BY David Gleeson in Reviews | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

Nina Saunders

The Kiosk Project, London, UK

BY David Gleeson in Reviews | 04 APR 02

Nina Saunders' best-known work is fashioned from discarded or second-hand armchairs, rendered dramatically dysfunctional by the addition of extra arms or huge spherical tumours. Some of them look like they are melting. Saunders has produced other striking pieces of 'art upholstery': panels for the windows of Jesus College, Cambridge, and a ten-foot diameter sphere. The pleated fake-leather vinyl she employs recalls Chesterfield sofas, World of Leather suites and tacky home mini-bars. She may have stripped domestic objects and materials of their comfort, but she hasn't rendered them humourless. At her exhibition in the Saatchi Gallery a few years ago the effect of finding yourself surrounded by them was like being caught up amid a group of seriously drunk revellers.

Saunders' recent installation Forever (2002) produced a similarly ambivalent response. Papered in pink, flowery wallpaper and with the floor covered with beige nylon carpet, the space looked like a room furnished with limited-budget petit bourgeois aspirations. A plant sat on top of a small ornamental stool, and a swing was suspended from a metal bar across the ceiling. A loop of Engelbert Humperdinck singing the Demis Roussos song 'Forever and Ever' was playing. My initial response was to sit on the carpet, because that's exactly what I did when my parents installed the very same carpet in our house when I was about ten years old, but my feeling of comfort was disturbed by the hole knocked in the wall by the swing, which exposed layers of earlier kitsch wallpaper.

Although Saunders' trademark upholstery was nowhere to be seen, other domestic elements were employed to produce a sensation of wary familiarity. Besides the carpet, the wallpaper was the same stuff that adorned our house for a few years at a time in the 1960s and '70s, before being replaced by a variation on the same theme. It wasn't completely clear whether Saunders was parodying a certain kind of interior decor or being affectionately nostalgic about it. It's the choice of singer that makes me presume the former: whereas Demis Roussos is pure baroque camp, Engelbert Humperdinck, all cabaret tan and porn star sideburns, is the complete nadir of naff. But having decided this, it wasn't easy to sit back and be amused. While I could relate to the wallpaper, carpet and houseplant (and yes, we had Humperdinck records too), the rocking swing and the gash in the wall lent the nostalgia-fest an uncomfortable edge.

I remember Quentin Crisp describing the basic happy family unit as the seat of greatest mendacity. A bit strong, perhaps, but sadly not always wrong. Forever is a work that just tips the balance away from a safe, comfortable home to a claustrophobic domestic prison where the days stretch on and painfully on into the distant future. But just as the homely comfort of the work was displaced by fear and insecurity, so the violence of the gash suggested hope: whoever suffers oppression can effectively break the cycle and bring the house of cards down. Situated in a residential street, the placing of this work could hardly have been better. That such an apparently simple installation could yield so much suggests a power far greater than the sum of its parts.