Un-folding Oneself: 
 an interview  with Emma Hovi

The first artist I met when I arrived in Finland in 2017, was Emma Hovi. Introduced by a mutual contact (Emma’s childhood friend/ to me, an editorial acquaintance from NY), our first meeting happened via email and our exchanges would continue over the course of several months before we’d connect in the material plane: a brief Helsinki encounter that involved a passed bottle of wine and several sunset loops around the South Harbour. The next chapter of our written correspondence lasted about a year as we both moved from one city to another. During this wonky transitional phase in our lives, we shared half-baked ideas, poems, excerpts and references, reading and art recommendations, sibylline gestures, and a few secrets. From afar, I’ve witnessed her artistic research surrounding corporeality, the metaphor of the fold, reproductive labour, domestic and social choreographies – and from a place somewhat nearer: her confidence and capacity for risk-taking as a visual artist.

Our relationship was cultivated through writing back and forth. So, it’s fitting to return to form here with the intention of sharing our exchange with you (dear, reader).

Emma Hovi’s solo exhibition Muscle Memories is now on view at Pesula Galleria in Sipoo. The Friday before the opening, I met Emma at her Vallila studio to assist with transporting her artworks to the gallery. Afterwards, and over dinner, we discussed the show, her process, and how her practice has evolved. The below is a snapshot of our exchange.

Time is present in all material things; they are both of ‘a’ time and manifestations of the passage of time, which is apparent and visible in the material world, our bodies, and certainly in your work for Muscle Memories – could you tell us more about this?

Yes, so the first thing I will say is that I've been experiencing a sort of thickening of time in the past few months. Maybe because I've been very interested in repetition for a while now, I've oriented myself towards the comfort of new beginnings. The drawings I did for Muscle Memories were very much based on repetitive gestures. Both the act of applying the graphite onto the fabric arranged in so many thin lines, but also the logistics of moving between my home and my studio, which felt like being swept up in the current of a pendulum – a day being issued anew, over and over again. My experience of time thickened, it's really the best way to describe it. So, I startled when I first heard Elisa Gabbert read one of her poems on a podcast episode that I've played many times over by now. Part of the poem goes: "Time comes out of time / Like ribbon from cassettes, / Shimmering, sticky, / More than seems possible, / More and more tape." 

In my drawings I've envisioned time not as a ribbon but as a creased surface full of folds packed tightly together, undulating. Perhaps like an infinite cloth that rubs up on itself, folds in on itself, touches itself. Maybe our bodies are no different. Although we can't perceive it, our organs are creased, folded together and constantly rubbing up on one another. In any case, the stickiness and improbability of time described in the poem, it all makes sense to me – the quality that time takes on when we tune in to all the ways in which repetition is present in our lives. Repetition and motions of looping are not necessarily boring or uneventful or deadening, although culturally this understanding has perhaps been quite strong in the West (especially since WWII, enabled in part by monstrous machinery capable of endless replication). But repetition is not synonymous to replication. Repetition can offer freedom from narrative, from goal-oriented plots in favour of something open-ended, cyclical, undeclared. I'm thinking of loop-based electronic music for example. So, when I approached Joni Judén to create a soundscape for the exhibition, looping and repetition were important parts of the conversation. The sound that Judén composed is really magnificent, it's somehow guttural and ancient while also honoring the gentle murmur of the ventilation in the gallery space.

Creases are lines drawn through movement, gestures retained in a physical form – a manifestation of the fabric’s resistance to compliance: fabrics that crease must accommodate the gestures of the body and resist them. We discussed how your approach to drawing is perhaps better understood as a form of sculpture, I hoping you could talk more about this, and how you experienced resistance throughout the creative process.

It feels like a common thing for artists to describe their work in terms of the listening that occurs in the encounter with the material. The idea that the task of artists is to listen to their materials, trying to honour what the materials have to say or what they want. Surely this has been amplified as new materialist theories about the agency of matter have gained more traction. It seems to me that your question about resistance in my work is very much about this – decision-making in the face of resistance. The resistance put up by the materials I've used in the artworks, by the structures and textures of the gallery space itself. When you draw on fabric, as I did for the two largest pieces Timecompass and Resist, Yield, it's as if the mark-making turns into a form of kneading the graphite into the woven structure, which suggests its own shapes as well. It is nearly impossible to erase and start afresh. In this sense, the drawing approaches sculpting. So one interesting idea about sculpting is that really, the task of the sculptress is to release the shape that is understood to be already contained in the block of stone or marble or what have you. A subtractive process rather than additive. My drawings are perhaps additive and subtractive at the same time. Additive in the obvious sense that I am adding imagery. I knew was going to draw folds, it's not entirely clear to me why I'm so interested in the imagery of folds, but there is something about the way that folded drapery – the garment on a hanger conjures bodies also in its absence (Elena Ferrante has written beautifully about this in Frantumaglia.) – but once I started drawing, after I made the first marks, it did feel like a shape was already present, as if it was revealing itself to me in flashes and if only attentive enough, I would be able to register them. It became not so much about what I wanted, but what occurred. Because of this, there was also a sense of urgency at the core of the process.

