Bulbous ceramic jugs hang upside down in the darkened Whitechapel Gallery. Sickly yellow light pours from each, casting cartoonish speech-bubble shaped shadows across the floor and walls.

‘They're not just jugs – they are decapitated heads, chopped open below the nose,’ says their creator, Emma Hart – the sixth recipient of the biennial Max Mara Art Prize for Women. This pioneering award, in collaboration with Whitechapel Gallery and Collezione Maramotti, offers a female artist the luxury of time, space and funding to create a significant body of work.

Hart used the six month, bespoke residency offered by the Prize to travel around Italy. Joined by her young daughter and partner, Hart immersed herself in Italian culture, meeting with artists in Milan, ceramicists in Faenza and researchers in Rome.

Installation view of 'Mamma Mia!,' by Emma Hart. Photography: Thierry Bal

Issues surrounding family dynamics preoccupied Hart on her travels, reflected in the finished work, which she refers to as ‘a family of jugs’. Each is interconnected in literal ‘family ties’ by reems of red rope, curled around the ceiling beams.

Notably, Hart observed family therapy sessions while she was in Milan. Shadowing psychotherapist Matteo Selvini, she learnt about the Milan Systems Approach – a constructivist method of therapy, that emphasises the importance (and power) of non-verbal communication.

And so the skulls are mouthless; their colourful ‘brains’ fall out of their open, gaping necks, with no lips to speak of. Their stark black and white exterior walls conceal vibrant underbellys. ‘The interior patterns reflect my state of mind while I was in Italy, and the things that I saw,’ Hart explains. ‘One design features a green lady. She might be me, I don’t know. She’s trapped in a jealousy plant and she can’t get out. She’s constantly looking over her shoulder to see the person next to her.’

Thumbs Up Thumbs Down, 2017. © Emma Hart

Another sees a tessellation of heads, each crying speech-bubble shaped tears. A third pattern features a tangle of arms with their thumbs up or down, depending on which way you look at it. It's the first time Hart has attempted illustration, and the drawings’ childlike nature belies their ulterior, difficult subject matter.

More grown-up, violent symbology comes courtesy of the swinging ‘cutlery’ ceiling fans, that skim dangerously close to the base of the skulls. Each rung features a knife, fork or spoon, flinging elongated shadows across the floor. The flying cutlery recalls tea-time traumas, and tantrums around the kitchen table.

It's uncomfortable viewing. Many gallery-goers skirt the edges of the installation, hesitant to walk into the jugs’ bright spotlights; or scared to be clonked by a swinging spoon. ‘Awkwardness has been an ongoing theme in my work,’ Hart says. ‘By using the light in this way, I was really trying to think of how the sculptures could affect a viewer. There’s trepidation when you’re forced to step into its projection. The light shouts on you, it spits on you – or it just talks to you. You choose.’

RELATED TOPICS: SCULPTURE, CERAMICS, MAX MARA, ART PRIZES AND AWARDS, LONDON EXHIBITIONS