There is a guilty enchantment about Elizabeth Price’s films. A knowing delight in the material world combined with an almost violent, if not snide, objection to materialism. A certain paradox, it seems. While the films often flaunt cleverly constructed surfaces of reference, parody, and aloof meaning, they also operate on a simpler, physical level, witnessing an obsession with weight, shape, texture and color as things in and of themselves. And this apparent ambivalence is fortunate, for without these complications her films might become either morbidly intellectual as conceits, or self-satisfied and banal as studies. Instead, the confusion of attitudes towards the material in them sets up a vital dialogue at the heart of her work between the physical and metaphysical worlds of film.
Elizabeth Price has been making art since the eighties; she has won numerous awards, including the Jerwood Prize, the Contemporary Art Society’s Annual Award and, in 2012, the Turner Prize. She has been lauded for the distinctive quality of her films, in particular the stylish editing, the atmospheres they evoke and their relevance to contemporary concerns in both art and life. She acknowledges a debt to pop music and it isn’t difficult to see its positive influence in the apparent lightness with which her films afford insight and in the way they seek to engage with the everyday and culture as experienced by common people—as in, for example, the cocky satire of kitchen utensil advertising in User Group Disco. Yet the films are not pop and for all their accessibility, there is a disquieting weirdness that distinguishes them. It’s sensed in the irregularity of the camerawork, the outrageous overproduction of some of her work and in the absurdity of some of her subjects, such as the supernatural film West Hinder, which tells the bizarre story of a cargo ship containing 2862 luxury cars that sank in an unlegislated area of the Channel in 2002.
Her latest film, At the House of Mr X, has been selected by the Whitechapel Gallery as part of Artists’ Film International, “a collaborative project which showcases artists working with film, video and animation from 15 partner organizations around the world.” There is something suspiciously flat about the premise of the project, indiscriminately lumped together as the films are and indifferent to context as this nomadic form of showcasing is, but that said, it does offer a platform for films to be screened in major galleries and allows a piece to travel, acquiring different interpretations and generating an international conversation as it goes rather than making only a passing applauded appearance in an institution where the artist is already known.
At the House of Mr X is notably different from her other work, with the critique it makes of consumer culture more uncomfortably involved with the overblown and decorative style of the filming itself. It takes us through the rooms of an almost ludicrously beautiful house, all designer furniture, artworks, and luxury finishes. It is, at first, seductive. There are sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Norman Field; Achille Castiglione table lamps and Mies Van der Roe chrome steel dining chairs; surfaces of marble, parquet, velvet, and all manner of materials gorgeous to behold. The spaces are evenly balanced, elegantly divided, miraculously lit.
But there is something eerie going on. First, the place is empty. Not only is nobody in the house now, but it is hard to imagine that there ever has been or ever will be anybody here: the spaces are too perfect for people. Human presence would spoil, upset, muss them. It is the ultimate show home and as such sends up the term, for its showiness precludes any hominess it might own. This is a house not a home. In this way, the film casts domestic advertising in an absurdist light. The language that invites us in necessarily excludes us; the smoothness and silkiness of the cushion (that wills us to take a seat) would crumple on contact with a body; the fulfillment of a projected desire obliterates the source of that very desire.
Then there is the rhythm of the film. Crisp claps and clicks separate the takes so that we are moved from one shot to the next a little too briskly for our liking and then occasionally wrong-footed as the camera doubles back on itself, unexpectedly slides forward or lingers a little too long. These disruptions, aside from animating the filming itself (and they are characteristic of Price’s other work), establish a hierarchy: the imagery captivates us, trips us up, draws us in or out. Of course, we could always not watch, but once we’ve started it’s more likely that we will stay.
The music also suggests all is not what it seems. It’s fraught with feeling but detached, a passionate but glassy a-capella rendering of “Mr. Blue,” with chilly heartbroken verses reaching epic climaxes of organ-like richness and intensity, as the camera hovers over a particularly luscious curve of sofa. It’s inappropriate to the footage, excessively emotional music for furniture. We feel that our bourgeois tastes are perhaps being parodied, baited, over-manipulated. Or simply that we’ve got the wrong end of the shtick: we aren’t as into this as we’re meant to be.
Another conspicuous snag in the veneer is the text: pesky slogans keep gliding across the screen in self-serious fonts, making obsequious entreaties: “enter the exquisite memorial and inhabit its luxurious interiors,” “enjoy all the wonderful things kept in perfect readiness,” “sit at the lovely dining table.” The language is seemingly attendant on our pleasure, like an overeager butler, until with repetition, it becomes more aggressive and we notice the verbs are imperatives: “Enter,” “Enjoy,” “Eat.” These slogans are so familiar a feature of urban existence we don’t notice them anymore, but the way Price deploys them in her film draws our attention to the potentially pernicious or nonsensical undertones of the words scrawled across our lives. The words don’t mean what we think they do. We’ve been fooled, the butler is in fact a bully in our own home; his service, domination in disguise.
More unsettling than all these sinister elements, though, is the sheer beauty of the film. The colors are exquisite, worthy of paintings: glowing bottle greens, burnt tangerine oranges, smooth marbled maroons, slick gleaming onyx, evenly measured creams etc. Each shot is a photograph, aesthetically just right but never so square as to look boring, nicely angled and reassuringly asymmetrical. And finally, it is all so physically alluring. Foremost among Elizabeth Price’s talents is her ability to translate forms and textures into flat surfaces and vice versa—the surfaces of this film and within it the filmed interior are palpable, and the more graspable we feel them to be, the more desirable they become. It’s an inverse of the grotesque, whereby with increased physicality the things become less gross, more aesthetically pleasing. And yet the grotesque lurks albeit inverted, the film retains something literally repulsive, it pushes us back.
Toward the end, when we have begun to wonder where this is all going and just how complicit the twenty-minute film is with the object of its satire, comes the big reveal. The voice changes from one of cynical appeal to factual revelation. Having finished our tour of the property and its contents we are told that all these things were “afforded first with the proceeds of transatlantic cosmetics brands.” There follows a verbal catalog of cosmetic products, silk stockings, nail polish, mascara wands, spliced over revisited images of the interior we have just been looking at. It has the effect of bringing the lights up in a club: shock, horror, re-take. Are these things that beautiful after all, now objects of ill-got lucre? And do the comparisons between designer goods or art on the one hand and make-up on the other, debase our longing for the former?
It’s an important twist, in that it reveals her purpose, and allows us to see the effects of the film upon us, so that it is no longer exploitative but thought-provoking. It is perhaps a surprise that in the end, such a heavily-conceited and fashionable-looking film seeks to prompt overwhelmingly earnest responses—inquisitive, if ironic, questions about the truthfulness or appeal of things in the world and the language through which we encounter them. Elizabeth Price has said in interview, “I think art is, or should be, a way to understand our time—the time in which we live. It is a way to apprehend and influence it.” In light of which, At the House of Mr X strikes me as a call to arms, with a manicured wave.
Rose McLaren is a writer living in London. She has written for a variety of arts and literature publications and is now writing fiction and working in publishing.