Emma Talbot: The Age/L’Età at the Whitechapel Gallery review – a true visionary

·4-min read
Detail from The Trials by Emma Talbot  (Carlo Vannini)
Detail from The Trials by Emma Talbot (Carlo Vannini)

The heroine of the narrative that propels Emma Talbot’s Whitechapel installation was partly inspired by Gustav Klimt. His painting The Three Ages of Woman features an image of an elderly woman that Talbot has described as “inert, incapable and ashamed”, next to a younger woman and infant.

Talbot upends the Austrian artist’s patriarchal gaze. Her older woman – who we see in huge painted-silk hangings crossing the gallery, in a brilliant animation and in beautiful drawings – is a matriarch of wisdom and knowledge, power and agency. Faced with the ruins of a society driven by extraction, destruction and oppression, she seeks sustainability, care and freedom – a new, post-anthropocentric vision to tackle the climate emergency.

Talbot is the latest winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, which provides a six-month residency in Italy. It’s a relentlessly productive commission – Laure Prouvost and Helen Cammock are among the many previous winners who, like Talbot, have produced some of their best work as a result.

And she’s squeezed every drip of inspiration and knowledge she could from the residency. She went to see the Klimt in the flesh in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, where she also researched Etruscan pottery and the myths that are represented so beautifully on them. ​​In Sicily, she explored the science of the volcanic landscape and studied permaculture – a practical framework for living ecologically – on the slopes of Mount Etna. In Como, she learnt about practices for recycling silk, so that she could practice what she preached directly in the making of the work.

Amid the copious research, she happened upon a helpful coincidence: that there are 12 trials or labours of Hercules and 12 principles of permaculture. Mindful that myths like that of Hercules are reimagined and retold by different communities over time, Talbot has pondered what the word Herculean might mean today. And rather than the slaying, capturing and stealing of the original labours, her heroine employs the permaculture principles to challenge systems of control and question the “shitty Anthropocene”, as she describes it. Essentially, Hercules’s trials become metaphors for societal problems that can be solved through ethical and sustainable activism.

She addresses this most explicitly in a marvellous animation, formed from her exquisite drawings, and interspersed with text bubbles that explain her stories and call on us to take a stand: “Rise up and take action,” one bubble of text says. All the works share a language Talbot has honed over many years which fuse patterning, abstraction and lyrical figuration, punctuated with the bursts of writing. The wall hangings find the elderly woman journeying through two realms – one of ruins (including, in a neat touch, the columns that prop up the Whitechapel space she’s showing in); the other a volcanic landscape. The narrative, punctuated with those permaculture principles, reads almost like a screen, with abstract bands above and beneath. At the centre of the installation, her protagonist is rendered in a fabric sculpture (using modern, ethically produced fabric, of course) – poised, seemingly alert, before an abstracted form that might be an eye or a womb.

Each element of the show flows beautifully into the next. Talbot’s style is hugely distinctive: utterly contemporary, preoccupied with the here and now, yet clearly informed by ancient languages like the images on the Etruscan pots. She also makes me think of medieval illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels, and of William Blake. She addresses external realities yet this is clearly a landscape of thought, a poetic dialogue with herself, a philosophical journey. She’s a true visionary.

Alongside Talbot’s show this summer is the London Open, the Whitechapel’s periodic reflection on art being made now in London, often focusing on young, emerging or overlooked artists in the capital. The show wasn’t complete when I saw it, but the works I saw on a sneak preview suggest that we’re in a hugely dynamic moment in terms of art production in London.

Among the highlights are Mohammed Sami’s dark and disturbing near-abstract memories of his background in Iraq – intimations of trauma which the titles, House of Tears and Sunset, only enhance. Eloise Hawser shows lithographic plates – effectively the waste material from the printing of newspapers gathered over the course of a year during the pandemic – and stacks of newspapers set within a door frame. The plates are like ghostly traces of news stories, memory fading into the mists of time; the stacks and door are the opposite – an overload of information, a mental blockage.

Ami Clarke, meanwhile, shows a mindboggling installation looking at the pollutant plastic BPA. A CGI image of its molecular structure floats like a spaceship amid a constellation of glistening microplastics on a bank of screens, as live share information and news stories about BPA and the environment track along the bottom of the screens. In a VR piece, Clarke takes us into an imaginary City of London, inundated with water and built on banks of sand. It’s a post-apocalyptic vision of our metropolis ravaged by the climate emergency, where the pursuit of Mammon has left us only with a depopulated Offshore City, the tax haven at the end of the world.

Emma Talbot: The Age/L’Eta runs at the Whitechapel Gallery until September; whitechapel.org

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