Preview: Safe

A new group exhibition, inspired by a film made two decades ago, questions whether we’re allergic to the 21st century. Steve Lee writes

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Written and directed by Todd Haynes, 1995’s Safe centres on Carol White, played by Julianne Moore, and her personal struggles with modern life. In the 1980s, the Californian housewife becomes increasingly allergic to everyday domestic products and routine activities, eventually moving into an enclosed community in New Mexico. It can be read as a reflection on environmental issues, sexual politics, the Aids epidemic and suburban disillusionment. It’s claustrophobic and paranoid, and now it’s inspired an art exhibition in Manchester that asks: are you allergic to the 21st century?

“I was looking for an original way to view how artists deal with the environment, and that led me back to the Safe film, which I’ve always thought really inspirational and amazing,” explains co-curator Sarah Perks. “And while the film does look at environmental issues, it goes so much deeper into pollution problems, the reaction to HIV, psychology and self-help. It really puts a lot of things up for debate but doesn’t purport to have any of the answers.”

Predominant among the roll call of international artists enlisted by Perks and her co-curator Louise O’Hare is Manchester-based Chris Paul Daniels. Also responsible for a chapter in the book that accompanies the exhibition, entitled Transactions of Desire, and a video that will be shown in Home’s cinema, Daniels has pinpointed Safe’s sense of entrapment for perhaps his most interesting piece – a hand-held audio guide to help direct visitors around the various exhibits. Voiced by Perks and featuring a soundtrack by long-term friend and Mancunian dance music legend Graham Massey, the commentary will be as informative as a traditional guide, yet come with a distinct twist.

“It plays with the language and rhetoric of self-help, the precise thing Carol White is constantly addressed with in the film,” Daniels claims. “She’s bought into these ideologies, thinks she’s bought a solution by going to this weird residential centre, but in reality it’s all a belief system that leaves her with nothing. I always like questioning expectations.

“But the film was far from easy to work to. If it was just a trashy B-movie with a certain aesthetic you’d have an instant reaction, but Safe really rewards repeated viewings. The tension that’s there throughout is always intriguing and it taps into so much stuff that’s clearly relevant today. It’s subtle and complex.”

As Safe is so complex – and often opaque – other artists involved in this wide-reaching group exhibition have opted to emphasise different facets of the film. Turner Prize nominee James Richards uses film to focus on illness and disease while Mexico’s Yoshua Okon presents a digital installation looking closely at the domestic environment. Camilla Wills, Claire Makhlouf Carter, Michael Dean, Laura Morrison, Jala Wahid and Sunil Gupta also contribute an exciting mix of print, the moving image, performance, photography and sculpture.

This artistic diversity is incredible considering it stems from a single film, albeit one loaded with subtext and more than a little obfuscation.

“What brings all the artists together is they all look at how society affects us, who’s trying to put us in our place and keep us there, and they question the people who claim to offer solutions and the reasons why they offer them,” says Perks. “It all adds up to a mixed experience that looks good but has incredible depth. People can spend a lot of time with this exhibition.”

Safe is at Home, Manchester until 3 Jan. The film Safe will be screened at Home, 30 Dec, as part of a wider film season exploring alienation, fear and paranoia (

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