Emma McNally: The Earth is Knot Flat

Emma McNallyThe river that flows nowhere, like a sea, 2021, 'Afterness', Artangel/The National Trust, Orford Ness, Suffolk. Photograph: Thierry Bal



The Earth is Knot Flat will be Emma McNally’s first solo institutional exhibition in the UK and her most ambitious installation to date.

This exhibition uses drawing to think through the materially entangled, interconnected nature of gender, racial and environmental injustices. McNally makes her large drawings in a building constructed for rope making in London’s Woolwich Dockyards and she has a view onto the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery. Both sugar – known in the 18th Century as ‘white gold’ – and rope, are products that represent global entanglements of domination and subjugation. Drawing on this history and the complexity of her Irish/Australian ancestry, the exhibition will be the physical manifestation of the artist’s ongoing conversations with international thinkers such as theorist and poet Fred Moten and physicist Karen Barad.

Cascading from the ceiling in large ‘plates’ to the floor, McNally’s installation will resemble geological and environmental movement, suggesting rock falls, avalanches and shifting tectonics. Torn fragments of drawing floating across the floor are reminiscent of sea ice, glaciers, dust and refuse, whilst suspended woven knots made of wire and string accumulate in clusters overhead. An immersive film, made in collaboration with Manon Schwich, casts light and shadows on the various elements and generates an uncertain atmosphere, a confusing mixture of presence and absence. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to make and share different ways of drawing, using crochet and other creative activities to make their own knots and suspend them; over the duration of the exhibition a growing, multi-authored installation will emerge in the adjacent gallery. Sharing traditions of making, such as Irish Crochet Lace, is a way of understanding history through material production and will form an important, interactive element of the project.

Artist biography 

Born 1969, Essex, McNally lives and works in London. Her graphite drawings, a multitude of different marks, conjure up dynamic weather systems and matter moving through different states. They suggest an attempt to chart shifting systems of immense complexity, drawing on soundings, data visualisations, electronic microscopes, particle collision chambers and satellite imaging. She studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of York before continuing her thinking visually through drawing. For over 20 years McNally supported her drawing in the studio by painting large scale reproductions of Renaissance paintings on the street – including long periods outside York Minster, in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, London and on the South Bank of the Thames.

Recent group exhibitions include: Afterness, Artangel / National Trust, Orford Ness, UK (2021); 20th Biennale of Sydney, AU (2016),  The Form of Form, Lisbon Architecture Triennale(2016); Mirrorcity, Hayward Gallery, London, UK (2015); Abstract Drawing, curated by Richard Deacon, Drawing Room, London (2014). Seeing/Knowing, Kenyon College of Liberal Arts, Ohio, US (2011). In the period 2016–21, McNally withdrew from exhibiting and was involved intensely with political activism. Her works are held in numerous private and public collections including Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, US and MONA, AU.

Emma McNally is developing new work for the exhibition thanks to the award of an Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grant.