2021
Wish You Were Here
Emma Regolini
Photography, Writing

Wish You Were Here

Emma Regolini's debut solo exhibition Wish You Were Here comprised 41 works on paper, created during the pandemic in London, UK, with the artist largely isolated to her bedroom. The drawings, rendered with a Sharpie pen, are serialised by repeated motifs of vases, flowers, and of abstracted faces and figures; recollections of the weeks that followed her father’s death when she was fourteen. This exhibition essay, Wish You Were Here: Searching for Comfort in Emma Regolini's Mind Palace, considers the central themes of the work—loss, grief and disconnection—in relationship to a sense of deep humanity and joy residing in the artist's "mind palace", looking for a place to find expression in the real world. The essay is accompanied by photographic documentation of the exhibition at Pig Melon.

Wish You Were Here: Searching for Comfort in Emma Regolini’s Mind Palace

“The vessels will never be able to contain the abundance.” — David Shahar, The Palace of Shattered Vessels, vol. 1, “Summer in the Street of the Prophets”, 1969

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” — William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. [We cannot] know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” — Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005

“Get out. I need to go to my mind palace.” — Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, Season 2, Episode 2: The Hounds of Baskerville, BBC, 2012

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There is a curiosity throughout Emma Regolini’s work in Wish You Were Here that plays out across both composition and creation. Comprising forty-one original black marker drawings on paper, the series can be taken in from a distance, as an all-encompassing narrative with beginning, middle and end, with dichotomies and contradictions and learnings; or studied up close, the symbolism employed in each as distinct as the short strokes of the artist’s trusted Sharpie.

The drawings are serialised by repeated motifs of vases, flowers, and of abstracted faces and figures; recollections of the weeks that followed her father’s death when she was fourteen. These explorations of the grief, loneliness and disconnection she experienced, and continues to experience, Regolini retrieves from her “mind palace”, a place built from imagined reconstructions of her childhood home in the wake of her loss.

The development work for this gallery showcase involved the sketching of more than 150 initial concepts, which proliferated during the artist’s time in lockdown and self-isolation while living in London throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of the drawings were also developed while holidaying in Sicily, a time marked by heightened solitude and an intensification of the artist’s use of the mind palace as a mechanism for self-healing.

This notion of the mind palace originates in Greek mythology. Legend has it that the poet Simonides of Ceos conceived a memory technique called loci; the act of remembering things based on their location. Simonides was at a banquet, and stepped outside to meet two young men who proved not to be there—just as the hall was collapsing behind him. His fellow banqueters died, crushed beyond recognition, and Simonides identified each body by name based on where they had been sitting. This method of remembering has been interpreted academically over the years, termed and re-termed as “memory theatre” or “the art of memory”; employed to great effect in competitive memory sport; and adapted in popular culture, as with Sherlock Holmes’ “mind attic”, which later became his “mind palace” in the BBC series Sherlock. It is also discussed in psychology as an effective technique for connecting with one’s inner child.

The importance of mentally recreating significant spaces for Regolini is evident both in the drawings and in the conceptual basis of this exhibition. Her decision to display the series in a reconstruction of her London bedroom, in which many of the final works were completed, is significant. She utilises live flowers and an exhibition playlist that conjure the sights, sounds and surrounds of the time in which the work came to be. The drawings in Wish You Were Here thus become a manifestation of Regolini’s mind palace inside another mind palace, a space in which we can gather to witness the artist’s search for comfort and closure.

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Wish You Were Here is not just Regolini’s debut solo show, but a showing of her first collection of drawings—only recently drawing in the physical after starting her creative career digitally. Until mid-2020, Regolini operated under the anonym “The Line”. She would source existing digital content from other online creators and draw on them in Photoshop; she’d trace the shapes of models’ faces and embellish or adorn them, or insert her original designs into photographs of spaces or products. While this amassed a sizeable social media following and led to a number of commercial collaborations with fashion and beauty brands, it eventually exposed its own limits. Regolini wanted more.

