In the contemporary, the idea of ‘sanctuary’ is an interesting one. Helen Nisbet’s use of the word when describing ‘Houses are really bodies’, her debut installation as Cubitt’s latest Curatorial Fellow, strikes chords that place the show both within a dense history and at the forefront of the present. Entering a gallery for the sake of safety, friendship and defiance is as rewarding an experience as the concept is brave.
‘Houses are really bodies’ casts a new light on the work of Leonora Carrington – a visual artist and writer unfortunately known more for her personal life than her prodigious creative output. Following 2015’s retrospective at Tate Liverpool, this small London exhibition focuses on a thoughtfully curated selection of Carrington’s writing in order to position her as a resister of societal norms, a woman who fought the English class system and its patriarchy.
The single room exhibition space in Cubitt studios has been divided for the exhibition. There is a small reading room abutting a larger listening area. Both spaces have seating and include literary works by Carrington but their separation proposes an interesting differentiation for the viewer. The books-as-objects in the reading room add a physicality to Carrington’s words. Like the framed drawings that hang over them, the books chosen for display are charged with spirit and past lives, they are fetishised. Nowhere is this more explicit than in the display of a first edition of Carrington’s novel ‘The Hearing Trumpet’, which we are told was previously owned by Angela Carter. Although this is more an anthropological relic than an art object, the words that fill these pages are enlivened by diverse accents; the siren of Carrington calls from the speakers next door.
Ten readers perform whole stories or excerpts of longer Carrington texts, all selected by Nisbet. As the subtitle of the exhibition suggests, the tales deal with escape, defiance and friendship in different ways. As an example of Carrington’s genius, the plethora of animated and anthropomorphic animals that crop up again and again in Carrington’s writing paint a different idea of friendship than is usually assumed. Relationships with natural elements conjure a sense of belonging and weave a potentially richer fabric of society than a human-human friendship would. As the fantastical and surreal mixes with the harshly autobiographical, you realise how an open and clean gallery can alter the accessibility of what would otherwise be a dense or difficult body of work. Despite the plastic covers, the sofas add a comfortable – almost domestic – quality to the experience. The more people are present, the homelier the gallery feels. The soft furnishings bring a touch of the living room to the bonfire circle tales, while the delicate accents, with their gentle cadences, relax even the most trepedatious or uncertain listeners.
Carrington’s work, in her centenary year, resonates clearly into the present. The opening lines from the spoken pages of the autobiographical work ‘Down Below’ chimes “my freedom had ended” into the gallery while strip lights hum above and the seat covers cocoon you. As a participant in the exhibition, you feel safe, like a dry camper in a tent as the rain hammers down. Carrington’s writing marks her out as a truly original artist, steadfast in her convictions and able to disrupt social inequalities. At a time when freedoms aren’t guaranteed and political uncertainties propagate around the world, Cubitt gallery offers an open, inclusive and accessible social space for all.