Safe house: Exploring the intensity of love and hate in domestic abuse.

by Joe Morel
Safe house: Artist Anonymous. Plymouth Art Weekender by Joe Morel

Safe house: Artist Anonymous.

Every three days a woman dies. Killed by a current or former partner, here in the UK. A quarter of British women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Domestic abuse has a higher re-offence rate than any other crime. Despite rates of domestic abuse against men being around half the rate against women, men are more than three times as likely to not tell anybody. Domestic abuse is a silent epidemic – it’s with this in mind, and her own very live experience of the matter – that an anonymous artist set up in St Peter and the Holy Apostles for Plymouth Art Weekender 2017.

“I had originally planned to do it in a house”, the artist tells me, “but the landlord backed out.” It’s a clear indicator of how unwilling we are to confront domestic abuse and treat the subject out in the open. Given the artist’s stance, I got a lot wrong about ‘Safe House’. I expected a challenging, arresting, visceral and political statement. What I get is a smile and some Earl Grey. The artist is sat, comfortable in conversation, on a sofa. We speak briefly and I quite literally walk on eggshells to reach a chair. The reference isn’t lost on me.

My chair faces the curved wall upon which several video loops are projected. A doll is unpicked by someone – we don’t see their face. Train tracks pass in a multicolour frenzy as a resonant mantra plays. A woman tells herself “it’s my fault, it’s my fault. What can I do?”. Other films show the sun streaming through soft twists of pale curtains; white flecks spinning as if caught in a breeze or explosion; the camera treads a cliff edge, waves breaking over boulders below. The soundtrack is sea birds, wind, water, wheels. Overlaid with the woman’s voice telling herself it’s all her fault as sadness, despair and guilt colour her voice, the entire installation is a profoundly unnerving experience.

Safe house: Artist Anonymous Plymouth Art Weekender by Joe Morel

Safe house: Artist Anonymous

Safe house: Artist Anonymous Plymouth Art Weekender by Joe Morel

Safe house: Artist Anonymous Plymouth Art Weekender

Individually, the videos are intriguing – you follow them more because they’re pretty than for a story. Together, seen across the wall of a church with the echoes of a voice in your head, Safe House manages to recreate the unrelenting madness and confusion that domestic abuse can produce. Its covert, insidious nature is particularly well shown. The artist’s metaphorical approaches – the eggshells, the cliff edge – are in direct contrast to the intensity of an abusive relationship and the audience’s emotional response.

“I use metaphors because that’s how I was”, she tells me. The cliff edge video didn’t come to her in a moment of inspiration. “I would go up there early, very often, and there were times when I considered jumping off to end it all.” It was only with the control and expression that the camera gave her that she moved beyond such dark thoughts. Unable to really express in words what the experience of an abusive relationship was like, the artist finally found it: “I was having a conversation with someone and told them ‘I feel like I’ve been unpicked’ – that was it.”

Even the serene lightness of curtains billowing around an open window began to resonate with the artist’s own experience: they were filmed at a safe retreat taken to get away from the abuse. There may be a moment of beauty and peace lying in bed looking up at the curtains, but beyond the window is the depth and darkness of the ocean. In the happiest video, a woman runs carefree with her dog on the beach at Wembury. She looks into the lens, eyes creased by a smile. I got the sense those smiles were from a long time ago.

Safe house: Artist Anonymous Plymouth Art Weekender by Joe Morel

Safe house: Artist Anonymous Plymouth Art Weekender by Joe Morel