She was motivated to establish a physical drawing practice at the outset of the pandemic, after fashion giant Mango lifted a swimwear design she had made for small Australian label Bower. The remarkably similar full-piece swimsuit came to her attention when it was promoted in an article on Vogue.com. She had just moved to London, and it was a disruptive experience that prompted her to reconsider the way she was making work. “I think I wanted to take back my style and refine it, see where I could take it,” she says. Five months into the city’s extended lockdown, she dropped “The Line” and changed her digital persona to reflect her real name, writing on Instagram at the time: “I have a name and I would like you to remember it.”

The body of work presented in Wish You Were Here reflects this reclamation of creative expression, and it also embodies the act of remembrance. In Early Isolation and Readjusted Routines, both earlier works, one can see the residue of Regolini’s style under “The Line”—they are simpler compositions of more basic, superficial elements than pieces later in the series. A maturation of style and intensification of approach unfurls through the catalogue in real time.

At first, Regolini’s repetition of vases, flowers and figures is akin to absent-minded doodling, reflections of her everyday. She’d been treating regular trips to the Columbia Road flower market as her only form of self-care during lockdown, a ritual immortalised in Sunday Morning at Columbia Road and Transactional Tulips—while Tulips Day 5 and Tulips Day 9 document her haul’s, and perhaps her own, gradual deterioration. But there is a moment along this timeline of markings where the artist realises there is a significance to the motifs appearing in her work, and her approach intensifies. She identifies them as being sub-conscious recollections of the weeks that followed her father’s death, in which, unable to properly process the tragedy, she assumed the role of carer for the many condolence messages and floral bouquets being sent to the family home by loved ones. It was a Proustian moment—a sudden, almost disconcerting yet not unwelcome surge of autobiographical recall, a sharp nostalgia, an “involuntary memory” conjured by an inkling, a scent, a sound, an object. Flowers in vases.

As Proust would have encouraged, Regolini followed the flow of memory in willing submission. “I realised I was literally drawing my grief out of me,” she says. “I began to really try to go into those moments when I was fourteen. It would be a completely immersive mental state, like lucid dreaming. I could feel everything I felt at that time, I could see my inner child navigating those weeks.”

This was an emotional exercise she’d read about in Erika J. Chopich and Margaret Paul’s Healing Your Aloneness: Finding Love and Wholeness Through Your Inner Child (Harper Collins, 1990), a text lent to her by a friend’s academic father that outlines a self-healing process for adults based on reconnecting with one’s young self. Here, Regolini’s mind palace became central to both her artistic practice and her healing: through it, she accesses her inner child.

“I remember all the flowers being delivered [to the home] and I would place them around the house, change their water and remove the dying flowers and rearrange those still living,” she says. “I could go back and picture it, how I walked over to the roses and the gardenias and the carnations. I could feel the swelling pit in my throat during those moments … And I see my pragmatic, practical actions. This series, it feels like I finally went and comforted my inner child and sat with her and let her feel the loss, finally.”

The core visual motifs in Regolini’s work are not hard to identify. The drawings suggest the possibility of infinite repetition of the vases, the tulips, and the abstracted faces (she calls them “bean heads”), the latter often drawn facing into or away from each other, with arms that wrap and reach, but that never quite seem to connect with anything.

But these elements of the work—particularly the vases—place it in dialogue with a rich and ancient art history. Much has been written about the significance and symbolism of vessels in life and art. Vases, statues, jugs, pots, the human body—they interrelate in ways that are hard, if not impossible, to behold. They have function, but they also beguile. Vessels can hold living things—vital fluids and energy—and they can hold dead things—ashes, corpses. They can even stand in place of the deceased. They hold secrets. They hold spirits. Crucially, they hold memories.

