Thursday, July 01, 2010

The New Décor, Hayward Gallery

Are you sitting comfortably? Well you won’t be after visiting the Hayward Gallery’s latest show, where unsettling apparitions of fractured interiors populated with Frankenstein furniture will ensure you never look at your sofa in the same way again.

The concluding exhibition in a trilogy of summer blockbusters which have explored the unhinged depths of our architectural and mental landscapes (Psycho Buildings and Walking in My Mind), The New Décor takes interior design as its target and proceeds to undermine everything we assume about the safety and stability of our home.

Full to bursting with 80 works gathered from 36 international artists, the galleries take the visitor on a journey through an encyclopaedic catalogue of domestic anxiety, from wayward chandeliers to heavily bolted doors, past undulating beds and a hovering table. It’s like walking through the junk shop lair of a schizophrenic decorator, or going to Ikea on acid. In each case, familiar objects are subverted and reframed in an unstable or threatening light, forcing us to question our customary intimacy with the things that surround us, and revealing the interior as an arena of social and political angst.

Much of the work addresses our physical connection with furniture, playing on the habitual anatomical associations we give to the things designed to support us – from the “head” of a bed, to the “back” and “arms” of a chair. Rosemarie Trockel challenges these anthropomorphic terms head on, grafting grotesque stumpy legs onto a minimal white coffee table, their brute bulk jarring with sleek modernist lines to suggest our relationship with designed objects isn’t always a comfortable one.

Similarly, Franz West’s monumental phallic obelisks and Monica Bonvicini’s bondage hammock invite clumsy, ungainly straddling, transforming the intimate desires of the spectator into an embarrassingly public spectacle. All of the work on show elicits this uneasy combination of curiosity and intimidation, fear and lust, with objects’ semiotic codes disaggregated and fused back together in a process of promiscuous assemblage. The resulting message is always disconcerting – and sometimes rather opaque.

Other pieces bring global political struggles crashing into the home, from Mona Hatoum’s stark cell, with eerie traces of the map of Palestine inscribed in hairs on the pillow, to Jin Shi’s recreation of a Chinese migrant worker’s living quarters at half-scale, forcing us to peer down on their meagre existence. The social ruptures caused by Cuban collective housing are mirrored in Diango Hernández’s fragmented tableaux of chopped-up furniture, on which embargoed objects are balanced, next to an amputated chair awaiting momentary reunion with its orphaned leg. Such scenes demolish our cosy reliance on interior spaces as safe havens, their fragility instead revealing a more precarious reality.

Upstairs, in the gallery’s concurrent show, anxiety is soothed as visitors are drawn through the diaphanous bowels of Ernesto Neto’s sprawling lavender-scented dreamscape. Clearly the crowd-pulling foil to the more difficult work on show downstairs, Neto’s beguiling warren spills out on to the gallery’s three terraces, where the Hayward’s tried and tested formula for public participation reaches its climax with the inclusion of a heated swimming pool nestling in one of the voluptuous fabric pods.

While slightly jarring, Neto’s immersive environment reminds us that décor refers to both the worlds of interior design and theatre, and the sculptures in the lower galleries take their power from occupying the blurred margin between these two spheres, revealing everyday objects and their settings as theatrical props for staging our identities, real or imagined. If your home is your castle, this exhibition will breach its walls and declare revolution – forcing you not to chuck out your chintz, but question what it means.

Originally published in BD, 2 July 2010