The winner of the 2015-17 Max Mara Art Prize for Women, Emma Hart, has filled the Whitechapel’s second gallery with Mamma Mia!, a spectacular and engaging installation that demands total immersion (until September 3).
The darkened gallery is illuminated by almost a dozen giant ceramic heads that are suspended from the ceiling like huge lamps, which double up as inverted jugs, sliced off at the spout. Each has a vividly painted inside, and some are accompanied by electric fans that slowly and silently rotate, slicing the air with blades in the shape of a knife, a fork and a spoon.
The sculptures are the fruit of a six-month Italian residency that was part of the prize, some of which Hart spent studying traditional Renaissance majolica techniques in Todi and Faenza. She also spent time as an observer at a special family therapy clinic in Milan. Both these experiences feed directly into the finished work.
Hart observed and took part in the very particular form of group therapy pioneered by the late Mara Selvini Palazzoli, which uses physical, non-verbal techniques—including striking sculptural poses—to uncover and disrupt behavioral patterns between family members.
This experience has closely informed the richly colored interiors of Hart’s hanging sculptures, which are lined with repetitive, patterned imagery suggesting fraught mental and emotional states. In one, a succession of young women are repeatedly ensnared in the tendrils of a Venus flytrap and ogled by the green eyes of jealousy; in another, rows of taloned fingers press hot red buttons. Others present the shapes of repeated breasts, toes, tears, fists and heads.
Not only do these modern hieroglyphics invite intense psychological readings, they are also steeped in the symbolism and the role of traditional Italian ceramics as ceremonial objects, handed down through generations and used to cement dynastic alliances. The red cords that secure and connect Hart’s lamps, criss-crossing above them, are an additional nod to the genograms of psychologists as well as to family bloodlines.
It is no coincidence that each of Hart’s dangling cranial containers cast pools of light in the shape of cartoonish speech bubbles. Ducking around these dangling works and gazing into their interiors, it is impossible not to become an active participant in their conversations.