Let’s Climb Through This Grief Together: Emma Talbot’s Ghost Calls at Dundee Contemporary Arts

“Let’s climb through this grief together. It’s so much bigger than us. The sorrow of our age, the sorrow of all time… Do you hear ghost calls?” the large silk painting asks, as it stretches across the gallery floor. “A teary lament for human existence, a shout out to the living to take more care of themselves, of the world, of each other.” The paintings on the fabric show the same silver-haired woman crying, head in one hand as she uses the other to touch a pool of water. Elsewhere on the work she climbs over her own face or flies through the air.

The work calls to mind William Blake’s religious hallucinations, or Alasdair Gray. The woman has no features, apart from the occasional single eye, and no clothes – though her nakedness only serves to make her more ethereal.

A sense of unease, of creeping dread, hangs over the show. Behind and around the silk painting 3D figures made of hand-painted fabric and papier-mâché bow their heads and lean into the earth, so close it’s as if they are returning to it. This is Ghost Calls by Emma Talbot at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) from Wed 28 April – Sun 8 August 2021.

The women are keeners, keepers of a tradition of professional mourners and a throwback to our ancient, Celtic ways. Talbot herself has long silvery hair. Are the figures supposed to be her? Or is it tapping into something older – the idea of the wise crone?

Gallery view of Ghost Calls. Two tables hold 3D pieces, both have a female figure with white hair head bowed in lamentation. In the foreground she is bending down to look at a leaf, the in background she’s slumping towards the earth. Fabric painted foliage is next to her. She is of the earth. Watercolour sketches line the walls, too far away to see clearly.

A low groan comes from an unseen cello – an audio clip that’s slow and pagan. There’s panpipes and a woman’s voice moaning wordlessly. Then the sound of sticks hitting against each other. 

In the centre of the room a film plays. “Grief flows through me,” it begins. “A river runs through the landscape, a sorrow of all time,” the woman is here again, kneeling, tears falling fat and silent. “Shall I gather up these difficult feelings? Distribute them into the wind?” She collects herself, wrings out her hair, collects flowers and ferns.

The words – whether painted onto the silk banners or appearing as text on the screen – seem at first self-directed. An act of self-soothing, as if Talbot – or the characters here – don’t really believe anyone is listening, now that their grief is all consuming.

Greyscale. A silk screen painting shows a naked female figure climbing, falling, surrounded by text-bubbles of thought. The image is taken from the ‘wrong’ side and the text is unreadable.

In the accompanying Ghost Calls book, a slim publication of grey and purple, DCA curator Eoin Dara speaks to Talbot about the show. The subheading of the interview is “a conversation at the end of an ungraspable year”, which is terribly fitting. While Talbot initially was exploring collective grief and shock in a more abstract way, the pandemic has allowed her to lean in.

“In my early research for the exhibition at the DCA, I was really taken with the Celtic tradition of keening. Female professional mourners would visit homes where someone had died and perform keening songs – wailing in lamentation – to escort souls from this world to the next,” she says.

“I liked the narrative premise of a group of women in the work, taking on our grief, guiding us out of a crash.”

They talk about the “primal language” of painting and Talbot’s methodology – using watercolours on khadi paper to sketch out ideas and then imagining whether the piece will be a 3D sculptural work, or a painting on silk, or an animation. 

Greyscale. Three naked female figures climb up the lined face of an older woman, one eye visible and open. A text bubble reads: “Let’s climb through this grief together. It’s so much bigger than us. The sorrow of our age, the sorrow of all time.” A shaft of light cuts through the image, as daylight shines from the overhead windows.

She says, “Painting in its widest sense is a way of thinking that allows me a really broad and expansive means of conveying ideas. Because my subject matter is dealt with in a kind of narrative – a fractured one… – painting allows me the space to construct multiple ways of exploring my ideas. 

“I start with what I call drawing, but it’s done with a brush and watercolour on paper, to pull out my initial ideas… the drawings are all kinds of things – readable images, abstract motifs, texts. Once I’m researching, I begin to imagine ways the ideas might be extended, through making some elements into 3D pieces or by making painted silk hangings or through animation and sound. All of those types of making are still rooted in the act of painting – in the 3D works, the fabric and papier-mâché elements are hand-painted, and the animations comprise cut-outs from my painted drawings.”

These early watercolour sketches are placed around the edges of the gallery, providing context and depth to the show. While not as sophisticated as the 3D pieces or the silk hangings they remind us that grief itself is not restrained. That need to be understood, to be seen processing pain, resonates. In the sketches are motifs of Pictish stone carvings, of illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels – that slightly startled stylised eagle with its hooked beak, long neck, and surprised eye. 

There’s a fluidity that encompasses all the work on display. One of the suggested texts to better understand the exhibition is Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain – a beautifully lyrical book about the Cairngorms mountain range, visible from certain parts of Dundee. In the first chapter, The Plateau, Shepherd writes; “It is to know its essential nature that I am seeking here. To know, that is, with the knowledge that is a process of living. This is not done easily nor in an hour. It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age, not of immediate enough import for its desperate problems. Yet it has its own rare value.”

Greyscale. A white-haired female figure made of painted fabric bows her head, right hand raised as if to ward off a headache. In her left hand she holds a bunch of fabric threads that run down past the edge of the image. She has no features on her face, but the coloured fabric makes lines across it. Is she in pain?

Though she is talking about summer on the high plateau, Shepherd’s words could be applied to Ghost Calls. It is a show that requires you to slow down, to sit with it, to read its desperate words. Unfortunately, Covid has necessitated the removal of gallery seating, required visitors to book time slots of half-an-hour in which to view.

Because of these restrictions for this show, in particular, it’s worth purchasing the accompanying literature. The Ghost Calls publication contains specially commissioned written responses from So Mayer and Helen Charman alongside Eoin Dara’s interview. And The Living Mountain is a joy to read regardless of one’s personal feelings around hillwalking.

Overall, Ghost Calls is a beautiful, thoughtful, and moving show. Apparently, it’s been installed for some time, the work sitting in the dark as the world waited with bated breath for the latest wave of this pandemic to pass. So let’s process our grief together and mourn with the professionals.

Ghost Calls by Emma Talbot will be at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) from Wed 28 April – Sun 8 August 2021. Book your ticket here. You can buy your own copy of the Ghost Calls publication here.

Words & Images: Ana Hine & Luke Cockayne

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