Review of Todd Haynes Inspired Exhibition, Safe, at HOME, Manchester

HOME, Manchester’s main arts venue, is presenting a new exhibition inspired by film-maker Todd Haynes’ critically acclaimed feature film Safe (1995) – a key work of the 1990s, its themes of suburban alienation, institutional control and debilitating disease prove as relevant now as they were 20 years ago.

Haynes’ film depicts Carol White (Julianne Moore), an affluent but vapid Californian housewife, who develops severe allergies to routine chemicals, from car fumes to food toxins and almost everything else in the world around her. It is unclear whether Carol’s crippling illness is truly a biological reaction or is psychologically triggered from a discontent with consumerist America. HOME’s latest project, which is co-curated by Sarah Perks and Louise O’Hare, show how the film’s thematic layers are an inspirational launch pad for a series of new commissions in sculpture, print, performance and more.

Sarah Perks, HOME’s Artistic Director for visual art, said: “This exhibition encompasses what HOME is all about, bringing together a diverse set of artists from around the world, with new contemporary commissions, to debate – in an accessible and meaningful way – aspects of our current climate. Carol White is a central figure that acts as an alibi for us to actually talk openly about how we might be allergic to the 21st century. Whether we identify with her character or not, we are confronted with our own fears and prejudice.”

Yoshua Okón’s Fridge-Freezer (2015), a looped two channel digital video, is the piece which most closely resembles Haynes’ film. It depicts an anxious estate agent situated inside an idyllic home.  Her heavy breathing soon erupts into an overwhelming panic attack. Although one of the two screens is always in close-up, the video resembles Safe in its agoraphobic long shots. Like Carol, the protagonist seems dwarfed by her surroundings as the confining domestic space takes on a suffocating and inhumane air, due in no small part to the show home’s symmetrical tidiness and unnerving lack of bright colours or personality.

Carol’s health worsens throughout Safe; feelings of fatigue soon lead to nosebleeds and eventually violent convulsions. Two commissioned pieces, which were made prior to the Safe project’s conception, evokes Haynes’ film in their focus on corporeality. Jala Wahid’s Mallow (2015), a set of intimate photographic prints, uses close-ups of gelatin with tears and spills, which stir up visions of flesh wounds. Michael Dean’s concrete and glue sculptures also reference the frailties of the human body. A more overt exploration can be found in James Richards’ looped video The Bottom of the World (2015), which features people bearing prosthetic mutilations and skin infections, all designed by prosthetic SFX make-up artist Polly McKay (A Game of Thrones).

The film is split in two halves, the first focusing on Carol’s dislocation from the world, and the second on her seeking refuge in an enclosed community in New Mexico. There, other people with chemical sensitivity hope to be cured by a New Age-style leader, who advises Carol and the others that their suffering is derived from their emotions. It’s why Safe is often interpreted as an allegory for AIDS, and the way its victims were often blamed for their own affliction. The exhibition thus features Sunil Gupta’s topical photo-series, “Pretended” Family Relationships (1988), which re-print images of LGBT protests against the discriminatory Section 28 law instituted during the tumultuous Thatcher years.

But most memorably of all is the Safe at HOME audio guide. As you enter, members of staff provide you with headsets so you can listen to the guide, which is written by Chris Paul Daniels. “Turn back and face the entrance,” says the voice on the audio guide, “Do you notice the large glass panel that seals us safely from the world?” By reminding the listener that ‘we are protected in this cultural bubble’ and delivering instructions like ‘place one hand on the pillar closest to you’, the audio guide puts the individual in a state of alert. The narration soon declares positive affirmations, which sound spookily like the New Age philosophy proselytised in the film. Many exhibitions can be a passive experience; visitors wander around, musing pensively on the works on display as they forget about the wider world around them. This won’t happen at Safe at HOME.

Charlie Bennett

Safe at HOME, until 3 January, HOME, 2 Tony Wilson Place, First Street, Manchester, M15 4FN.

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1. Still from Safe. 1995.