View of “Emma Talbot,” 2021. Foreground: Mirrored Landscape, 2020. Background, right: Weeping Willow, 2020. Photo: Ruth Clark.

View of “Emma Talbot,” 2021. Foreground: Mirrored Landscape, 2020. Background, right: Weeping Willow, 2020. Photo: Ruth Clark.

Emma Talbot

Emma Talbot’s new work is haunted, filled with repeated figures rendered in concise black lines, their faces either blank or hidden by a wave of hair. Across painted silk hangings, drawings, a video, and textile sculptures, they acted both as avatars for the artist and as collectives of keeners—groups of women performing lamentations for the dead—while replication endowed them with an uncanny revenant-like quality in their own right. Talbot’s fascination with the mourning ritual of keening grew out of her research into Celtic history, and in preparing for “Ghost Calls” at Dundee Contemporary Arts she was particularly struck by early-twentieth-century Celtic Revival paintings and murals in the nearby McManus Art Gallery and Museum. Visitors to the show were invited to follow these figures as they traversed watery and wooded landscapes, rendered with jewel tones and intricate interlacing patterns like those of medieval manuscripts. The women shook their hair and clawed the air with their hands in a series of small drawings—and morphed into three dimensions through fabric constructions of beads and iridescent fabric. But their most ambitious journeys occurred over two large acrylic-on-silk banners, Ghost Calls and A Crash in Fast and Slow Motion (all works 2020), that filled the brightly lit exhibition space and swayed gently in the breeze, as well as in the hand-drawn animation Keening Songs.

The banners merge the epic scale and materiality of tapestries with the frame-by-frame storytelling of comic strips, combining images of the keeners and their surroundings with bubbles of text that urge collective memorialization and grieving. But it is in Keening Songs that this feminist chorus assumes its most powerful expression; the medium of video enables Talbot to bring her drawings to life and give voice to her creations through an ululating soundtrack. The artist’s movement into animation was a direct result of lockdown: Unable to go to her studio, Talbot found herself with the time to learn this new mode of expression. Claustrophobia seeps into the pores of Keening Songs, and it was the only moment in the exhibition where Talbot’s visual vocabulary became explicitly contemporary, with drawings of urban brick walls and screenshots of calendar and spreadsheet apps interrupting the otherworldly dreamscapes.

It’s unsurprising that “Ghost Calls,” with a body of work made primarily between May and October 2020, was fundamentally shaped by the pandemic, or that the events of the past year were the most immediate focus of its exhortations to remembrance and communal grieving. Yet Talbot does not treat the multiple crises caused by Covid-19 as a sudden eruption, but rather as the most recent expression of ingrained structural inequalities and violence. Off the main gallery, a small room contained two text works, The Sound of a Crash, Silent and The Smashed World: sheets of paper with handwritten phrases and questions, among them DO YOU DETECT . . . THE 20TH CENTURY RAPPING ON THE WALLS, that are in inverse proportion to their size. In a book produced to accompany the exhibition, a sci-fi fantasy text by So Mayer embeds the exhibition’s concerns within the long histories of colonization and imperialism, while Talbot herself points to the deep roots of the ecocide now roiling in waves across the planet.

By creating avatars of herself, Talbot speaks to the current atmosphere of atomization while making a powerful case for the importance of the individual imagination and the construction of inner worlds to process grief. But the proliferation of these figures to form a collective also constitutes a call to make ourselves multiple, to weave our voices with those of others. The shared cultures of mourning and support that Talbot achieves through her keeners, and via the interlocutory declarations that recur in speech bubbles throughout her work, feel cathartic: YOU TRAVEL IN YOUR OWN STORM; LET’S USE THE TIME WE HAVE TOGETHER, EMBRACING A FORWARD MOVEMENT WITHOUT FEAR.