Lamentations and groans echo through the landscape, penetrating the skin to the very depths of my being. The pain so safely enclosed now floats slowly to the surface – there is no stopping it. In a sigh of wind, she is here, complete and unconcealed, burst free from the body. Silk cloths flutter and brush past soothingly, soft and comforting. Laments drag me along, into the landscape, and I lose myself. Who is actually crying? And then everything is ripped open, more vulnerable than ever, an open heart, open eyes and open arms.
Emma Talbot is a storyteller, and she tells stories with all her senses. Sometimes words are needed, usually drawings or paint, and at times the softness of silk or sounds from a distant past. Her stories are SF. The ecological philosopher and feminist Donna Haraway would say: ‘science fiction, speculative fabulations, string figures, speculative feminism, science fact, so far.’ (1). The visions of the future emerge from deep connection and knowledge of our time, a turbulent age of ever greater ecological disasters and far-reaching inequalities. Rather than a critique, Talbot's work is a 'what if?'
Her monumental work Ghost Calls (2020) features keeners, the professional female mourners of Celtic tradition. In olden days, they used to visit the homes of the deceased and teach the mourners to express their grief and to connect with their emotions. Consisting of ten panels of silk, painted and written upon, divided like a patchwork, over the length of more than 13 metres, Ghost Calls is a post-apocalyptic landscape. Painted female creatures, keeners without facial features, in dramatic poses, cowering, screaming, climbing walls, teach us to say farewell to the earth as we knew it.
The hair of the female creatures spills over into organic growths and rock structures. A stone is also an eye that looks at us piercingly and elsewhere the skin of a keener is like the bark of a tree. Disconnected heads with fluttering hair float up at the top. Or are they bushes or the movement of the wind? It is not clear where the human ends and the surroundings begin. Maybe the women have no faces because they are not individuals but a representation of life itself. They are all Zoë, life, the essence that flows through everything, in an infinite flux. We, humans and other creatures, are nothing more than temporary coagulations, which fall apart again after a while and assume other forms. We cling so tightly to our own existence, our own self, but Zoë never dies, only changes (2). ‘We cannot hold on to a static past of fixed ideas, everything is in flux and we are still living,’ Talbot has written on one of the pieces of cloth.
The landscape painted in acrylics is not a solid fact with a fixed horizon. The earth's layers close and open up right through one another. Worlds built by our ancestors consist of thick crusts of earth, which we unconsciously adopt. A female figure sticks her finger into a viscous liquid, with the words ‘reaching beyond the surface to find meaning’ written above. Now everything is lost, destroyed beyond repair. The earth, life, Zoë, she gasps for oxygen, groaning and sighing she asks us for a new age, a new story.
Ghost Calls are written and painted non-linear storylines – SF, Haraway's string figures. A different narrative, or figurative thread, can be followed from every point on the canvas. There is no logic. ‘Let Poets Speak. Listen to voices you never heard before.’ The poets will show the way to new future stories. The keeners' lamentations cut across communities, generations and territories. In a lament, grief is greater than one person, greater than a single moment. The magical female creatures lead us through the period of transition, in a rite of care and attention. This is a dirty business, full of tears, despair, loss of self and loss of ground, adjustments, trial and error. Paying attention means listening to the situation; caring means getting your hands muddy (3). It is precisely in the excesses of mourning that possibilities for transgression exist, for escaping the imposed forms of the past: ‘Do you hear ghost calls? A teary lament for human existence, a shout out to the living to take more care of themselves, of the world, of each other.’
Let Poets Speak is Emma Talbot's (b. Stourbridge, UK, 1969) third solo exhibition at Galerie Onrust. As well as the monumental Ghost Calls, various drawings are also on display.
Talbot lives and works in London. Recent solo exhibitions have been at Kunsthaus Pasquart (2021); DCA, Dundee Contemporary Arts (2021); Eastside Projects (2020); and also Sounders of the Depths at the GEM in The Hague (2019). In 2020 Talbot won the eighth biennial Max Mara Art Prize for Women in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery. As the winner of the prize, Talbot spent six months on a residency in Italy, working on a solo exhibition first displayed at the Whitechapel Gallery and then at the Collezione Maramotti in Italy. Talbot's work has also been selected for the 59th Venice Biennale, in 2022: The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani.
Laura van Grinsven
Translation Laura Watkinson
(1) Donna Haraway (2016), Staying with the Trouble
(2)Braidotti (2013), The Posthuman
(3) Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2017), Matters of Care