Emma Talbot explores Greek myth and femininity at the Whitechapel Gallery
In The Age/L’Età, her Max Mara Art Prize exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, Emma Talbot envisions a reality where violence is countered by determination nurtured by an older female protagonist
The exhibition The Age/L’Età is the culmination of Emma Talbot’s six-month residency in Italy, made possible by the Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, after being awarded the eighth Max Mara Art Prize for Women in 2020.
First presented at the Whitechapel Gallery in London before traveling to Collezione Maramotti in October, her exploration delves into the violence of Greek mythology and the balance of permaculture and paganism. Her work leads us to question the “role of destruction in the foundations of patriarchy,” explains curator Laura Smith. During her stay in Italy, Talbot used knitted sculptures, animations of drawings, giant silkscreen images, and bewildering sound works to envision a world anchored in the wisdom of nature.
Emma Talbot: Max Mara Art Prize for Women, The exams2022. ruins2022. Installation images: © Damian Griffiths
Gustav Klimt’s The Three Ages of Woman, 1905, was the springboard for Talbot’s show. The painting, exhibited in 1911 during the International Exhibition in Rome organized on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Italian unification (Risorgimento), symbolizes the transition from tradition to modernity and the birth of a united state. Talbot was able to view the painting firsthand during their stay and imagined the elderly woman as emblematic of an old and “tired” Italy. In response, she redesigns the character as a savior in a post-apocalyptic pagan dystopia, rooting her actions in the 12 design principles of permaculture and a pagan respect for nature.
At first glance, the show comes across as overtly feminist and uncomfortable. The loud, humming noises convey a sense of uneasiness and the images seem complicated—but what more could one ask from such a wide-ranging practice? Spending a little time reading about the context of the exhibition sets the stage for Talbot’s imaginary world and is well worth the extra moments of effort. It is a rare pleasure to delve into such depth of thought, layer by layer.
Emma Talbot: Max Mara Art Prize for Women, volcanic landscape2022. Installation images: © Damian Griffiths
in the ruins and volcanic landscape, split across two screenprints, we follow the woman as she “tries to navigate the landscape of fractured history,” as Smith explains. Contrasting the serene with the brutal, the tapestries hanging from the ceiling of the Whitechapel Gallery depict the woman in various forms; Caring for injured animals, she is a 12-membered figure bustling about swirling backgrounds and peering into cracks in her universe. The tone in the speech bubbles dotted across the images ranges from advice that “life is a transformational process, move on, learn and adapt” to vehement calls to “use our excitement to stand up and shut up.” to survive”. Showing the woman questioning the way the world works, the pieces present a fusion of thoughts that unite us in shared moments of meditation.
The woman’s facelessness is important; It allows the character to represent a universal “self” and promotes understanding. In the 25-minute animation The exams, we see the older woman’s answer to the mythical Twelve Labors of Hercules. Smith explains that Talbot doesn’t commit to conversations about femininity, touching on “epic themes surrounding feminism, age positivity and climate catastrophe.” Rather, she speculates on an alternative history of strength in which matriarchal wisdom triumphs over violence. The charmingly awkward stop-start video shows the woman redirecting the power The Lernean Hydra to more productive means, confidence-building and reassuring The Nemean Lion and live together peacefully The Cretan Bull. She uses patience and empathy to solve problems that Hercules famously botched by force. She draws dystopian parallels between myths and modern problems, thereby questioning our role in change. The animations are also sprinkled with text, telling the story incoherently in questions like “are you yelling, is your anger contained?” and reminding us that “your power comes from within.”
Emma Talbot: Max Mara Art Prize for Women, The Age/L’Etá2022. Installation images: © Damian Griffiths
In her media, Talbot offers finely orchestrated concepts that gently collide, leading us to question truths about contemporary Western society. The title work of the show, The Age/L’EtàShe stands proudly in the middle of the room, the elderly woman in full form. Her skin is made from recycled fibers and acts like a muscular armor, her long silver hair frames dark, sparkling eyes that are reflected in the portal before her. Talbot refers to her sculptures as “3D drawings”, they project a dreamlike alien reality, and together with the overwhelming and indistinct sound playing through the space, the show is disordered, allowing for exploration between works and making you jump every point to put everything together.
Overall, The Age/L’Età is a reminder to think. Here we can reflect on Talbot’s fabricated universe, question our inner compass, find solace in the solution and consider “how will you survive in this climate?”. §
Emma Talbot: Max Mara Art Prize for Women, Ruins, 2022. Installation images: © Damian Griffiths