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Issue 221

Emma Talbot’s ‘Ghost Calls’ Finds Beauty in Grief

The artist’s new show at Dundee Contemporary Arts explores the intense physicality of collective sorrow through the body as landscape

BY Tom Jeffreys in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 07 JUN 21

‘It is not a first-person statement, not ego, but a moan of grief, gathered and gathering.’ This sentence, near the end of So Mayer’s ‘Listen to the State of Us’ – a sinuous, splintering, urgently beautiful text commissioned to accompany ‘Ghost Calls’, Emma Talbot’s first solo exhibition in Scotland – refers to the preceding line, a torrential cry of vowels: ‘Aiaiai’. Might Mayer’s description refer to Talbot’s work, too?

Published in a slim volume that also includes poetry by Helen Charman and an interview between Talbot and curator Eoin Dara, Mayer’s text articulates the intense physicality of grief through an experience of collectivity understood not only as a gathering of individuals, but as a precondition upon which individuality is even possible.

emma talbot ghost calls
Emma Talbot, 'Ghost Calls', 2021, installation view at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Courtesy: the artist and Dundee Contemporary Arts; photograph: Ruth Clark

Talbot’s work is often characterized by a focus on interior narratives and the memories and emotions of individuals. Informed by feminist theory and psychoanalysis, her multidisciplinary practice frequently intertwines text and image. In works such as Illusions Shattered (2013), melancholic women – mostly white, often faceless – struggle to navigate oppressive, enigmatic worlds. But Talbot’s shadows are lush; she paints with the ear of a novelist.

Since winning the Max Mara Art Prize for Women in 2020, Talbot has spoken of broadening her narrative range. ‘Ghost Calls’ is interested in collective mourning. ‘Let poets speak. Listen in to voices you never heard before,’ we’re urged in Keening Songs (all works 2021), an animation whose mournful music fills the gallery.

Talbot has borrowed from John Duncan’s Celtic Revival painting, The Riders of the Sidhe (1911), in the collection of Dundee's McManus museum, and from the ancient Celtic tradition of ‘keening’: lamentations by professional mourners, often women. Taking an unspecified ‘crash’ as a narrative starting point, the exhibition responds both to the ongoing pandemic and to the multivalent violences of extractive capitalism and ecological collapse.

emma talbot ghost calls
Emma Talbot, 'Ghost Calls', 2021, installation view at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Courtesy: the artist and Dundee Contemporary Arts; photograph: Ruth Clark

The apocalypse is established immediately: four panels of painted silk form a rectangle, hung from the high gallery ceiling (A Crash in Fast and Slow Motion). Spiralling out from a juddering vortex tumble multiple, white-limbed girl-spirits accompanied by snippets of thought or speech. Around the walls are a dozen or so paintings, mostly watercolour on cotton rag paper. In Dreaming Woman, a girl’s hair entwines with – almost becomes – the storm-buffeted branches of an adjacent tree. The exhibition also includes mixed-media sculptures in which Talbot’s girl-spirits traverse landscapes of plush, velveteen or iridescent dreaminess. In Mirrored Landscape, soft fabric leaves have fallen to the surface of a reflective river and I wonder if this is a cause for mourning or for joy.

Cutting diagonally through the centre of the gallery is the titular Ghost Calls: a multi-panel piece, dense with sinuous organic forms and girl-spirits whirling across landscapes – skimming the sky like clouds, dipping a single finger into a rippling pool of red and gold. The body becomes landscape becomes body: a cave is an open mouth; skin is tree bark. There is one vast face, reminiscent of the white-haired giantess in artist Jesse Jones's video Tremble Tremble (2017). Talbot’s colour palette is lush, fin-de-siècle: ochre and amethyst, silver and jade. There is a medieval exuberance to the work – synchronic, a storyboard for a film in which everything happens at once. Sprinkled texts say things like: ‘Reaching beyond the surface to find meaning.’ But this is painted silk: there is no ‘beyond’, only a behind that shows everything in reverse, text included. I’m reminded of William Blake’s mirror-written epigraph to Milton (1804–10): ‘Contraries are Positives / A Negation is not a Contrary.’

Is ‘Ghost Calls’ a place where, like Blake's epigraph, ‘Contraries are equally True’? Those old inverted opposites remain apt: Talbot moves back and forth between interior and exterior, self and world, but the binaries remain. The work depicts a collective, but it does not embody the kind of expansive multiplicity that I hear beckoning now.

Emma Talbot's 'Ghost Calls' is on view at Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, until 8 August. 

Main image: Emma Talbot, 'Ghost Calls', 2021, installation view at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Courtesy: the artist and Dundee Contemporary Arts; photograph: Ruth Clark

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).