2022 was an intense year for Emma Talbot, with the participation in the 59th Venice Biennale a special project for Frieze Art Fair, and two exhibitions in London and Reggio Emilia.
After the forced stop of the pandemic, the British artist traveled through Italy thanks to the collaboration between the Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, that promotes the work of female artists by enabling them to develop their practice through six-monthly residencies.
Talbot deepened her knowledge of the great Italian textile tradition in Reggio Emilia, explored historical sites and classical mythology in Rome and learned the principles of permaculture in Sicily. These experiences converged in the exhibition at the Collezione Maramotti which includes sculpture, animation, and painting on fabric in the artist’s ornate and colourful signature style, and tells the story of an elderly heroine and her challenges for the future.
Emma Talbot : The Age/L’Età, 2022 – exhibition view, Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia | Ph. Dario Lasagni.
The protagonist of your exhibition was inspired by Gustav Klimt‘s painting The Three Ages of Women, purchased in 1911 by the Italian State to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Unification of Italy. This specific context made you reflect on how it was chosen to interpret the idea of a modern nation: a young woman holding a child next to an elderly woman in a bashful attitude. Can you please briefly explain your thoughts?
Emma Talbot: The painting was interesting to me on a subjective level, in relation to a kind of connection I felt with the elderly woman and as a protagonist for my work – but when I realized it had been acquired to celebrate 50 years of the Unification of Italy, it seemed to be more current and to attach my project to the contemporary situation – because ideas of nation are resurgent in contemporary politics.
The idea of the painting representing a modern nation made me read the young woman holding the baby as an emergent model of a new nation and the elderly woman as representative of old values that were being suppressed, by making them seem shameful. I thought it was interesting that today these older values (such as relationships to the earth, to the cycles of nature, superstitions, old wives’ tales etc) are gaining renewed interest because we’re turning to ancient practices to build sustainable futures.
I think there’s a tension in the painting between the figures and what they might represent, that mirrors tensions that exist in contemporary politics.
Emma Talbot in her studio in Reggio Emilia, 2022 | Ph. Bruno Cattani – Fotosuperstudio.
You empower your character by making her undergo the twelve labors of the mythological hero Hercules. The elderly woman overturns this myth, exemplary of how systems of patriarchal power have been handed down in history through classical culture and myth. How does your character approach her challenges instead?
Emma Talbot: I wanted to liberate the elderly woman from her role (in the painting) as redundant, shameful and weak, and make her into a protagonist in a narrative where she had the most agency. I wanted her to be a kind of survivor who built a viable, sustainable future, based on the principles of permaculture. But I realized that, in order to really change things, she would have to dismantle and rebuild power structures.
Classical myths have long been used as metaphors for Western power. The trials of Hercules were an ideal power story that I could retell. Especially as I noticed that they were all resolved through acts of aggression – killing, capture, theft, trickery that had short term results.
I thought that if an elderly woman was faced with the same challenges, she would resolve them very differently, through commensalism or mutualism, sharing, kindness – to produce more considered outcomes. I used each trial as a metaphor for a contemporary problem, addressing issues such as the energy crisis, migration, sexism, freedom, women’s reproductive rights, capitalism, globalism etc and offered ideas about how power could be put to different uses.
Emma Talbot in her studio in Reggio Emilia, 2022 | Ph. Bruno Cattani – Fotosuperstudio
Which were the key moments of your Italian residence, potential turning points in your art practice both in terms of new ideas and of expanding your technical knowledge? And the moments or encounters that moved you the most from an aesthetic/emotional viewpoint?
Emma Talbot: I spent some time learning machine knitting and working with a digital knit company to develop knitted surfaces for my 3-D work, which was quite transformational, in terms of the breadth of potential to extend this part of my practice. I also started using recycled silk as a surface to paint on which was very exciting, and the research I did with Italian silk producers was fascinating.
The residency was so full and rich, it’s hard to narrow it down to singular moments, but the time spent on a permaculture site on Mount Etna, Sicily, was quite mind blowing. When I found out there were 12 key principles in permaculture, it seemed incredibly apposite.
The ruins of the Temple of Hercules in the Valley of Temples at Agrigento were a real highlight and researching imagery of Hercules on Etruscan pots in the Villa Giulia in Rome was a fabulous experience.
Throughout my residency I learned Italian and I’m still doing lessons. I think being able to communicate and understand and participate in life in Italy made me really love the residency, and I made some great friends.
