In her drawings, sculptures and animations, Emma Talbot (b. Stourbridge, UK, 1969) connects emotions and memories to myths, lines of poetry and current events. With her flowing drawing style, in which text, images and patterns combine in a natural way, she invites the viewer to follow her into a dreamlike world. And yet this work is packed with current pressing issues involving feminism, capitalism, technology and our interaction with nature.
Drawings form the basis of Talbot’s oeuvre. From small and intimate on handmade paper to vast animations on the illuminated signs of Piccadilly Circus, they depict subjects that move Talbot. The small bodies with faceless heads that play the leading role in her drawings are, according to Talbot, images of herself, as seen from the inside. Talbot draws in order to allow her subconscious, where countless impressions are stored, to speak. Unity of time, place and space are – just like in a dream – often illogical. She draws on family stories but also on classical myths, poems by T.S. Eliot and the work of feminist philosophers such as Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. Each and every one of these can inspire surprising, amusing and touching scenes that combine to generate new stories. The images ‘touch each other’, mutually reinforcing their atmosphere, like the lines of a poem. They set a particular tone, which everyone can interpret in their own way without having to understand every detail.
Because of the role that Talbot assigns to the subconscious, she also seems, with her work, to be responding to the post-Enlightenment era in which we live. In a world where we want to control everything with our intellect and where everyone is connected to their own device, she is open to the transcendent and the irrational. We humans are part of a larger whole, Talbot appears to be saying, a vast history and space. Everything, both energetic and menacing, flows seamlessly together. In her installations, she appears to present this connection – over which we, as human beings, have no control – in visual form.
In recent years, Talbot’s work has developed from a personal, psychological inner world to encompass more universal themes, such as birth, death and our relationship to the environment where we live. For example, the primal power of women and the irrational force of nature are themes that regularly recur in her work. In Why Do You Fear The Power Within (2017), she united a Slavic legend about a witch with a contemporary story about a woman leading a reclusive life in a hut in the forest. Using fragments of text and enigmatic scenes of a woman transforming into a snake, she draws attention to hidden forces and poses questions about the way our culture deals with ageing women and with death. For the Max Mara Prize for Women, which was awarded to Talbot in 2020, she used Gustav Klimt’s famous work The Three Ages of Women to investigate these same issues.
The endless cycle of life appears to be Talbot’s main driving force. In graceful images of metamorphoses and transitions, she depicts on one hand the unbridled energy and resilience that underlies them. On the other hand, she asks constant questions about the way in which technology and capitalism distance us from the source and the history from which we come. Such contrasts are a theme running throughout her oeuvre.
She is, for example, fascinated by the mystique of birth and death, the only two certainties we share as human beings. In the sculpture/installation How Is (Your Own) Death So Inconceivable? (2019), an impressive monumental figure with a cloak that is both beautiful and dark, she depicts death as undeniably magnificent and aloof, but also as a place that offers protection to the body that has released its hold on life. In Ghost Calls (2021), an exhibition in Dundee, Scotland, female keeners, professional mourners from Celtic history, appear in sculptures and in paintings across several metres of silk cloth as those who come together to soften the impact of death. “They are taking on our grief,” Talbot says of these figures, “guiding us out of a crash and into a space that tunes in to wider histories, ancient landscapes, the ghosts of the past, the wildness of nature but also a kind of magical, unexpected relationship with the unfamiliar.” With these words, Talbot neatly captures the power that her work offers the viewer.
text by Esther Darley
translation by Laura Watkinson