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Written by Mollie Balshaw

Photographs courtesy of Caustic Coastal

Originally posted for Cotton On Mcr 11.11.2018


The Hydra, famed many-headed serpent of Greek mythology, drapes over the entrance of Caustic Coastal. The creature, most notably fought by Hercules in his quest to fulfill the 12 labours as a penance to King Eurystheus, could not be defeated by mere beheading. For each head slain, 7 more would grow in its place. The banner overlooking the space featuring the image of the Hydra speaks as a model of capitalism, representing the idea of exponential, and power based hierarchical growth. For each problem cut from the source, more effortlessly emerge. Rapid transformation is no stranger to the city of Salford, as it seems everywhere you look a building is due for demolition, and in its place a new block of flats is rising already half built from the ground, not so dissimilar at all from the heads of the mythological beast. The core of ‘21st Century Sleepwalk’ are these ideas of transformation and growth, birth and death, and indeed the “sleepwalk” carried out in between. In a playful and illustrative way, the Hydra clarifies the message and tone of the exhibition right from the outset, and presents the significance behind these ideas in relation to the city of Salford and its people.

It is challenging at first glance to fully unpick exactly what is on show in room one of this three room artistic tour through the very concepts surrounding life and existence itself. Sound which permeates the space throughout is a ghostly hum, a distant and ethereal composition matching the visual eeriness of the sculptural counterparts in the room seamlessly. These sculptures, fabric dummies, seem to pose overtly for a phone poised upon a “selfie stick” while elevated on a soft pink stage, parading themselves before the camera and the audience. These figures have no expression, and no features at all for that matter. A deep, unnerving cascade of black masks the identity of the characters. It is clear that this is not necessary information for us to know, as in its absence, we are left instead to consider the wider implications of these suggestive blank slates, what they are trying to tell us, and how?

The exhibition by Emma Talbot seeks to underline feelings surrounding the experience of being in Salford, and about our consciousness and frame of mind while moving through the exhibition space itself too. The work presents the artists view of the city as it functions and develops right now, but maintains a level of anonymity that keeps it relatable to visitors. Yet, this first room especially seems to have something to say about the grander scope of commentary on the experience of birth itself as a much broader term, as a widely felt but completely unmemorable event to every individual. Much like we view ancient historical artefacts in a museum and wonder what the items are and how the culture of that time or place functioned, these sculptural pieces act as emblems of the culture we exist in now. The soundscape also exudes this essence of the ancient and the forgotten, and fills the space exceptionally. Despite this, the exhibition room remains contemporary in its content. The sculptural ‘artifacts’ are by no means aged or withered or dull, and through the portrayal of modern behaviours (and even the animated usage of mixed media techniques), the work exudes that sense of what it is to be alive, all the way down to the effervescent colour palette.

Following through to the second room, you are met by a wall of silk hanging, which occupies the length of the warehouse space. The painting is punctuated with curious interjections of text, presenting us with questions and statements, in relation to the ways in which we may or may not feel about the ways a city functions for us, and the features that define the contemporary condition. The hanging reads; ‘How do you like your city’s endless pinnacles and compartments, its arcades avenues studios circuses and cells? Its gates and barriers?’ The work at this point divulges from the personal into the political, questioning everything we know, providing no solace or break from the intensity of the subject matter. The drawings themselves are not hostile or looking to point fingers, they serve to help the viewer consider the insinuations of the poetry intertwined within them, and they do so subtly with a thoughtful tenderness.

The final space is perhaps the one where most would discard reality, and become fully immersed in what the exhibition has to offer. Looming in the space (an industrial freezer at one time of day) is a large imposing tent-like structure, almost a painted mountain complete with a head on top, filled with more human-like forms similar to the creations in the first space. These forms appear to show a human’s growth from childhood to death, falling from the top of the structure to the floor. The dim lighting and unnerving nature of the installation is made easier to take in by its adept use of fabric, rather than other heavier or more intimidating materials, that could have been used for such a piece. The presence of the work is large but light, and although the space lends itself to an essence of creepiness regardless of what’s in it, we know that the piece has no interest in being threatening. It stands as a physical depiction of a thought process, idea or even a dream (almost seeming to personify them, or present them as a mythological creature in their own right, to combat the Hydra perhaps). The forms captured inside the structure tie it together. If the tent itself is visually representative of the human condition, our hopes and intimate thoughts, the people within are the ones experiencing them (blank slates to again address every viewer), from birth to burial. The cycle completes itself, and the show in turn comes full circle.

“Make your own myths, you get to say what your world is. You can articulate voices with no volume, and play them out loud”

reads the final painted banner hung high in the Salford Lads Club, depicting two youths in a world shared by the Hydra. In this piece Talbot seems to be asking what it would be like if power was used to different effect, what would the world be like, and how would we the audience like it to be? ‘21st Century Sleepwalk’ wholly and expertly utilises the spaces it is encapsulated within, and takes consideration for the condition of the surrounding area of Salford itself. The way city life infuses and dictates our everyday interactions, and the ways in which ideas of rebirth and transformation play out within a city, are all core to each work throughout the three spaces. The work is decidedly concerned with growth, in all its forms, as this is the feature of both the city and the art spaces it exists within.

The show was a must see for residents and guests to Salford and Manchester alike. It isolated nobody, raised points and asked questions that have no wrong or right answers.

In questioning the function of city life, it includes us all, and leaves us all with a valid experience to share.

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