2007 Room: Scheme 3 - Living Room

Where is the life we lost in living?

T.S. Eliot

Excerpt from an essay by Fiona Capp

There’s something deeply paradoxical about the idea of the ‘living room’. All other rooms in the house are, by implication, merely functional - the kitchen for cooking, the bathroom for washing, the bedroom for sleeping. But the living room! This is where we really come alive; the space in which we get down to the business of living. Here, we can sloth off our public masks and our work personas and just be ourselves.

But there’s a catch. While the living room is a place for relaxation and recreation, it is also the room in which we receive and entertain guests. It is, therefore, the least private of all rooms in the house. Historically, it is the most formal room in the house. The nineteenth century parlour was only used on Sundays or for special occasions. Even now, in our living rooms, we put on our best face; we display our taste, our values, our wealth, our families in framed photographs on the mantelpiece. This is the paradox. The living room is both the room in which we conduct our private lives and, at the same time, a kind of exhibition space, a gallery in which we showcase who we are.

This tension between public and private selves, and public and private worlds is fertile ground for the artist. There is nothing cosy about this exhibition. We are not invited to sit down and relax. We are invited to experience the edgy formality of the traditional parlour even as we observe what is usually hidden - the fraying insides of old chairs, the stains on the wall, the back of a cabinet. There are glimpses of the conviviality that this room can play host to, but mostly, we are asked to contemplate the more contradictory and disturbing aspects of this room.

Once, the fireplace was the focal point around which guests gathered to warm themselves, read and talk. Parlour comes from the French parler, to speak. But in the modern living room, conversation has fallen away. Rather than engaging with others, we sit mute in front of that big black box - or increasingly, that big flat screen, turn up the volume and retreat into this world of simulation and flickering light.

What kind of living happens in a room dominated by such an object? Are the images we absorb from the armchair a vicarious form of living, a substitute for life? These are some of the questions posed by Sarina Lirosi’s video installation of random television images framed by shifting armchair shapes and backed by a pulsing, transmission sound track. Parts of faces, bits of landscape, fragments of cities and suburbs appear and disappear, as if a restless channel surfer has got hold of the remote control. The viewer becomes like a baffled amnesiac living only in the present moment, grasping at each new image as if it were the first. The shifting armchair shapes suggest a kind of jigsaw, holding out the promise of some larger story, picture or truth. Wait as we might, though, no narrative emerges. In this way, the work mimics how reality is forever escaping us when we watch the TV.

In her arrangement of the rocco and pastoral figurines that feature in many living rooms, Lirosi explores another form of substitution or simulation that occurs in this room. Such figurines, Lirosi points out, hark back to an idealised past, an age when people sang around the piano or lived like rustics at one with the landscape. The random groupings of the figurines highlight their ridiculousness and, by exposing the holes underneath, reveal them to be mass-produced. In its own quiet way, this exhibit savages the pretension and sentimentality of such objects. The way they appear to be something they’re not. Junk art masquerading as the ‘real thing’. Kitsch, says Czech writer Milan Kundera, is the enemy of art. Yet this same kitsch is, for many of us, inseparable from childhood memories of family living rooms or grandparents’ homes. We might want to escape it, but kitsch remains part of us. When confronted with these figurines, or with Susan Knight’s mirror cut-outs, we are forced to admit that all living rooms – even the most self-consciously modish - feature objects of dubious taste, objects meaningful to some yet worthless to others.

The Do Not Touch fragility of these figurines, which highlight the conflicting functions of the living room, also reminds us that when the display overrides comfort, not much living can happen. The room becomes a museum. Or a mausoleum - as it was in the nineteenth century, when the recently dead were laid out in the parlour before the funeral. The adoption of the term ‘living room’ reveals how we have attempted to strip this room of its association with death, even as we have clung to the idea of display.

Armchair Theatre
Made In China, detail
Made In China, detail
Made In China, detail
Made In China
Still from Armchair Theatre
Still from Armchair Theatre
Still from Armchair Theatre