Emma Talbot was announced as the winner of the 8th Edition Max Mara Art Prize for Women back in March 2020, with the prize of a six-month residency to three Italian cities set to take place later that year. But with a delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was only in June this year that Talbot undertook the first leg of the trip to Reggio Emilia, the northern Italian city which is also home to prize co-host (with London’s Whitechapel Gallery) Collezione Maramotti.
During the second part of her residency, in the Sicilian city of Catania, she spoke to Laura Davidson about how the trip has afforded her time to think through wider themes in her work, about how we use knowledge from the past to build a more sustainable future, and what she has planned for part three of the residency in the Italian capital, Rome.
What is it like to win the Max Mara Art Prize for Women?
The really amazing thing about the residency and the prize is that you make a project proposal and work with Collezione Maramotti to make a programme to visit everything you want to see. When I won the prize, the idea of having all that time to concentrate on my work was incredible. It will keep informing me for a long time. It’s a real privilege as an artist to have that amount of input into your practice; to be given time to really reflect, make something and show it. It’s perfect.
Where does your project begin?
The Three Ages of Women by Gustav Klimt, bought to celebrate 50 years of the reunification of Italy. In the painting there is an elderly woman standing with her head in her hands, as if she is ashamed, next to a young woman with a baby. I wanted to take this elderly female figure and make her the protagonist. We could look at her as a survivor in the future. The older woman is representative of old practices, superstitions and belief systems and I thought this is what we are turning to now, to make our future.
My project proposes to make a narrative installation where this woman goes into the future and builds a sustainable way of living. She travels into the past and tries to reorder power structures by performing the Twelve Labours of Heracles. Hercules did them by acts of aggression, but I thought she would consider those tasks differently.
The first block of the residency was in Reggio Emilia and I was learning to use knitting machines for my 3D work. I visited different fashion house archives such as Missioni, Ferragamo, and Max Mara, of course. You don’t only find their own brand archive, you also find incredible collections of clothing.
What are you learning from these archives? These fashion houses seem very industrial in contrast to your work.
You’re right, but I think that my project is quite layered, it has a narrative to it and it’s been a chance to look at the materials I use in my own practice. I was looking at ways of using sustainable materials in my own practice. Looking at those archives meant that I could investigate things like the history of silk production because I paint on silk. I looked at contemporary companies who use recycled silk and began to look at the materiality of my work.
What has brought you to Sicily for the second part of the residency?
Sicily is an island of its own that has a really layered history. There are lots of ancient sites here and they interest me when I think about this woman who crosses time and goes into the future. I did this amazing trek to Mount Etna. With the pandemic and the visible effects of climate change, we are seeing evidence of systems breaking down that are not tenable anymore, so we are forced to think about what the future might hold. I was thinking about this woman being in a volcanic, disrupted landscape as a metaphor for the times we are living in.
I stayed on a permaculture site at the base of Etna because I thought this woman would live by the principles of permaculture in the future. Permaculture is very different from the type of post-industrial labour we are living through, it has a different speed of thinking. Permaculture has twelve principles, for example: what you can’t use, you redistribute. You try to conserve energy by doing more than one task at once. In permaculture, you plant different plants together, so they support one another and more nutrients build up in the earth. Another principle is about how things take time and making a mistake teaches you something. They are quite philosophical.
It sounds like art making – is that true?
One of the principles is about observing and reflecting, and artists do that all the time. The family I stayed with, live by these general principles, but it is not a doctrine. I kept thinking, everything they do is just like being an artist. They repair their homes, and it becomes like an art work. They look at the landscape, and it becomes like a studio. It really is that kind of space. They have a network of people they share materials and knowledge with. In a way, I think that artists are quite good at making use of things that otherwise go to waste.
What are you planning to do in Rome?
This is where I will be investigating the Twelve Labours of Heracles by looking at imagery of Hercules on Etruscan pottery. I love Etruscan imagery. I will be working quite closely with the Director of the Etruscan Museum to do this. From Rome I will visit different places like Pompeii and Naples.
What else have you been thinking about?
I was a bit concerned about ‘what does art do?’ a couple of years ago and at the beginning of the first Covid-19 lockdown. I read Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour and Donna Harraway. I kept coming across the same insistence from these thinkers that storytelling is important. It might sound like storytelling is a soft thing, but they made me think that narrative has a function to make ideas move out into the world. Artists want our work to go out into the world and have a communicative effect. They reassured me that narrative still has that function.
Emma Talbot’s Max Mara Art Prize for Women exhibition will take place at Whitechapel Gallery, London during summer 2022, and tour to Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, Italy, later that year.
Emma Talbot, portrait in the artist’s studio pictured with When Screens Break, 2020. Photo: Thierry Bal