in Opinion | 19 MAY 17

Living Rooms

At home in the gallery

in Opinion | 19 MAY 17

Ben Burgis & Ksenia Pedan, Cloist Gulch, 2017. Film still, performance by Keira Fox & Adam Christensen. Cinematography by Amy Gwatkin. 

Over the past few months a spate of exhibitions in actual or former homes in London have addressed issues around private space, domesticity and hospitality. While London is in the midst of a housing crisis, with a shortage of affordable homes and the cost of accommodation skyrocketing across the city, concerns over shelter and politics of the domestic have become central for many. By the same token, the proliferation of exhibitions in, and of, domestic spaces also seems to signal a sort of ‘white cube fatigue’, a disaffection for expensive and flawlessly designed galleries; showrooms that often seem to bleach art of its humanity.

Lucy Orta, Refuge Wear, 1992–98, included in ‘56 Artillery Lane’, 2017, installation view, Raven Row, London Courtesy: Lucy and Jorge Orta; photograph: Marcus J. Leith

Raven Row’s spring exhibition, ‘56 Artillery Lane’ (until 11 June), curated by Amy Budd and Naomi Pearce, considers the significance of the home and conditions of domesticity in the work of artists, mostly women, since the 1970s, with a special focus on the activities of the South London Art Group at 14 Radnor Terrace in 1974, where exhibitions and events were presented under the rubric ‘A Woman’s Place’. Prior to its transformation into an elegant exhibition space, Raven Row was a pair of Huguenot houses that witnessed waves of demographic change. Inside, a generous free publication edited by Amy Tobin features a historical essay about ‘A Woman’s Place’ alongside reproductions of original posters and documentation that elucidate the project’s radical feminist critique of labour and domestic politics. The exhibition also considers the antithesis of domestic life – homelessness – with Lucy Orta’s Refugee Wear (1992–98), a series of sleeping, or living, bags for use in emergencies. More than two decades after they were made, these ‘portable habitats’ gain a new significance in light of the number of people sleeping rough in London, which has more than doubled over the past five years.

‘Living Sculpture’, installation view, Flat Time House, London, 6 April – 21 May 2017. Courtesy: Flat Time House, London; photograph: Jean-Philippe Woodland

The artist John Latham’s Flat Time House at 210 Bellenden Road in Peckham was, until his death in 2006, a semi-public place open to anyone interested in ‘thinking about art’. In 2008 it was reborn as FTI-Io, a gallery with a programme of exhibitions, events and residencies, which was recently threatened with closure until its eleventh-hour ‘rescue’ by a private foundation that purchased the house and put it at the disposal of Flat Time House Institute, who will continue to run a public programme from the house.

‘Living Sculpture’, installation view, Flat Time House, London, 6 April - 21 May 2017. Courtesy: Flat Time House, London; photograph: Jean-Philippe Woodland

Latham conceived of the house and its rooms as a body visitors could move through, going from mind to brain, though the ‘body event’ to the hand; a journey representing the stages of thought and artistic creation. For ‘Living Sculpture’ (until 21 May), curator Gareth Bell-Jones has stayed faithful to Latham’s ideas by making the house itself the subject of the show. The exhibition features some of Latham’s key works, by way of introduction to his often cryptic concepts, and newer works made in response to the house by artists including Anna Barham and Laure Prouvost, who was Latham’s assistant for five years and the FTI-Io’s first artist in residence.

Nicolas Deshayes, Snout (detail), 2016, patinated bronze, installation view, ‘Very Into You’, 8th April 2017, 29 Percy Street, London 

In Fitzrovia, artists Mark Barker and Angharad Davies have curated a series of four event-exhibitions taking place from March to June in a private Georgian townhouse at 29 Percy Street. This project, too, considers the house as a body, dedicating each event to a different part, from the façade taken as skin, to the central staircase as the building’s spine. When I visited in April, ‘Very Into You’ was articulated through the main rooms, or inner organs, of the house; it was thrilling to walk into its hushed environs from the busy London street, and to explore the house, discovering works by Nicolas Deshayes, Steve Reich and Rosalind Nashashibi, all the way up to what was once the servants’ quarters, where a small bedroom was adorned with a row of untitled silver gelatin prints by Terence McCormack, depicting formally dressed law clerks trundling boxes of analogue casework files through London traffic to deliver them to the courts. The project’s final act on 10 June features artist including Edward Thomasson and Marianna Simnett, working with text and performance to address the theme of catastrophe in relation to the building’s life – it survived WWII bombings, while some of its neighbours did not – and to consider methods of rebuilding.

‘Houses are Really Bodies: the writing of Leonora Carrington’, 28 April – 4 June, 2017, installation view, Cubitt Gallery, London. Photograph: Mark Blower

The idea that a house is a living being finds one of its most enchanting expressions in ‘Houses are really bodies’ (until 4 June), Helen Nisbet’s first exhibition in her role as Cubitt Curatorial Fellow, which considers the writing of Leonora Carrington, the English-born writer who spent most of her life in Mexico, founding the Mexican Women’s Liberation Movement. One hundred years after her birth, the show carefully reveals her fraught relationship with domesticity. Working with London-based architectural practice vPPR to design the show, Nisbet has split the space with hanging blinds. On one side, a cosy nook painted chocolate brown houses Carrington’s drawings and Angela Carter’s first edition of Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet (1977), from which the show’s title is borrowed. On the other, a cluster of sofas draped in parachute silk provides a place for visitors to sit and listen to recordings of Carrington’s stories read by writers and artists such as Chloe Aridjis, Lorraine O’Grady and Heather Phillipson. Nisbet has cannily smuggled in a reference to The Hearing Trumpet’s 92-year-old narrator Marian Leatherby and her love of violet lozenges by scenting the space with violet essence and bathing it in purple light.

Teddy May de Kock, ‘Duets’ performance project taking place over 3 evenings, 5 / 6 / 7 May 2017,, London. Courtesy:

In an area known as the ‘artist colony’ in Tottenham Hale, north London, five international curating students who met at the Royal College of Art recently set up Clearview, a gallery, residency and live/work space, which they fund by renting out one of their rooms with Airbnb. Their first exhibition, ‘Clearview Presents’, explored the politics of hosting and hostility, and bridged the division between public and private space with a discursive programme of ‘Bedroom Conversations’. More recently, Clearview hosted the Parisian curatorial collective Exo Exo, who curated the exhibition ‘Adult World’, which considered anxieties around growing up and achieving autonomy, a subject intimately related to the shortage of housing in London, with work by Andrew Mania and Mathis Collins. On the challenges of living and working communally, two of Clearview’s curators, Canan Batur and Cédric Fauq, told me that ‘work and life are never divided here; there is no living room’, and while they acknowledge that they are still working on it, they believe that ‘there is a model for using domestic spaces without copy-pasting the gallery into a living space.’

Main image: ‘Living Sculpture’, installation view, Flat Time House, London, 6 April – 21 May 2017. Courtesy: Flat Time House, London; photograph: Jean-Philippe Woodland