In a new multimedia show, Scarlett Carlos Clarke meditates on the suffocating intensity of lockdown, suburbia and new motherhood
In Scarlett Carlos Clarke’s new art show, home is a suffocating prison. The subjects of her images – all women, mostly pregnant – sit in dim rooms, basking in the icy glow of their phone and TV screens. Their furniture is lacquered with sweat, their carpets are thick, and their surrounding walls are high and close. The air around them is heavy, haunted by the sickly-sweet smell of Calpol.
Something about these scenes will feel familiar. They are a study of domestic anxiety, exploring the uncanny isolation – and blue-screen-bingeing boredom – of lockdown life. But they also, more distinctly, evoke the stifling intensity of new motherhood: of being trapped inside “a swelling body”, in a suburban living room, feeling the “crushing inescapability of four walls and a toddler screaming at 2am.”
The exhibition is titled The Smell of Calpol on a Warm Summer’s Night, and it opens this week at London’s Cob Gallery. As a multimedia artist, Carlos Clarke uses many methods – including photography, sculpture, video and immersive sensory stimuli – to explore the show’s themes of domesticity, motherhood and isolation. The aim, according to the exhibit notes, is to create “a meticulously rendered domestic setting where comfort has become itchy, safety oppressive: a world of only interiors.” On the day of the show’s opening, we asked the London-born artist to explain its inspirations in more depth.
“The show ended up being an intuitive reaction to my experience as a mother, though I never intended it to be about motherhood. I think I’ve just been so immersed in this world that it’s subconsciously started seeping into my work.
“I started making this work in 2017 after my first son was born – so, prior to the pandemic. It was winter, and I was walking along this path on the seafront, pushing him in his pram while he slept, feeling so stuck and isolated. I’d been feeling a total loss of identity, which I think most new parents experience. Everything was so intensely focused on this tiny human.
“As I was walking, I remember looking through people’s windows. It was like everyone was frozen and numb in these cold, blue, TV-lit rooms. There was something really beautiful about it, but also something really intense – it felt kind of oppressive, like looking into a fish tank. I did this walk every day for a few months, and that’s when I started to have ideas again. There was a feeling of familiarity and boredom, but also alienation and discomfort in these rooms, like a stark coldness that I wanted to recreate. A familiarity and disconnect for the viewer.
“In total, for the project, I shot about 13 still images, five of which are in the show. They were all shot in different locations, over a long period of time, and almost all of the characters in the photos are friends or friends of friends. Most of the work was done in the pre-production period: I spent a lot of time just trying to find the right locations. It’s been about four years and it’s been a slow process, I rarely have such a clear vision of something I want to make and both the sculptures were clear in my mind of how I wanted them to look and feel.
“As well as the images, the show is also immersive sensory experience. When I was growing up, my neighbour’s daughter used to babysit me, and I remember going over to their house. When you walked in it smelt amazing – like alcohol and cigars. They also had this really musty pistachio green carpet. I was only about three or four, but the whole place is completely ingrained in my mind. I wanted to carpet the downstairs of the gallery to domesticise the space, there is a cosy familiarity yet at the same time in the context of the space, it becomes austere like an unfurnished living room. I wanted the space to smell like Calpol, something I think everyone can relate to from their own childhood.”
Scarlett Carlos Clarke’s The Smell Of Calpol On A Warm Summer’s Night runs at London’s Cob Gallery until July 31.