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Inspiration for 2023 - Working to the Small as UN/making with Amy Oliver

Welcome back to The UN/maker interview series featuring creatives who consciously take up methods of un/making to help disrupt anthropogenic values, perspectives and practices towards human and more-than-human ecologies. For those of you who were not able to attend the online talk with Sharon Kallis, her recorded interview is now available on the UN/making Network's YouTube channel. To attend the first online interview of 2023, register at Eventbrite to hear how creating her own paint line helped Anong Migwans Beam unmake a variety of social-political and personal concerns.

Amy Oliver documenting exhibit in House of Smalls

During December, I had the opportunity to speak with UK based conceptual artist Amy Oliver; the founder and curator of The House of Smalls. Frustrated with the formulaic construct and prohibitive costs to submit or show work with the innumerable number of virtual galleries that sprang up during Covid 19's worldwide lockdowns, and feeling compelled to connect with others during isolating times, the project was initiated in November 2020 in order to create an affordable and pre-dominantly woman-centric not-for-profit art space. Since then, Oliver has curated a series of international art exhibits entitled Confined, It's My Life, Mirror Mirror on the Wall, This Volatile State, The Portrait Within, Facing It, as well as Shadow and The Time of Her Life II, which were both featured at the Fronteer Independent Art Fair.


Jill: Thank you for taking the time for this interview Amy! So you “bought a house, a very small house, and put out a call for art.” I wonder if you could explain a little further what you were trying to unmake about the artworld when you conceptualized the The House of Smalls.


Amy: Hi Jill, thanks so much for this opportunity to share my work! If I am completely honest, I am not sure I had any ‘plans’ in place when I started The House of Smalls. The first art call came between the first and second Covid 19 UK pandemic lockdowns and was as much a project for me as it was an opportunity for others. I knew that I wanted to provide an affordable, physical, and women focused art space, not only in contrast to the virtual gallery trend, but also a space of connection for other artists who, for whatever reason, felt suppressed and or isolated. I had not really thought any further about what that would entail.


Jill: Wow, the project is so comprehensive and fitting for the climate we exist in today! It is interesting to know that you didn't overthink it, but were rather responding to what you were feeling and sensing in the moment. Were there any other artists or curators from the past or present who helped inspire the form and format of this project?

a miniature doll adorned to reflect the appearance of Amy Oliver, standing on a ladder inside the dollhouse gallery to hang signage.
Amy Oliver, Little Amy Fixing House II

Rachel: Self-taught, I am inspired by others every day, but tend to wander my own path. As a result of this, the doll house concept was, so I thought, entirely mine. However, it very quickly became apparent that it was not my idea at all as there are several small-scale art spaces, including doll house galleries, already established. This lack of research on my part has always made me feel somewhat of an outsider, although conversely, the oversight also meant that The House of Smalls was born. If I had know about other projects such as mine I would never have had the confidence to go public. Also, by taking the House of Smalls public, I was recently invited to become a member of the Guild of Micro Galleries, which now has around 30 members worldwide and several collaborative projects in the pipeline. This brilliant initiative was created and founded by Lisa Cole to celebrate well-curated small art spaces.


Jill: Fascinating! I can't wait to look into the guild. It seems like the perfect way to expand your community further while still keeping the consumption, production and dissemination costs small. In working to the small and shifting to curating as part of your creative practice, are there things you have had to unmake about yourself to resist the global art market as it presents itself today?


Amy: I do not think there has been anything I have had to unmake as such – my own work has always been very self-based, to the extent that my Instagram page is unintentionally autobiographical, awareness raising, and uses visual art as a method of protest. For these reasons, my work has never been marketable. It is the same with The House of Smalls. The calls are themed, but open to interpretation, and I select artists firstly based on what their work is saying or questioning; the visual element comes second. For me, art is not about being pretty and fitting, it is a snapshot of life, an expression of self, and often non-conforming. For obvious reasons, many of the works exhibited are very personal and not for sale.


Jill: It is interesting to think about why sharing artwork is important regardless of whether it is for sale or not, even if it only offers an opportunity for artists to connect and support one another during difficult times. That being said, I read that The House of Smalls has exhibited 275+ small artworks by 181 women and 200 artists in total. That is a lot of artists and connecting in such a short time period. Were you specifically thinking of any other social or environmental issues when you decided to call on artists to work to the miniature?


Amy: Yes, I am immensely proud of the number of female artists this project has been able to showcase. I wanted the project to be women-centric because the art world, like every other facet of this ‘world,’ is male-centric, and women have an awful lot to say and many ways of saying it.


To be honest, I didn’t consider working to the small to be an act of unmaking as we are framing it within this interview. The call for artists to work in miniature was solely based on the space I have available to exhibit artwork. However, as the project has run on it has become more than that as I have realized that although larger works physically and materially typically carry more weight within the art world, smaller work can be equally as powerful, if not more so. I am forever fascinated by the skill input and intricacy of submissions. The amount of emotion that can be contained within a 3 inch square is also astounding.


