Emma Kay



Not on display

Emma Kay born 1961
Digital print on paper
Image: 1760 × 2705 mm
Purchased 2000


Emma Kay born 1961

Worldview is a large text work in which Emma Kay recounts a history of the world, starting from the ‘big bang’, in which the earth was created, and ending with apocalyptic visions stimulated by the imminent millennium at the end of 1999. It is a digitally created, high resolution ink jet print, produced in an edition of three. It was printed by Clicks Computer Graphics, London EC1 and published by the artist. Kay designed the typeface and layout of the text. It consists of twenty-one columns of 8-point type. The columns are interrupted by paragraph divisions, indents and the spaces separating one column from another. Spaces between paragraphs signify omitted material, their size related to the artist’s perception of her memory lapse. From a distance the work resembles the patterning of an old-fashioned computer printout. This is alluded to by the paragraph situated in the centre of the work (the middle of the eleventh column) referring to the development of computer technology in the 1950s. The text describes mechanical ‘early mainframe computers ... based on the counting of 000s and 111s, a binary code. Programmers worked out computer languages that could be turned into 000s and 111s. Theories of artificial intelligence were an important influence on the development of the computer.’ Kay has commented:

When I am writing I always imagine myself in some kind of virtual computer environment and think of my memory works as hypertexts. The associative and cognitive links people make are the very ones which computers try to emulate, and even represent. Hypertext is an apparently objective attempt to impose order over chaos and to get to grips with vast resources, though its subjectivity is inescapable. It seemed to me to be interesting to represent this attempt visually.

(Quoted in Kinley, p.54.)

Worldview recalls a project begun in the early 1970s by Italian artist Alighiero Boetti (1940-94) and his wife Anne-Marie Sauzeau-Boetti (1946-96). Together they researched the thousand longest rivers in the world. The resulting list was embroidered onto two wall hangings, one white and one green, titled I mille fiumi piu lunghi del mondo (The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World) 1979 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and first shown at Documenta 7 (Kassel) in 1982. A book, Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World 1970-1977 was published in 1977. Like Kay’s Worldview Boetti’s works draw attention to the impossibility of certain attempts at representation and classification. While Boetti’s research revealed that there was no common consensus on the lengths of rivers or indeed how to measure one, Kay’s work points to the subjectivity and relativity of memory. Nearly two thirds of Kay’s text are concerned with events of the twentieth century, which she begins recounting in the eighth column. The 1990s are first referred to in the sixteenth column and the events of 1999 enter the text at the bottom of the twentieth column. This reflects the greater knowledge each of us has of our own time in relation to that of past eras. Just as we remember the recent events of our own lives with greater clarity than those of our early history, the events of our own time have greater significance and relevance than those of the far distant past. Kay’s text, like Boetti’s project, highlights the point at which the individual connects with the larger whole of our increasingly complex, global community with all its socio-political and geographic diversity.

Worldview is one of several works on paper Kay has made based on her memory. In the first of these, The Bible from Memory 1997 (Tate P78331), she recounts what she remembers of the Bible. Both works may tell the viewer more about Kay and her memory (or their own memory) than it does about its purported subject. Shakespeare from Memory 1998 (courtesy The Approach, London) and three drawings, The World from Memory I, II and III 1998-9 (I, II private collection, III Arts Council Collection), in a similar manner rely on the framework of a common cultural memory to reveal information specific to the artist. In doing this, Kay calls on the viewer to confront his or her own memories, either through an awareness of the artist’s omissions or by sharing her memories. Worldview, like Kay’s Bible, begins from the beginning of time and ends with an apocalyptic present, but takes a more serious and authoritative form. Like her early list works, in which she compiled index-like lists of inanimate objects in order of appearance from a selection of novels, Worldview represents an attempt at logical classification which reveals the flaws inherent to all systems created by the human mind.

The text of Worldview was also published in book form, with the addition of an index, by Book Works, London in 1999.

Further reading:
Catherine Grenier, Catherine Kinley, Abracadabra: International Contemporary Art, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, pp.52-5
Deborah Schultz, ‘Profile: Telling Tales’, Art Monthly, March 2001, pp.22-3
British Art Show 5, South Bank Centre, London 2000, pp.76-7

Elizabeth Manchester
October 2002

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Display caption

'When I am writing' Kay has said, 'I always imagine myself in some kind of virtual computer environment and think of my memory works as hypertexts'. Worldview is one such 'memory work', in which Kay attempts to chronicle the history of the world using only her own memories
as a reference.


Her account covers topics ranging
from the Second World War to fast food outlets. The authoritative tone adopted throughout makes the text seem reliable and definitive, but there are glaring gaps and inaccuracies. In fact, the work tells us less about history than about Kay's own background and identity.


Gallery label, November 2002

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

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