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Issue 225

'Domestic Drama' Retreats into the Private Realm

At Halle für Kunst Steiermark, a thematic group exhibition underscores how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our relationship to the home

BY Chloe Stead in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 15 JAN 22

Given its theatrical title, there is surprisingly little conflict in ‘Domestic Drama’. Rather than focus on interpersonal relationships, this large-scale thematic group show, currently on view at Halle für Kunst Steiermark, explores how, to quote the exhibition literature, we interact with objects as ‘representatives of [the] wishes and desires that shape our identities’. While the idea that we buy consumer products based on want rather than necessity has been around since the early 1960s – curator Cathrin Mayer cites psychologist Ernest Dichter’s Strategy of Desire (1960) as an influence – the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns have arguably only deepened our relationships to our belongings, making ‘Domestic Drama’ a highly contemporary undertaking despite its multi-generational focus.

Antony Gormley, Home, 1984, lead, terracotta, gypsum, fibreglass, 62 × 164 × 216 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna

Antony Gormley’s Home (1984) sets the scene. Now almost 40 years old, this life-size lead sculpture of a man with his head stuck inside a doll-sized terracotta house carries a renewed urgency at a time when vast swathes of the world’s population have been in isolation for the past two years. Behind this, initially blocked from view by a circular wall installed by Bruno Zhu, who has created a site-specific exhibition architecture for the show, sits a series of sculptures made from found objects that span several decades. As with Gormley’s trapped man, each work speaks of proximity and distance. Get too close to Aram Bartholl’s Pan, Tilt and Zoom (2018), for instance, and its three motorized CCTV cameras follow your movements until you step out of range. A Ringing Grey (2008) by Kaarel Kurismaa, on the other hand, immediately recalls the bell systems traditionally used to summon servants from their far-off quarters in stately homes.

'Domestic Drama', 2021, exhibition view, Halle für Kunst Steiermark. Courtesy: the artists and Halle für Kunst Steiermark

Although ‘Domestic Drama’ was conceived before the onset of the pandemic, the spectre of COVID-19 nonetheless looms large. Olu Ogunnaike’s four-metre table, Piece by Piece (2021), should have been used to host a dinner for all of the institution’s staff, but social-distancing restrictions in Austria meant this performative action a recurring element in the artist’s practice couldn’t go ahead. Instead, a few wineglass stains on the table’s wooden surface reveal evidence of a much-reduced gathering, subverting the installation’s intended portrait, according to the exhibition literature, of ‘sociability and togetherness’. While isolation is an unintentional theme in Ogunnaike’s work, it is more explicit in a nearby 16 mm film by Graz-based duo Nigel Gavus and İlkin Beste Çırak. Titled It’s on a day like this … (2021), this sometimes tedious (although entirely relatable) filmic essay follows a woman who – much like the protagonist in Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation – has completely retreated into the domestic realm, choosing to sleep the day away or interact, albeit passively, with her belongings.

Larry Achiampong, The Expulsion, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and LUX Distribution London

Pandemic or no pandemic, choosing to not engage with the outside world is, of course, a privilege that very few can afford. With echoes of the 1975 documentary Night Cleaners by Berwick Street Film Collective, Larry Achiampong’s The Expulsion (2019) remembers a period in the 1990s when the artist would accompany his mother on her night-time cleaning jobs in London’s financial district. Screened in one of the Halle für Kunst’s basement rooms, which can only be entered by crawl-walking through another of Zhu’s architectural interventions, Ayo Akingbade’s Dear Babylon (2019) similarly trains its lens on normally invisible members of London’s working-class communities. Employing a narrative centred around a fictitious housing bill that would forcibly relocate residents from the east London estate they currently live in, Akingbade’s pseudo-documentary underscores how, in many parts of the world, the idea of the home as a sanctuary is only available to those who can afford to buy one.

‘Domestic Drama’ is on view at Halle für Kunst Steiermark, Austria, until 20 February 2022. 

Main image: Aram Bartholl, Pan, Tilt and Zoom, 2018 CCTV surveillance cameras, cables, variable dimensions. Courtesy: the artist

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.