As we pass the halfway point of Emma Talbot‘s CIRCA-commissioned animation at The Piccadilly lights, Four Visions for a Hopeful Future, we visit the artist in her studio, reflecting on the ideas that bring her work to life and the sentiments that she holds dear.
Spring officially commences on 20th March. Can you tell us what this month means to you and how this season relates to your new commission?
March is significant, because spring heralds new growth, what seems dead comes back to life. In our case, hopefully spring will bring some kind of hope for the future, for life being less restricted. I liked the idea that the month when Spring begins could be the timescale for these animated ‘visions’ of reshaping and re-imagining the future.
The World Health Organisation officially declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a year ago today (11th March). Can you recall some of your memories or thoughts during that time?
I was getting ready to go on my Max Mara Prize residency and quickly began to realise how impossible that looked. The seriousness of the pandemic hit hard – apart from the threat of getting the virus (I got pneumonia at the end of March, so was shielding) all my plans for the year had to be postponed and I had to reconfigure how and where I was working and how to survive financially. Thankfully, I got an AN/Freelands Foundation grant which was a huge relief. Significantly, the impasse of lockdown also gave me space to teach myself to make animations from scratch, something I’d never done before, because I hadn’t had the time.
We’ve been locked inside for much of this year. Has your typical day changed and if so, how?
Absolutely. I was always on the go before, I hardly ever spent time at home. I moved about in the city all the time and was often travelling to mainland Europe. This last year, I’ve had to grow to love my home and staying in one place. Like everyone, I’m itching to go out more, to visit more diverse places than just my local area. My studio is only a short bike ride away so it’s very convenient, but I miss a bit more adventurous distance! The lack of contact with others is also totally unusual. I’m very good at being by myself but I now think fondly of irl openings and events and social meet ups.
Do you have any memories of the Piccadilly Circus? And what does the location mean to you for this commission?
When I was a kid, I remember lying in the back of our estate car at night looking out at the lights in the city as we drove through the centre, and the excitement of going past Piccadilly Circus. It’s a place I’ve known all my life. There’s something very special to me about seeing my animations on such a scale, in a setting that is so iconic. But even more significant at this point in time, somehow – because this artwork, that is so much about our times, will be present outside and visible when it has been impossible to share art in interior spaces.
Do you have a life motto, or words to live by? And if so, what are they?
Your work beautifully and very magically blends past, present and future, for example placing primordial like forms and figures into seemingly modern scenes. Time is rarely fixed in your works. How does this relate to your understanding of our contemporary moment?
The contemporary moment is always shifting, it isn’t fixed. In the last year, more than ever, we’ve seen how volatile and precarious things can be. Our continuum is the thoughts in our minds, narrating our experiences, consciously and unconsciously. Time is elastic. I’m interested in the ways the past can offer forgotten knowledge and how the future is projected.
This is going to be a difficult period for artists. What obstacles have you overcome? What advice do you have for younger artists that are looking up to you this month?
I brought up two sons as a single parent after my husband died, from when they were 6 and 7.
Balancing working to support us financially with being a present, supportive parent and trying to remember what everyone needed day to day, as well as trying to keep going as an artist, was really challenging. Especially when we were all grieving. For me, figuring out how making art could become a refuge and a means to really articulate my thinking was fundamental. However tough life is, art can be a really valuable space for exploring thinking, even with very little means.
Animation is a relatively new self taught medium for you, since you’ve been unable to work in your studio during lockdown. Do you miss painting? And how has this medium developed your practice?
I didn’t paint in the first lockdown, but after spending a long time working from home, animating on a screen, I was very happy to make some large, physical work (painting and 3D forms) for my show, Ghost Calls, at DCA, Dundee. I like to move between media, it gives me a sense of freedom, and stops me getting bogged down in one thing. Animation has been an amazing extension of my practice. I see it as a way of walking around in the world of my drawings and paintings. The combination of image, text and sound is a very good way of articulating my ideas, and I like the way it interfaces with the other materialities in my work.
Your work often explores what makes us human, and how we engage with intimacy via hand-held technology. What is it that interests you about this?
The speed of technological developments is a crucial part of the world we live in. My interest is the human experience and I found it interesting how much emotional energy we invest into our devices. I couldn’t help thinking that self-regard and emotional interplay were clever ways of seducing humans into an ever-greater dependency on technology. Last year, I made a large installation for Eastside Projects in Birmingham, called When Screens Break. It imagined the way we would be drawn into virtual worlds once our physical world became too unstable and described the ways we were being seduced to comply with AI. My recent work has been underpinned by a common theme – that of being under the spell of advanced capitalism and wondering if anything will break the spell.
Are there any young artists you are excited about right now?
Of course. I’ve been teaching at the Royal College of Art and see the work of a lot of exciting young artists, such as recent graduates Xiuching Tsay, Olivia Sterling and Emily Moore.
I’ve also been interested in work by Candice Nembhard, Seema Mattu, Sarah Cockings/Harriet Fleuriot and Anna Perach.
What did you take away from 2020 and what do you hope for 2021?
2020 was a rollercoaster, I learned to be more patient and to slow the pace at times and I learned to use a lot of software to make animations! I was reminded that even the most unwanted changes can produce new, positive approaches. I saw how much people working in the arts believe in what they do. I hope 2021 can carry the forward-thinking changes that need to happen and we don’t collapse back into redundant old ways. After postponing for a year, I am ready for the adventure of the Max Mara Prize residency in Italy in 2021 and being open to lot of new experiences.
What question would you like to ask the reader?
How shall we make a hopeful future?
Emma Talbot is the 8th winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, a biannual prize that supports female artists based in the UK, enabling them to develop their potential with the gift of time and space. Find out more about Emma’s winning proposal for the prize here.