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Emma Talbot: Searching for the Future

Written by Charlie Colville


Emma Talbot, still from What is a City? CIRCA 2021


Golden vines grow from the remnants of a rotting city. In Emma Talbot’s Four Visions of a Hopeful Future, these landscapes become a metaphor for the collapse of a society we once depended on. Will coming together as a community be enough to help us see a future beyond today’s uncertain times?

Marking their sixth month promoting global artists on the Piccadilly Lights, CIRCA continues to facilitate the overlap of public space and the art world. This March commemorates the one-year anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown, encouraging many of us to look back on how we have changed as a society in this short time. With the approach of a post-COVID society looming, the question remains: How shall we make a hopeful future?

Created last year as a means of reconnecting the public with art and exhibitions during the pandemic, CIRCA allows for artists to showcase their work in the form of a two-minute video on the Piccadilly Lights, one of London’s most famous landmarks. Every month will see a different artist take to the screen, showcasing videos that expand on their practice and the messages they want to convey to the public.

CIRCA’s videos will be shown at 20:21 GMT every night, breaking the usual stream of commercials and advertisements and creating a live exhibition experience. For those unable to make it to London, each video is streamed and archived on CIRCA’s website.

This month, London-based artist Emma Talbot will be debuting her first ever self-made animations on the Piccadilly Lights: Four Visions of a Hopeful Future. Talbot has been working as an artist for over two decades, in which she has had the opportunity to work across painting, illustration, and installation. Unafraid to confront the issues surrounding gender, class, economy, and the environmental crisis, Talbot’s explorations of power and social orderings provide an in-depth discourse on how we as a society can recognise our faults and seek change.

Talbot picked up animation during the first UK lockdown, when her inability to travel meant that her residency abroad as the winner of the 2020 Max Mara Prize for Women was postponed. The opportunity to pursue other ventures during this time gave Talbot the freedom to move between media, extending her practice through multi-dimensional spaces. Animation became an extension of Talbot’s 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.”


Talbot created four animated films to play on loop throughout the month: ‘A Year of Dark Shadows’, ‘What is a City?’, ‘Our Own Creation’, and ‘Chorus’. Punctuated by hand-drawn landscapes and cityscapes, the series brings into question the structural grounding of urban society while celebrating the natural world as a holistic conduit for new beginnings. Each video is representative of a season, as Talbot told CIRCA: “The ‘seasons’ focus on dark withdrawal (winter), the breakdown of structures (autumn), renewal and healing (spring), and the warmth of community (summer).”

The narrative of the series follows Talbot’s signature avatar, a faceless woman, who inhabits the space between the old world we currently reside in and the new world we aspire to build. The text accompanying her journey relates to the search for answers; her goal is to find a path to successful development through means of ‘rebirth’ – both in terms of attitudes and the material structures of society.

The CIRCA Calendar will build on Four Visions of a Hopeful Future, sharing reading lists constructed by the artist and the CIRCA curatorial team. A Q&A will also run throughout the month, featuring conversations between Talbot and CIRCA’s creator Josef O’Connor.

Opening her series with ‘winter’, Talbot’s ‘A Year of Dark Shadows’ questions how we can push forward from the past year towards healing. Opening to a natural landscape overcome by the decay of disease, a woman takes refuge in a dark cave where she is confronted with an ultimatum: “On her own in the cave, the fire either threatens to consume her in her own negativity or to release her to dream more openly – to connect with and to listen to nature’s messages.”

The reclusive hibernation in a dark cave draws parallels to the ‘Stay Home’ initiative of lockdown, presenting a time in isolation that has given the population time to reassess their values and wants. The curling flames of Talbot’s fire are as real a threat as the “inner demons” of the mind but can be kept at bay through self-reflection and forward-thinking. As Talbot’s avatar steps through the divide into a colourful vision of consciousness, the artist envisions our re-connecting with the natural world and its seasonal rejuvenation. This transition into spring marks a new beginning. As one door closes, another opens; we just need to choose which one.

The final line of the video, “get ready to heal”, emphasises this message. Talbot’s call for readiness builds up an anticipation for a future we are ready to receive. This future is marked by growth – both in nature, and in ourselves as we recognise the aspects of society we have and have not missed.

The colours Talbot employs in the video supplement its narrative. COVID society is dominated by the muddy tones of dying nature as a neon-green smog permeates the air; the conscious landscape is entrenched in vibrant shades of green, yellow, and purple that stimulate a message of revival and growth; and the final scenes of awakening form a balance of these extremes to indicate the gradual movement towards a better future.


Emma Talbot at the screening of ‘A Year of Dark Shadows’ in Piccadilly Circus. Photography by Kirsty Sim


The breaking down of larger structures is a prevalent theme in ‘What is a City?’, playing on how Talbot “was thinking about how atomised an idea of a city could be, just as power can potentially be atomised.”

The artist’s avatar is seen navigating a cityscape that begins to crumble under her feet, sweeping her up in violent winds and dropping her into the ruins of structural collapse. The city simultaneously grows and decays, but it is only when the woman pushes aside the rubble that progress is suggested. Swirling colours and natural forms are a visual representation of an alternative to current society; a future free from the manufactured trappings of the urban social landscape we already have.

Talbot crafts a narrative in which the city allows no space for development; bricks crumble and discolour, pillars fall to the ground, and staircases lead to deadly drops. Spiderweb-like cracks dominate the screen at intervals, a visual metaphor indicating the broken structure of society.