Emma Talbot : The Age/L’Età, 2022 – exhibition view Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia | Ph. Dario Lasagni
Besides your long-standing engagement with feminism, did your personal story of artistic resilience and reward in the face of adversities have an impact on your choice of this subject matter? You often speak of your faceless, fluid characters as your avatars.
Emma Talbot: The figure is always a projection of myself, but from inside – seen in the mind’s eye – exploring ideas, trying to find things out. The facelessness is two-fold – from our viewpoint, looking out at the world, we can’t see our own faces, except in a reflection. The space of the face is like an open portal. But the faceless figure in the work can also act as an avatar, in that hopefully others can project onto it.
I think it acts like the ‘I’ in a text written in the first person, where people who encounter my work get to hear the thoughts and experience the emotions of someone that carries a non-linear narrative. The starting point for any of my work is always subjective, something I’m personally attached to as an idea, that gets extended through research to connect to wider contemporary issues. So, the work tracks my emotional life as well as my time in the world.
Emma Talbot, 21st Century Herbal _ Frieze London 2022| Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy Linda Nylind and Frieze.
21st Century Herbal, the special project you recently presented for the entrance of Frieze London 2022, was inspired by the healing properties of plants and by old manuscripts. Was this work perhaps also partly inspired by your Italian residence and your experience with permaculture in Sicily?
Emma Talbot: Yes, definitely. I was really interested to find out what different plants were used for, and how, on the Permaculture site. The area closest to the house was for plants that were useful to eat, for cleaning and for medicinal purposes. The ‘21st Century Herbal’ was an extension of this idea, describing and explaining the amazing and magical properties in well-known plants, both curative and hallucinogenic.
At the centre of the piece was a reference to Richard Buckminster- Fuller’s idea of spaceship earth – that nature provided us with everything we needed to survive. The work advocates for the protection of the natural world, and also for us to see ourselves as a part of the natural world, rather than alien from it.
Emma Talbot: detail of Volcanic Landscape, 2022 acrilico su seta | Courtesy the artist, Ph. Carlo Vannini.
In a talk on the occasion of your participation in The Milk of Dreams, the 59th Venice Biennale, you highlighted some parallels between your art and surrealism as practiced by female artists. For instance, the importance of myth and transformation, drawing as a form of ‘lucid dreaming’ and references to the unconscious. Beyond surrealism, who were the artists, movements or historical periods that you looked at most during your artistic formation?
Emma Talbot: As an artist, I’m interested in all kinds of art. I’m fascinated by pre-renaissance painting because I like the stylized way stories are told and the inventive ways that space is described (for example you can see outside and inside simultaneously) and the way the fantastical sits with the everyday. I go in and out of having particular enthusiasms, but I guess Gauguin, Klimt, Carol Rama, Sassetta, Bosch, Utamaro, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi are artists I have been looking at forever that I still get excited about, everytime I revisit their work.
Emma Talbot: detail of Ruins, 2022 -acrylic on silk | Courtesy the artist Ph .Carlo Vannini
Ph. Carlo Vannini
How did your landmark inclusion of text bubbles come about?
Emma Talbot: I wanted my work to reflect what thinking is like – a multilayered combination of sensory, pictorial and linguistic. I wanted to be able to use writing in the images, because I like writing and words almost as much as I like drawing images. Some ideas are better as words, some can only be images and I use evocative patterns and colours that also convey meaning.
They all interrelate, but the words in my work don’t describe the images like illustrations. The words are almost like a voice-over, a thinking voice. I wanted to use a font that was neutral and more stylized than handwriting, but still autographic. I wanted to be able to write, but just as brief, almost poetic phrases that don’t have to be read in any order. Using text ‘bubbles’ lets the words sit within the painted space, rather than alongside or as a header or footer.
What are the values that mostly matter to you, and which fundamental questions about our immediate present would you like to pass on in the near future?
Emma Talbot: Our main concerns right now are fundamental – because our survival depends on them. I’m thinking about ecology, our attitudes to nature and structures of power. We need to urgently re-order how we do things to have a hope of continuing in the future in a hospitable world. The power dynamics at play at the moment are so exaggerated and inequal, my work advocates for principles of permaculture like fair share and care for others and the world – these aren’t utopic or naïve desires, they’re urgent and important.
Emma Talbot in her studio in Reggio Emilia, 2022 | Ph. Bruno Cattani – Fotosuperstudio.
You now have a studio in Reggio Emilia. Will we see you again soon in Italy?
Emma Talbot: Yes! I absolutely fell in love with life in Italy, and I love making my work here. I’m going through the process of applying for residency at the moment. No thanks to Brexit, it’s not easy – but I really hope to stay.