Oriel Davies Gallery, The Park, Newtown, Powys, SY16 2NZ

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Be our guest
Oriel Davies Gallery, Wales
29 June - 4 September 2013
Review by Billie Tilley

Oriel Davies’ summer show explores the culturally peculiar entity of the British Bed & Breakfast, that strange hybrid of home and business, strained cosiness and cushioned alienation. The gallery has been transformed into Seaview, ‘Newtown’s newest bed and breakfast’. Within it are exhibited, or secreted, works by more than thirty artists in a range of media.

Skirting past Craig Fisher’s ‘Puke’(2005) (a pink pearl-dotted puddle suggesting hen night excess) to step through the front door prompts a thrilling reorganisation of our own identity alongside that of the gallery’s. We are simultaneously viewer and participant, gallery visitor and B&B guest.

Visitors get this, and the guest book features playful complaints about the creepy owner and greasy breakfast. A list of B&B Do’s and Don’ts similarly scrambles our identity as it orders us not to feed the pets while encouraging us to discover the sounds, objects and experiences in the seven rooms.

Of course, there is no creepy owner, just plenty of clues about him in Tiff Oben and Helene Roberts’ seedy Reception ‘Be Our Guest Reception (In/Hospitable Heterotopias)’ (2013) which explores the wavering line between hospitality and hostility. On a grubby stained wall, a stuffed goat’s head stares into the distance amongst dismally faded pictures. Lettering on the window of the shabby office booth spells out a perfunctory welcome plus numerous curt orders. Inside, a multi-screen surveillance TV captures our image like the moths and beetles pinned in the display case nearby.

What does all this tell us about the absent host’ Does the flesh-packed tabloid spread across the counter beneath a packet of fags describe the owner or our own prejudices’ Similar questions about identity and expectations are examined in Dave Ball & Oliver Walker’s ‘Dinner Party’ (2013), in which diners are instructed what to say by unseen partners. When the latter are finally revealed, their identities challenge routine assumptions.

The sense of gathering clues about invisible people recurs. Scrutinising the artworks in a dimly lit bedroom, a light snaps on behind an entirely overlooked closed door and a toilet flushes. Gaia Persico’s ‘Interference 1’ (2013) instantly changes the space from public to private, and you from gallery visitor into someone - a guest, a detective, the owner - snooping around another guest’s bedroom, uninvited.

If the Reception suggested a B&B of unlovely activities, of hourly rents by prostitutes’ punters, Carol Quarini’s ‘Wish you were here’ (2013) neatly suggests its role as temporary home to itinerant workers. Peering at the lace trim on a bedroom’s net curtain reveals sewing pins arranged in gated tallies of five. Someone has been counting the days till they can leave. Someone has felt like a prisoner here.

The theme tune from the film The Great Escape filters in from the Lounge, adding to the sense of the B&B as a place to be endured. Like so much else here, however, it is not what it seems. In ‘The Large Escaping’ (2002) Colin Andrews has restructured the film’s dialogue, using the original soundtrack and a German dubbed version, so that the prisoners speak German and the warders speak English. The title itself is the product of an online translation service.

Throughout the exhibition, Angela Lizon’s rich, dark paintings (2012-2013) assign new worth to sentimental ornaments and commonplace souvenirs. Painted in an Old Master style, and gallery-lit to denote worth, they question ascriptions of value and taste and hint at the stories and people behind the objects.

In this B&B where looks deceive, where everyday objects and experiences are altered, this sense of investigating, of gathering clues as you move from room to room along a floor plan, feels akin to being in a scaled-up board game, like a complex Cluedo, with you as detective and pawn. Cally Trench uses the board game format in ‘Shopping Spree’ (2012) and ‘I’ve bought you back a baby dragon’ (2013), evoking long rainy holidays cooped up indoors. Rule-bound and offering players a god-like overview of their fabricated worlds, these games are a sunny echo of the Reception with its barked rules and surveillance TV. They are an invented world within the invented world of the B&B, and of the gallery itself.

Cartoon iconography, reflecting real life oddly distorted, features in numerous works. In Rich White’s architectural intervention ‘Deliverance’ (2013), a giant mouse seems to have chomped an enormous hole through the Breakfast Room wall, revealing a tangle of planks apparently holding it up. Nearby, above a table, hang speech bubbles containing decorative fabric motifs. Craig Fisher’s ‘Floral Expletives’ (2009-2013) suggest something hidden behind the polite chatter of the B&B breakfast. This combination of cartoon and fabric also features in his ‘Bloody Adornment 1’ (2009), an outline of a smeared handprint sewn in plump, plush blood-red satin.

The exhibition also references the ephemeral nature of the B&B experience. Carole Romaya’s ‘Untitled 1-19’ (2013) revives that ubiquitous symbol of the holiday, the postcard, with lyrical interventions. Miniature bunting is added to brighten a humdrum street scene, or pinpricks of light, energy or blossom are added to steeples and dour statues.

In Bird-Jones & Heald’s ‘The Swing’ (2013), footage of an idly swinging girl is projected onto the mirror of an antique wardrobe. The ghostly reflection beautifully evokes the fleeting quality of dream and memory; while Fern Thomas’s interactive ‘Dream Vessels & Transformational Dream Objects’ (2013) purports to contain dreams harvested from local B&Bs.

Loraine Morley’s installation ‘Of no fixed abode’ (2013) feels shockingly nightmarish. Set in the smallest of the three bedrooms, it exudes utter despair. Almost entirely constructed of newspaper, the epitome of ephemera, it evokes van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom in Arles’ (1889) but utterly drained of colour. This is the B&B of the dispossessed, where the fragile nature of home and security is understood.

The artists and curators involved in ‘Be our guest’ have reached into the B&B’s pilgrim past and tourist town soul to create an unmissable exhibition in a gem of a gallery.

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