. When his wife, Martine, had to sell the house, she insisted that it could not be changed, so when I found it, renovated faithfully to the original, it was too good to be true.

The apartment is home to a family, which is an important theme here. What does family mean here, and what was behind your choice to give them the voice from O’Neill’s play?

Family is a often a place where different generations are bought together, often with differing political beliefs. O’Neill’s play A Long Day’s Journey into Night is about his own family and was written with the proviso that it could only be published some years after his death, since it spoke about his own mother’s addiction to opium. I wanted to think about what would happen if that play, which becomes increasingly darker, were reversed, to become increasingly lighter, and if the mother were experimenting with LSD instead of addicted to opium.

One side of the screen is like the stage of a play, and the other is a more rough filming of what was happening behind the scenes. What is behind this sketch-like effect on the “back” side?

The camera is a GoPro which rotates from character to character, and we are in my studio where I built a kind of mobile with different props hanging from the ceiling. We started at 2 am and filmed until the sun came up –’rehearsing’ a play that I had written based on the reversal of O’Neill’s play. I was trying to maintain the feeling of a sketch in the finished piece … that kind of energy, that kind of feeling that something will become something else later on. 

During the opening, people tended to drift naturally to the location side of the screen. Did you expect this?

I think that because there were many blank spaces in the ‘inhabitants’ side of the screen it was natural to gravitate towards the ‘location’ side, but no, I didn’t really know what to expect. It was also the first time I had the chance to stand at the side of the screen and see the light from both sides reflected on the floor with the room split in half. 

The camera did feel like it was searching for something in the house. What was on your mind when you were filming?

I was thinking about light, to film as though the camera were trying to understand light and where it came from and what it was. Since that is what most cameras detect,but also because hallucinations often make you see light coming from objects as though they were gems. And the light in that house at that time makes the fire talk with the sun, makes the trees look like they are inside, reflects on the sofa as though it were burning, projects the whole room into a floating space outside,and divides the room up without partitions. 

Emily Wardill, Bi, 2019. Two-channel projection with stereo sound (’14). Photograph by Jussi Tiainen.

Bi can be seen at Kohta until 21 December.

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Työpajankatu 2 B, building 7, 3rdfloor

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