Emma Talbot on optimism, feminism and reconfiguring the roots of power

Emma Talbot on optimism, feminism and reconfiguring the roots of power

The British artist and winner of the eighth Max Mara Art Prize for Women illuminates Piccadilly Circus with optimism and confronts perceived shame around female ageing

The work of Emma Talbot is part art, part poetry. Much of her ideas are autobiographical, yet also confront some of society’s most pertinent structural issues, from gender inequality to environmental collapse. Her work eschews pessimism and cynicism in favour of hope, a timely sentiment as spring emerges and the world begins to recalibrate in response to one of the bleakest periods in recorded history. 

Coinciding with International Women’s Day earlier this month, Talbot became the latest Circa artist, staging work on London’s iconic Piccadilly Lights screen following projects by the likes of Patti Smith and Ai Weiwei

Artist Emma Talbot (wearing Max Mara) at the first screening for her CIRCA commission in Piccadilly Circus
Emma Talbot (in Max Mara) at the first screening for her CIRCA commission in Piccadilly Circus. © Alastair Fyfe 

For the commission, Talbot created four animated films in collaboration with Whitechapel Gallery, Collezione Maramotti and the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. Titled Four Visions for a Hopeful Future, the films follow a woman at the gateway between an old and new world. Mirroring the year, the screens light up with Talbot’s work at 20:21 each evening, disrupting the usual advertising on a rolling four-night schedule throughout March. ‘I really wanted to make some work that spoke of our times, to narrate the extraordinary zeitgeist,’ she tells Wallpaper*. ‘In lockdown, I’d been struck by the way a lot of contemporary thinkers (e.g. Valarie Kaur, Rebecca Solnit, Isabelle Stengers, Starhawk) were articulating the need to take time to reconfigure the ways we act, to build a more equal, considerate, sustainable, responsible, caring future.’ 

Talbot’s influences for the piece are wide-ranging – from Arundhati Roy’s article, The Pandemic is a Portal to the work of medieval visionary Hildegard von Bingen. Her work is anchored in the here and now, observing the bleakness of recent times, while also harnessing the transformative and cathartic power of springtime. The films, comprising hand-drawn landscapes of dreamlike natural beauty, rich with floral and bodily forms. ‘The four animations come at the subject from different perspectives – they ask various questions; what a city is, how have power structures have been constructed, how powerful can communities be, what voices get heard, how can we connect with nature,’ says Talbot, who taught herself how to translate her drawings into animation during the first lockdown. 

Max Mara Prize for Women winner Emma Talbot, still from A Year of Dark Shadows for CIRCA
Still from What is a City? by Emma Talbot, winner of the Max Mara prize for women
Above: Emma Talbot, still from A Year of Dark Shadows. Below: Still from What is a City?  Both animations 2021. Courtesy the artist and CIRCA

Last year, Talbot became the recipient of the eighth Mara Art Prize for Women, a biannual award established in 2005 in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery. As the sole visual art prize for women in the UK, it aims to promote and nurture female artists who are yet to receive a major solo exhibition. Talbot’s winning proposal focused on the perceived shame attached to female ageing, a feminist response to Gustav Klimt’s painting The Three Ages of Woman (1905). Klimt’s work depicts a baby, a young woman and a nude elderly woman seemingly stooped in shame. ‘I was fascinated by the painting on a personal level, thinking about the ways ageing is considered negatively, but I also had a sense there was more to the subject,’ Talbot explains. 

In response, Talbot will turn the concept on its head, reframing the woman as someone with agency. ‘The elderly woman will be a future survivor, who learns permaculture and sustainable living, relearning ancient practices and she will go back to the past and reconfigure the roots of power. To do this, she will perform the twelve trials of Hercules. Instead of resolving the tasks by killing, capture, theft and trickery, as Hercules did, I imagine the wise elderly woman would use more considered, benevolent means, such as commensalism and mutualism.’ 

Animation A Year of Dark Shadows by Emma Talbot, now on view in Piccadilly Circus
Chorus animation by Max Mara prize for Women winner Emma Talbot
Above: Emma Talbot, still from A Year of Dark Shadows. Below: still from Chorus. Both animations 2021. Courtesy the artist and CIRCA

When travel restrictions permit, Talbot will embark on a six-month residency organised by Collezione Maramotti. On her trip, she plans to research Etruscan pottery depicting the Herculean myths in Rome, visit permaculture sites and the ruins of the Temple of Hercules in Sicily, and explore the history of hand-painted silk in Italian fashion houses and learn intarsia knitting in Reggio Emilia. This will result in a new body of work to be shown first at Whitechapel Gallery and then at the Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, Italy in 2022. §


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