Jill: Yes, I agree! I think we often work big because we think it is expected and / or want to stand out in a crowd of other artists at an art fair or exhibition. Are there other artists you have come across during this project who you feel are unmaking colonial, capitalist and patriarchal perspectives and processes?


Amy: I would say that many of the artists whose work has been in the shows encompass the above in one form or another, and for that reason I cannot give one example. Each show, as an entire installation, is intended to address issues from multiple perspectives. For example, This Volatile State was the fourth group exhibition featuring the work of 39 UK and international artists responding to the title 'State:'


· the condition of a person or thing, as with respect to circumstances or attributes;

· the condition of matter with respect to structure, form, constitution, phase; or

· the place where someone or something comes from.


Whether artists individually dealt with the state of self; the state of being or the state of living, collectively they pointed to the larger phenomena that determines the state of the ‘world’ today.

An number of match sticks aligned to form a box structure that holds up a sparkler.
Amber Harrison, Sparkler, 2021, matches, sparkler, match striker paper, 5 cm x 6 cm x 10cm

Jill: Yes, it is interesting how the personal is always political whether we intend it to be or not. I was particularly drawn to a sculpture constructed out of matches and a sparkler in which the artist, Amber Harrison, intentionally creates something that risks being unmade, or some might say enlivened, by its audience. It’s fragility as an artwork does so well to speak to the fragility and vulnerability of the earth’s current state and how one small idea, in this case a spark, can lead to so much destruction beyond spaces and places that things are designed for. The idea that Harrison’s Sparkler submission could take down your entire House of Smalls, not to mention your house, speaks to how much agency and impact something small can have.


Upon reflection, were there any other things that were unmade because of you putting out themed international calls for art and receiving responses from 21 countries including Brazil, Canada, Iran, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa and across Europe and the United States?


Amy: In respect to themes, I do this because I want to connect with and exhibit artists who tend to work outside of mainstream as I want the shows to resonate with others, prompt discussion, and be as inclusive as possible on subjects which may not be spoken about. This was a response to my personal experiences which have often lead me to overly open calls in which anything but commercially saleable work is dismissed. The only things I really tried to unmake was the cost to show work and rules surrounding work. Once selected, artists pay a nominal fee to show in the House of Smalls, which covers return postage. This fee is not conditional. If I select someone who does not have the money, their work is still included in the exhibition.


Jill: I think you are being humble in your response as I would argue that through choosing to unmake cost prohibiting factors you are also working to unmake a variety of socio-political, economic, gender and racial inequalities, which is no small thing. As a result of this project, has your own practice changed and if so, how does it work to embody the socio-political and eco-ethics that are built into the House of Smalls project?

A photo of a black and white polaroid capturing the top of a hea d of a mannequin that has its ear covered. The photo is written on in blue ink saying the words shut up over and over again. A glass of red wine sits on top of the polaroid  and the hand written text UP written in capital letter.
Amy Oliver, Mannequin Series: Shut Up, photography

Amy: My own practice changes with my mood. As previously stated, my work is personal and encompasses my day-to-day life experiences, and exchanges. At the moment, my practice has slowed again – due to a variety of factors, but principally imposter syndrome (which regularly dominates my psyche) - I am so inspired by the work I receive but also overwhelmed.


Jill: I think many of us can relate to those feelings. I know I feel that way just surfing through Instagram or in this case, coming across impressive projects like yours. However, I did notice that the House of Smalls is currently on a hiatus. Were there any specific submissions or interactions that led you to temporarily unmaking yourself from the project?


Amy: No, the break is solely because I started a new job. I work fulltime in an unrelated field and my current employment is not easy. I did not want to compromise the shows or my social media coverage of the shows and thought it best to temporarily close the doors. I desperately miss The House of Smalls and currently in chaos – I have several decisions to make.


Jill: I think your answer brings up important questions around artist labour, fiscal sustainability and how creatives often have to relinquish valuable endeavours to survive. On that note, what do you feel needs more unmaking in the world, or more specifically, the art world today?


Amy: A lot! Formulaic constructs, male domination, over-saturation, fees to exhibit, commercial expectations, and style trends all need to be disrupted in order to make space for art that is about freedom of expression, and more particularly art by women, as we are increasingly being shut down, restricted and unempowered. Unmade if you will!

 

Amy Oliver, both an artist and a curator, draws from her own experiences of women’s rights, identity, domestic and sexual violence, mental health disorders, and other invisible illnesses. From her feminist perspective, Oliver intentionally works to keep issues considered stigma visible by creating subtle yet relatable artworks that allude to her fundamental core strength, while also expressing vulnerability and instability to portray both the fragile and durable elements of her existence.


Having exhibited throughout the UK, Europe, Japan, and USA, in June-July 2019 she had her first solo show, Still Life, at The Jam Factory in Oxford, England. In October 2018, Oliver co-curated (In)visible at Espacio Gallery in London, a group exhibition which brought together 43 international, emerging, and accomplished artists, and coincided with World Mental Health Day.





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