Cecilia Stenbom’s exhibition at Workplace feels like a bunker that swallows you away from the outside world. It seems strangely appropriate, as ‘Everyday Collateral’ plays on universal anxieties that proliferate our existence, yet channels them through the stylistic lens of HBO-style dramas, health and safety demos and infomercials.
Recent work ‘The Case’, created when Stenbom was artist in residence at Berwick Visual Arts, draws heavily on the recently identified TV genre of Nordic-Noir. The use of Berwick and the surrounding area as filming locations reflects on the well-established links between Northern England and Scandinavia, but also mirrors Stenbom’s own experience, originating from Sweden and now living in the north-east.
In ‘The Case’ we enter into the middle of a police investigation, while a disembodied voice narrates over long scene-setting shots of slate blue sea and shipping quays. As questions regarding the locals’ sense of safety are pitched and a forensics team picks over the dunes, an atmosphere of unease builds, yet the narrative is stilted, offering various leads designed to provoke further concern without offering conclusion.
I am struck that with gritty dramas aiming to become increasingly realistic, and with news stories perhaps being more bombastically distributed, the lines between fact and fiction are beginning to blur. Stenbom’s considered approach to dialogue and detailed filmic style reflect this unsettling in-between space. This is heightened when it is revealed that the dialogue is created using edited quotes from the public.
‘System’ uses a similarly simmering shooting style to portray the individual anxieties of two sisters. The shopping centre location is at once banal, but also a much used backdrop for drama and horror to unfold. Stenbom uses the clunking escalators, dingy car park and blue-tinged toilet lighting to her full advantage, accumulating an increasing tension both between the sisters and their interactions with the world.
One is overtly concerned by hygiene, whilst the other seems wearied by other people’s problems, breaking down when she sees a woman wearing a headscarf, immediately assuming she must be suffering from cancer. The breaking point of this crescendo of angst hits with the unleashing of a bloodcurdling scream in the underground parking lot. It makes for riveting but deeply unnerving viewing.
After the intensity of the film works the wall pieces can’t help but feel like supporting material. They too take their imagery from anxieties born out of scenarios large and small. ‘Fall Out for Farmers’ and ‘New Protocol’ come from worldwide moral panics – the Chernobyl disaster and HIV infection respectively. ‘Etiquette’ and ‘Workplace Safety’ come from the smaller but no less worrisome world of health and safety. The graphic style of the prints and painting follow the high contrast imagery of signage, warning symbols and anarchy. Throughout the exhibition nothing is at ease.
Some slight relief is provided by Stenbom’s parody infomercial ‘How to Choose’. Set in a super-sanitised town house, the spotless presenter informs us that ‘with careful planning and strategy, your life should run smoothly, avoiding all major disasters.’
As you leave the gallery with these words of advice fresh in mind, the claustrophobic situations experienced via Stenbom’s intelligently pitched works will leave you on high alert, acutely aware of potential unfolding scenarios and unpicking facts from fictions.