But this breakage is welcome. It is only when the rubble is pushed aside, and the faceless woman is free to walk away, that she finds “another way”. Natural forms rise from the earth in shades of gold, brightening the harsh colour palette of black, grey, brown, and red in a symbol of hope and prosperity. By shaking off her reliance on the capitalist structure of the city, she has found something more valuable.

The text in ‘What is a City?’ differs from its predecessor in that it is almost entirely made up of questions. When combined with the recognisable failings of society, Talbot pushes the audience to consider how power structures thrive in a way that does not benefit the masses. As Talbot notes:


“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.”


As the title suggests, ‘Our Own Creation’ reimagines the beginnings of mankind. Talbot focuses on the creation of the first woman, whose relationship with nature illustrates the principles of growth that we can carry through to the present moment. Witnessing the passing of seasons in an “expanding universe”, Talbot’s woman learns to treasure the present moment and use it to imagine the possibilities for tomorrow.

The concept of creation interweaves images of the natural world with the female anatomy, using more literal representations of growth to consider how we as a society can find ways to develop. Talbot illustrates the blossoming and decay of nature alongside floating wombs and oscillating patterns that resemble uteruses, creating a mishmash of imagery that references the fast progression of life.

In the final moments of the video, growth is visualised through vines and branches that spring up from the ground and reach towards the sky. These natural structures are born from the thoughts, wishes, and ideas possessed by the woman, who creates a vision for the future which she can herself build and later access. As the text suggests: “plant / thought-seeds that grow / your tomorrow / is being constructed.” Climbing up the vines to find a portal into a new world, the woman ends her search for the future as she rests amongst tree roots.

Talbot encourages us to thrive in the moment and allow for a future based on natural development, and in doing so promotes an indulgence in “slow time”. Taking a break from the fast pace of society allows us to assess our role within it and conclude what we are happy to take with us into the future. As Talbot suggests, nature is a crucial starting point for realising this lesson.

‘Chorus’ is a reflection on “the warmth of community”, raising up voices that insist on the creation of positive outcomes for all. The diversity of voices is outlined as intrinsic to development; only through the unification of many people can change be enacted. As Talbot notes: “The animation is a celebration of the multitude, the many different voices that come together to effect change.”

The narrative of the video follows a woman being chased through a city. Marked by “the stench of human tampering”, the rotting city is personified by a giant face that looms over the woman as she scrambles to escape. Despite tumbling and falling along the way, the woman continues to push herself forward – but not without leaving a phantom version of herself crumpled on the floor. Left behind as the woman continues to run through the dark landscape, these corpses suggest a commentary on how people may lose their sense of self while trying to survive in current society.

It is only through the guidance of singing birds that sanctuary can be found. Depicted with the heads of women, these birds draw in a community of people who gather to listen to and learn from their song. These are “Voices that call out in the darkness” like a beacon of hope, lighting up the gloom of the city in shades of pink, purple, and blue. These hybrid creatures aren’t grounded by the material trappings of the city but instead are free to fly above it, reaching out with their voice across the expanse of society. Talbot indicated that these birds were based on historical female writers and academics, such as Hildegard von Bingen. With thoughts, ideas, and voices of that can call out across time for their value and relevance to today’s circumstances, Talbot indicates that we can look to these women as points of reference to learn from when imagining our future as a society.

The final moments of the video emphasise this message, as a gathering of people look up and cup their ears to listen to the singing birds.


“The figures are resisting their own experience of living in a threatening world, being isolated on an ‘island of grief’. They are also guided by visionaries in the form of singing birds with women’s heads.”


With acts of listening and learning having been achieved, the future we desire is now located within our grasp. Talbot finishes ‘Chorus’ with the message: “Let’s embrace a forward movement.” An eye-like pattern swirls around the message and grows outward, creating an optical illusion that pulls the viewer in – as though the audience is able to step through the portal and join the chorus onscreen as they welcome a brighter future.

Four Visions of a Hopeful Future continues the overarching narrative amongst the creative community that we should invest in a future that prioritises collective happiness. Recognising the shortcomings of current power structures within society are crucial to making this step forward. By using the natural landscape, in particular its seasonal cycle of ends and beginnings, Talbot punctuates her videos with the message that the end of the pandemic will hopefully signal the start of journey towards a better future.

Talbot’s use of her signature faceless figure creates a blank canvas for projection. As Louisa Elderton notes, these women are “the artist’s signature bodies [that] reflect both her own interiority, as well as […] a proxy for every body.” The shared experience of urban living is highlighted for the way it can stifle development and growth, and as an audience we connect the experiences of Talbot’s women with our own. Inward considerations are reflected in societal experience, and it is emphasised that we must come together with this recognition in order to strive for a better future.

Emma Talbot’s collaboration with CIRCA explores the landscape of hope and social uncertainty. Four Visions of a Hopeful Future is a guide to finding our values and dreams and making them a reality in a post-COVID society. Listen, learn, and start a conversation: How shall we make a hopeful future?


Four Visions of a Hopeful Future is a collaboration between the artist, CIRCA, Whitechapel Gallery, Collezione Maramotti, and the Max Mara Art Prize for Women.


Charlie Colville is the current Arts Editor for Mouthing Off magazine, an online platform designed to give young people the opportunity to find a new voice – a guttural scream loud enough to arouse fresh ideas, creative thought, and inspire artistic flair.