British multidisciplinary artist Emily Hesse, whose work examined materialism, class, the Anthropocene, and the relationship of land to the formation of societies, died of ovarian cancer November 4 at the age of forty-two. News of her death was confirmed by the UK’s Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), which holds her work in its collection. In a practice that was frequently collaborative and intensely local, Hesse explored topics surrounding the modern narratives attached to working-class and rural communities, of which she herself was a member. “Drawing on your own experiences allows you to tell stories which are raw, often dark or muddied, things that you don’t really wish to speak of but knowing that doing so will create space for others to share their own,” she told MIMA in 2020.
Emily Hesse was born April 27, 1980 in Middlesbrough, UK; her parents named her after little Emily from the Charles Dickens classic David Copperfield. She earned her undergraduate degree at Durham University and her master’s from the University of Sunderland before returning to her native northeast England home. Hesse found herself drawn to was the landscape and the detritus found there, objects she characterized as “often ugly and unfamiliar” and which she fashioned into spare sculptures and installations that commented on themes of nature. The deeply local also inspired her fascination with clay, which she gathered from the banks of the River Tees in Middlesborough. “In turbulent times I think there is a need to reassert our existence,” she told Phaidon in 2018. “Working with clay is a visible process, the object contains and demonstrates it, what you are getting is what you see. We live in a time of the fake, but there is no fraud in clay.”
Hesse additionally incorporated performance, painting, and ceramics in her work, which ranged widely across formats. Her 2018 Blackbirds Born from Invisible Stars was a book work that she described as a “sculptural object” and separate from its content, which explored the plight of the middle-aged, working class female artist through the lens of regionalism. In The Centre of Things, made the same year, she used fabric and human hair to query the traditional role of women in relation to craft. Kissing the Bees, a 17-minute two-channel installation shot on a mobile phone the following year, centered witchcraft of the North York Moors as a form of matriarchal social organizing. Writing in Artforum on her show “The Witches’ Institution (W.I.),” at the Tetley in Leeds, UK, earlier this year, Miguel Amado noted, “The installation elicits an emotional response that establishes a metaphysical, ancestral connection to our landscape—understood as both Mother and Nature.”
Hesse was longlisted for Paul Hamlyn Award for Visual Arts in 2013. She was named a runner-up for the 2020 Arts Foundation Futures awards for Visual Artists, and in 2021 was the recipient of the Tetley/Jerwood Commission. At the time of her death, she was engaged in PhD research at the Belfast School of Art, Ulster University. Her work is on view through April 30, 2023 in the exhibition “Hinterlands” at Baltic in Gateshead, UK.