‘SOROR’, a group show organised by first-time curator Rachel Emily Taylor, recently made a brief appearance in London’s copious programme of art exhibitions. The show is open for one weekend only, but given its context and thematic concerns, its transient, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ nature only adds to its conceptual depth. ‘SOROR’ was presented in a dilapidated house in Peckham, a residential building once designated as Safe House 1.
A specific and unconventional site for an exhibition, the house calls for symbolic consideration. Generally speaking, the ‘home’ is a feminine symbol linked with ideas of fertility, nurture, shelter and protection; it universally signifies a sacred place. But safe houses in particular were intended to protect people from persecution, or temporarily house individuals in dire need of sanctuary. Safe houses therefore have darker ties as well - to those in hiding or disguise, those who are fugitive, those who are pretending, those who have secrets, and ultimately those who are estranged. Safe House 1, which is no longer used as such, was acquired by the curator to present the commissioned work of ten female artists, each asked to respond artistically to the space and its past.
The work effectively functions in the house as ‘interior decorating’. Nearly all the pieces are curated to emphasise the domesticity of the space, or seek to disguise it as such. Two-dimensional works conventionally and modestly hang on walls, while sculptural pieces are either placed to evoke a sense of cliché Western living or dining room arrangements, or integrated so strategically into the space itself that they are nearly imperceptible as artworks. The exhibition is curated quietly; individual artworks draw little attention to themselves and effectively ‘hide’ from immediate confrontation with visitors. As a curatorial strategy this emphasises the secret and disguised history of the safe house, and the illusive lives of the people who dwelt there.
Each artist uniquely responds to the safe house in some way: to its basic nature as a structure and shelter, its site-specific ‘memory’ or history, or to both the real and imagined narratives that exist therein. Hence the exhibition offers ten different artistic responses to concepts that are both linked to and distinct from one another, the common denominator being Safe House 1 itself. Anne Harild, for example, uses rudimentary shapes and blocks to create collages and miniature sculptures of uninhabitable and inaccessible spaces. Her ‘Basic Principles’ series responds to the site as a structure and shelter; it explores notions of the utility and functionality of space, while referencing the organised, yet seemingly absurd architectural structures of societies.
‘Domestic Goddess I’ and ‘II’, by Beatrice Lettice Boyle, are two earthenware vases crudely describing the form of the female torso, each filled with fresh cut flowers in peak bloom. The sculptures are posed on plinths to flank the front bay window in classic interior decorating fashion. Boyle combines quintessential symbols of beauty, femininity, and temporality to respond to Safe House 1 as both a domestic space, and one that has witnessed the transient passing of individuals - the birth and death of personal narratives - throughout its unique history.
Laura Lee presents a poignant collage animation entitled ‘The School’, which mediates on life, love, death and attachment by tracing a child’s relationship to a deceased classroom pet, and presenting the viewer with the melancholic realisation that life is fleeting, fragile and inevitably forgotten. The display of ‘The School’ functions metaphorically for the piece itself; a screen hangs eerily in a presentation room that is literally stripped of all identifying features connected to its past life. Left in exposed and crumbling plaster, the space is a lifeless architectural skeleton.
Curator and contributing artist Taylor explores the specific history of the site itself in her project ‘139 Copeland Road’. In a series of small pieces including sculpture, audio, and text the artist merges her own biography with that of a blouse maker who lived at the property in the early 1900s. Inspired by census records of Safe House 1 that paralleled aspects of her life with the life of the previous tenant, Taylor’s piece brings site-specific details of the past into the present, while serving to remind us that historical fact can easily be transformed into fiction, and fiction easily presented as historical fact.
‘SOROR’ is a carefully curated exhibition that affectingly utilises site and space to cohesively reflect on the transience of life, the finality of death and forgotten histories. Domestically disguised as exercises in interior decorating, the artworks are staged in groups to converse intelligently with one another and their surroundings. ‘SOROR’ allows for deliberations on the body, shelter, the home as metaphor and the cycle of life to be knitted neatly together, while allowing forgotten details of the past to elegantly emerge.