Natasha Caruana: Timely Tale / Reviewed by Gemma Padley / 05.10.17
Some artists constantly surprise – in a good way, I mean. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on their work, they do something totally ingenious and you’re left scratching your head in the best possible way. Natasha Caruana is one such artist whose new project Timely Tale is currently showing at the University of Brighton Galleries as part of the 2017 HOUSE Biennial.
The work, which was co-commissioned by Photoworks, is in two parts: there is an immersive six-minute film centred around her mother that uses 360 degree technology; visitors are invited to experience this in the setting of a medical waiting room that Caruana created from scratch (she sourced and collected genuine furniture and items from hospitals and doctors’ waiting rooms). The unnervingly authentic waiting room – clinical, and devoid of warmth or character – serves as a “liminal space”, says Caruana – a portal into her mother’s world. Around the corner is an installation of teapots that belong to her mother, neatly ordered on a dresser. So far, so surreal, but once you don a VR headset and the film begins, it all starts to make sense.
The film, shot this summer with a six person crew over two days in Caruana’s childhood south London home, offers a glimpse into the life of Penny (“an excessive character”), whom we see shuffling around her bedroom, dressed in her pyjamas. She has just woken up, and, as she potters around the room that is chock-full of clothes, accessories, and other nondescript items, we hear her chatting casually, softly, about her life – her loves, interests, whether she has any regrets, what she might do differently (or not) if she were to have her time again. “I’ve always had a lot of everything,” she says. “Everything is an excess […]. For all the excesses, I’ve had a good life.” Penny takes fifty pills a day because she is chronically ill, yet she remains obsessed by designer clothes and is addicted to dating sites – ‘excesses’ in very different ways. The teapots – another obsession – are from Penny’s collection, of which she is immensely proud and to which she is emotionally attached.
If these nods to excessiveness form the backbone of Timely Tale it is because ‘excess’ is the theme of this year’s biennial, which has moved from May to its new October slot. Caruana’s work is one of four main commissioned projects that respond to the theme. Laura Ford is 2017’s lead artist and her gigantic puppet-like theatrical creations inspired by the Royal Pavilion & Museums’ collections are ludicrously brilliant, while Anthony Stevens and Andrew Omoding’s bonkers works riff off each other superbly in Phoenix Gallery. But it is Caruana’s arresting contribution that has the deepest roots and provides the most food-for-thought.
From start to finish the installation is an incredibly moving experience, setting aside focusing issues with the VR headsets and their unfortunate unavoidable clunkiness. By telling her mother’s story in an intimate and intentionally stifling way, Caruana points to wider inescapable issues that ultimately affect us all – the changing landscape of the NHS and the potential consequences with regard to public health and finances; our collective insatiable hunger for ‘more’, whether we need something or not, and what the effect of this might be; and our desire to find Mr or Mrs Right, believing, perhaps foolishly, that this will bring happiness. Tapping into the private to explore the public is well-worn territory, but Caruana’s approach feels fresh, original, and illuminating. “For me, the personal is political,” she said at the press launch. “We are living in a really political time.” It is also a time when the possibilities for photographic representation are rapidly opening up. How might that change how we see, utilise, and experience images, Caruana’s work asks. There are no obvious answers of course, but my goodness Timely Tale throws the door wide open with aplomb.
Text by Gemma Padley
Natasha Caruana’s Timely Tale is at University of Brighton Galleries, Edward Street, as part of HOUSE Biennial, until 05 November 2017.
Below, images from Timely Tale © Natasha Caruana
University of Brighton Galleries, Edward Street
154-155 Edward Street, Brighton BN2 0JG