There are very few pieces in Wish You Were Here that do not reference vases, and in various compositions (Clay Vessels and Ramen, Vase Lovers, True Care) the figures are contained within; the vessel is body is vessel. Overflowing can be read as a redolent realisation of this possibility; in it, the vase, or the body, is unable to contain all that which it holds. Waterdrops double as teardrops and merge into droopy petals as they burst from the mouth of the vase. The work is an encapsulation of Regolini’s similarly uncontainable desire to wrestle with her grief after the moment of its realisation, and also perhaps the uncontainable nature of untended trauma itself, which festers and protrudes at its own will.

In his essay “Ancient Greek Vessels between Sea, Earth, and Clouds” from Vessels: The Object as Container (Oxford University Press, 2019), Richard Neer observes this predicament of containment. “If a vessel can be a body,” he writes, “then the body can shatter when dropped, and every piece can become a vessel in its own right, like the splinters of the broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” (p. 16). By extension, the body and all it holds, if shattered, can also be pieced back together. This is what Regolini discovers through drawing, and if some of the works in Wish You Were Here appear frantic, this is why.

Regolini's turn to drawing to document her self-healing, particularly through the motif of the vessel, provides key insight for viewers as to her mindscape. There is a sense of urgency here, and a sense of life bubbling up to the surface—not just the bad, the sad, but also the good, the beautiful. Taking the works in, it is clear this artist feels life to an almost uncontainable extent. The vessels, sometimes depicted broken or bulging, cannot contain life’s abundance. There is a material limitation to how much we can hold, and to draw is to find new volume.

This image of the shattered vessel is present in Regolini’s Leaking Vase and Love, which she says is a reflection on the complicated nature of close relationships. Two contrasting figures are caught in an intermittent embrace, holding together a vase full of cracks between them. An arrow pierces the heart of one. It is an acknowledgment, perhaps, that while the single body may be unable to contain all that which life asks or offers, two together might just succeed; and that a fractured relationship is better than none at all.

Leaking Vase and Love encapsulates the desperation for connection and wholeness that permeates the series. The artist’s “bean heads” are overwhelmingly drawn in close contact with each other, as if sharing a kiss, or exchanging dialogue—but seemingly never quite actually touching, separated by patches of negative space.

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If Regolini is searching in the works for the comfort her father cannot give her, the comfort he once provided that was abruptly lost, it appears to be a search further problematised by the now. Works such as Actually Listening, Conversations with Friends and Holding it Together reflect on the loneliness of a contemporary reality in which true connection is rare, in which people increasingly stop seeking comfort in one another, turning instead to screens or other vices. This is often more pronounced after traumatic events, as Regolini can attest.

The distances this creates between us were exaggerated—confirmed, reinforced—by the pandemic. Regolini’s ever-reaching arms and oppositional figures reflect this. Yet, there is also evidence in the drawings of finding connection. Friendship in South London, which Regolini drew as an ode to one of her only friends in London with whom she had contact throughout the periods of isolation, explores how true connection underscores emotional distance, because we are struck by its usual lack. Summer in Hackney Downs and Tulip Embrace also explore this intensification of Regolini’s infrequent social interactions as a result of isolation. In all of these works, the bean heads are seen touching at last, if only just.

Regolini found the same contrasts in her solitude and her art, returning again and again to her mind palace. It was an ongoing exercise that perpetuated the rollercoaster experience of connection and isolation, of fullness and emptiness, but proved necessary nonetheless:

“It’s really exhausting going into that state of emotion or distress. It’s like cutting yourself open and stepping inside and travelling to that time, and digging up all those feelings and moments, drawing them onto paper and then sewing yourself back together and going to make dinner in your share flat and chatting to your housemates about the weather or workplace frustration. Each time you enter and leave that place in time, it sort of feels like there’s a scar that will heal but is there nonetheless. I think they call it growing around grief.”

Coming back to confront grief in order to heal and comfort the self (as reflected in Carry Yourself Through) is to get closer to real connection with others, is to find wholeness, reconciliation, even redemption. If we’re smart, we go about this journey with trepidation: as in Vessel of Hope, we carry our worry with us and slowly that worry turns to faith, courage, even happiness or awe. Our worry, and our grief, carry us through in that we grow around them; we grow to contain them.