Once I had started drawing, a friend sent me a recorded lecture by the philosopher Catherine Malabou. Malabou thinks about habit through the metaphor of the fold, plié in French. Plié describes the folding that happens when one part of, say, a piece of fabric is placed on top of another part. In another sense, plié also describes the process whereby something yields and bends in the face of external pressure. For example, the yielding that takes place between a garment and the body wearing it. And the way Malabout talked about resistance, bending and yielding was so exciting to me as it spoke to the what and the how of my drawing, and to my fascination with folds.

K: Now, I want to ask you about ironing and folding, and more specifically the act of smoothing as a form of negation or erasure. How do you feel about smoothing, and is this present in the work/ your process? (I am also thinking about ASMR, if that feels relevant.)

I have to think of a drawing by Louise Bourgeois, I saw it in an exhibition catalogue but haven't been able to find it online. It was a drawing of an iron, and a written text that was something close to "until all secrets are ironed out." Speaking perhaps to how she struggled with the domestic life and marriage she found herself in. Under the iron, smoothing becomes an act definitely of exposure, perhaps of erasure too? In Swedish, the expression for unfolding was also used to describe someone – female celebs in the ‘90s? – posing naked for some photographer and having the photos published in the tabloids: att vika ut sig, literally unfolding oneself. The kind of unfolding that reveals boundaries between the appropriate and the scandalous. Maybe our continuous smoothing is an attempt at intervening into the titanic labour of time that tends towards creases, wrinkles, folds. Why is it that we covet smooth, almost textureless surfaces?

This last question is a convoluted prompt, but I want to address the home, memory and matrilineal inheritance, personal or otherwise; I am thinking about your grandmother’s book that you showed me, I am thinking about the labour archives, and the interviews and research you’ve done on your own, but also with laundry museums and historians…

Yes, so when I first started working with the video Choreography of Chores in 2018, I was interested in the domestic sphere as a choreographed space, where certain bodies do certain things in certain ways. Close to my current home there is a bronze sculpture called The Worker Mother, presumably mother and daughter wringing water out of fabric, a sheet potentially. They are given a larger-than-life-size scale, placed on top of a big rock. I started noticing it because my friend told me how she had been washing clothes by hand and, while wringing the water out, she felt like she was wringing herself across time, closer to her foremothers. I think I've felt that too. And that got me thinking about how domestic chores, doing laundry in particular, are highly choreographed events. Washing, hanging, ironing, folding, mangling. I learned how to fold washed bedlinen in the house of my childhood friends, whose mother showed us how to perform the folds step by step. It really resembled a dance with a specific rhythm and finesse to it. I think we enjoyed it quite a lot, as children tend to take pleasure in repetition. So laundry became my case study let's say for the spectrum of choreographies that are handed down across generations of mostly women, who still are responsible for much reproductive labour – including the work that goes into creating atmosphere, whether in the home, shared spaces or social situations.

So, I think these domestic choreographies exist and I do think they connect bodies across generations in the shape of a collective muscle memory. It's interesting that domestic life used to be shared to a larger extent, as women would gather around each other's homes or at the closest lake to wash together, gossip and exchange news. In the records of the Labour Archives, I came across several accounts of women recalling how laundry was done in their childhood homes in the beginning to mid 19th century. Apart from sensations, landscapes and smells, the interviewees emphasized the absolute importance of orderliness that was integral to the business of laundry. Another interviewee recalled a local story about two neighbourhood women ending up in a nasty feud after under-the-belt gossiping about each other's husbands at the shared washing stead. 

Then, there are questions about how tending to the home was strongly associated with a woman's perceived virtue, about class and cleanliness, how availability for sex was assumed to be part of women's responsibilities in the home and so on. Is it possible to embrace domesticity without being domesticated? There are all these aspects and somewhat loose ends, but right now I am not sure of what to do with them. I'm dreaming of creating a performance of a field full of people folding one massive fabric together....

A repeated change coming from the outside, from the environment, produces a difference in the subject experiencing it. External change is putting the body under pressure. The body resists, then bends, then yields.  –  Catherine Malabou


Emma Hovi is an artist and art educator based in Helsinki, whose works have been exhibited both in Finland and internationally. Muscle Memories is her first solo exhibition. 

Muscle Memories is on view at Pesula Galleria from February 9 – 26, 2023.

The artist's work has been supported by the Finnish Cultural Fund, the Finnish-Swedish cultural fund, and advised by Työväen Arkisto.

Kaitlyn D. Hamilton is the co-founder and co-director of TUO TUO.