Be our guest
Prior to the rise of the 1970s’ cheap package deals to Magaluf and Benidorm, holidaying at seaside guest houses was the main option for the British working class.
Published: August 2013
Publication: a-n Interface
Publisher: a-n Interface
Writer: Ellen Bell
Prior to the rise of the 1970s’ cheap package deals to Magaluf and Benidorm, holidaying at seaside guest houses was the main option for the British working class. An extension of the boarding house, these were meant to be a home from home – affordable, convenient and friendly. Be Our Guest, featuring work from over 30 artists, is a wry look at the institution of the bed and breakfast and its awkward smudging between what is public and private, and a stranger and a guest.
The phrase, ‘A Concave Sin’, scripted in red neon, burns bright over the door of the orange-bricked guest house that stands in Oriel Davies’ main gallery. Outside the entrance is a neat square of turf, over which hang two lines of pegged-out tea towels, on an adjacent wall is a trellis intertwined with ivy and on the path a splash of vomit. Nothing, however, of this scene is real. The brick is painted chipboard, the grass plastic, as is the ivy and the sick, an exquisitely-sequinned piece of textile.
Any attempt to recreate a credible domestic setting in what is essentially an institutionalised white cube is ambitious one. And the curator Alex Boyd Jones has made a good fist of it. With its warren of corridors and chambers, it positively swallows up the gallery space. But this edifice lacks human scale, a reference point of smallness so poignantly caught in Michael Landy’s Semi-Detached, 2004, in which he placed a replica of his parent’s home inside the domed hall of the Tate Britain. To be fair Landy’s work was just a façade, not having to rise, as this show does, to the challenge of presenting a believable encased interior. This particular edifice feels too much like an exhibit, a static, passive showcase rather than the visceral, get-under-the-skin experience it has the potential to be. Is it the lack of ceilings to enclose and hem us in? Or is it more the absence of a real physical being?
Where are the hosts, those frilled-aproned dictators - purveyors of full English breakfasts and absurd house rules? ‘Is this a haunted house?’ one of the visitors chimes out loud. And indeed this fake hostelry does have a resonance of Psycho, that same undefined absence that becomes a presence - a presence that is defined entirely by the details. Tiff Oben & Helene Roberts’ Be Our Guest Reception (In/Hospitable Heteropias), 2013 perfectly reflects the grubby minutiae of concierge’s glassed-in domain – the constant radio whining out 80s pop, the blurred split screens of the CCTV monitor, the pin board of hanging keys, the crushed packet of cigarettes and the bald, aggressive signage, No Children No Pets. The cased collection of shiny beetles and crumbling moths and Anna Falcini’s Idyllic (Night Dress ND188) & Idyllic (Suit SU52), 2013, faded facsimiles of 70s poster-like imagery superimposed with a delicate mass of hoover dust, hint at something claustrophobic, oppressive, airless and unclean. A standard of cleanliness that is clearly not universal. In the communal bathroom Marisa Culatto’s Loss series, 2012, continues this theme, with her photographic study of hair rescued from sinks and baths, wet, clagged and straggling. As does the pin-bristled toothbrushes of Andrew McPhail’s Prick 2, 2013 jostling together in a glass tumbler on the sink. The debris of other bodies, alike and yet so alien to our own, being forced to co-mingle provoke a skin-crawling shuddering.
Be Our Guest, encapsulates well this unlooked-for intimacy between guest, host and other guest. The endless flush of the cistern, the gush of the shower in the en-suite, Colin Andrews’ installation, The Large Escaping, 2013 in the lounge flashing its televisual repeating loop of The Great Escape in glorious Technicolor are continual reminders of the too nearness of strangers, present or gone. Craig Fisher’s Floral Expletives, 2013, chintz-filled speech bubbles, that hover over the dining-table in the breakfast room, neatly symbolise the whispering tension and anxiety of eating in unfamiliar company. At a distance Sian Hughes’ Dresser Plates & Bowls, 2013 appear tranquil in their blue & white correctness, but look closer and each one holds in its centre an open mouth - a silent screaming orifice regurgitating faded images of Victorian figures, seagulls and windows. A portable TV sits on a round-backed chair, its screen flickering between a mess of white snow and a screenplay of a man breakfasting in a hotel dining room - Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, possibly. On the adjacent table, Absent but not Forgotten, in Who is this who is coming? 2013 have mirrored the filmic scene – with its vase of silk flowers, white table cloth, and just-so placing of silver cutlery.
Angela Lizon’s paintings, Love Buggy, Lament & From the Mantelpiece, 2013 – an obsessive study of tawdry china ornament made magnificent - echo some of Jeff Koons’ luminescent luridness. The representation of the shabby tat that fills up the shelves, the surfaces and walls of such houses is well-observed. That melee of pattern and confused aesthetics - the barometer, the miniature bed-pan, the curlicue coat-stand, the over-yellow of the pine furniture, the velveteen headboards, the pedestal mats, the doilies - that almost gentility, that attempted aping of the middle classes.
This is a show about nostalgia too. In Anna Falcini’s Graft, 2013 a carousel of slides slowly, methodically clicks its way through a variety of bad family snapshots, flashing its white square on the wall of the hallway in between images. In one of the bedrooms Bird-Jones & Heald’s The Swing, 2013 projects a juddering line of light across the floor in which a child can be seen swaying back and forth. Such imagery holds us together in the warm embrace of universal memory as do Suzanne Smith’s Eric & Jesus, 2012, a series of photos of tourists mimicking statues of Eric Morecambe and Christ, pinned to a board. Here is the promise of holidays - the fun, the antics and the silliness.
For the most part the artworks featured in Be Our Guest accentuate the grotesque ‘Little Britain/League of Gentleman-style’ kind of guest house. Our worst fears encapsulated, exaggerated. But amongst all this viscera there is subtlety, particularly in Bird-Jones Heald’s Pillow Series IV, 2013 where a tiny monitor sits amidst a feather-stuffed pillow relaying a film of hands rolling glass chess pieces around on a board. The delicate click of the pawns a gentle acknowledgement of the kind of Groundhog Day tedium of locked-in rainy afternoons.
Be Our Guest is a dense show. Engaging and accessible, it is an exhibition that can be enjoyed on many levels. Sometimes opaque, often lurid, this collection of work, like the Craig Fisher’s Puke, Domestic Landscape 2013, shimmers with humour, warmth and common humanity.
Ellen Bell is an artist and writer, currently living in Mid Wales.