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In an effort to escape London as autumn set in, Regolini travelled to Sicily. It was here the more chaotic pieces in Wish You Were Here manifested themselves. “When I visited Sicily in November, I sat at the table for twelve days drawing,” she says. “I fully went into my mind palace, to see my inner child, and I'm not super spiritual, but it was insane. I would just cry, draw, cry, draw, cry, draw—it was exhausting.”

Here, she produced Good Advice and Good Intentions, contrasting works that depict bulging vessels surrounded by onlooking bean heads, the latter also with arms clambering to take hold of the vessel. “At the time of Dad’s death, I remember different people being confused by my grief state, or lack thereof,” she says. “I was the one in the family who didn’t grieve right. Everyone kept telling me how to grieve. There was a time in Sicily when I could feel my inner child just screaming out of pain, because everyone said she was grieving the wrong way.”

But Regolini’s time in Sicily also produced some of the series’ pieces addressing the more mundane, as if the new surrounds became material to fill the drawings rather than the artist’s own psychology, which she could not escape when confined to her London bedroom. Shopping in Sicily utilises the floral logomark of Italian supermarket chain Conad, patterned over two figures. Another, Profiles in Caronia, Sicily, simply depicts the side profiles of strangers’ faces.

This tendency to attach meaning to the mundane, just to hold it in view, is human. In Neer’s essay, in which much talk is dedicated to the analysis of how the Greeks imbued their vessels with symbolism, he points out that they are, of course, still just pots: “Pots can stand in for bodies, can sometimes be bodies, can flirt with an almost sculptural ‘iconicity’ and yet be pots all the same.” (p. 24)

When we are searching for comfort, we can find it in the palace of our minds or in the quotidian. To remember is an essential part of the search for comfort, whether to be comforted is to first be broken or not. Memory repels existential dread, in that it confirms the mysteries of our existence. Similarly, Regolini’s visually charming works repel for her the overwhelming aloneness from which they are produced, and the malaise with which they grapple. Though they are the fruits of laborious remembering, it is easy to look at them and forget, and to simply revel instead in this curious place to which Regolini transports the viewer.

This push and pull between urgency and acceptance is perhaps the definitive dichotomy of Regolini’s debut. Some of the pieces are frantic (consider the warped check patterns of Spiralling in the Summer), while others are reposed in negative space (Conversations with Friends). It’s a dichotomy embedded in the very title, Wish You Were Here. This phrase reflects a childlike yearning, but it is also a simple, often innocuous statement. To “wish” feels at once both loaded and innocent. Importantly, it is an eternal truth when we have lost someone important; we will long for them. We will always wish that person were here. To heal is not to rid oneself of that feeling, the work tells us, but to voice it.

The series non-chronologically culminates in two drawings. Self Portrait in Solitude hints at what could be an obvious self-portrait of the artist in isolation, but Regolini tells me it’s really of her “ideal elderly self”. The search, or longing, for something continues. Yet, I Know (The End) attempts to draw everything neatly to a close, the name a reference to the Phoebe Bridges song from her debut album Punisher (2020) and also a statement of both artists’ closure: I have discovered that which I set out to. I can stop now. Maybe.

Wish You Were Here is the evidence of Regolini’s undertaking to recreate and re-explore the physical and emotional terrain of her childhood experiences, with a determination to distil from the pain of what was and the perplexity of what will be, an understanding of what always is. It is a wrestling with life’s abundance to salvage the very feeling of it. The exhibition is an offering to all who visit to enter the artist’s mind palace, which is a privilege. Such sustained creative recall is a liberating act that enables us to awaken ourselves to realities that lie beyond the bounds of linear time, a necessary and inevitable possibility if we are to live with grief—which of course we must, to live at all.

Written by Emma Pegrum.