Something about having your body cooped up in your bedroom pushes your mind into the gutter. We’re not long into the UK lockdown, but already “wanking” has trended for a whole day. “7am: wank, 8am wank, 9am wank,” wrote one Twitter user, laying out her quarantine routine. Another wrote: “Before the quarantine: I’m going to get so much done! During the quarantine: I can’t stop eating, masturbating and crying.”
No film captures the latent eroticism of confinement in the domestic better than Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition (2014). The film follows D (former Slits frontwoman Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), a middle-class artist couple whose west London modernist home has become the third person in their marriage. Wandering through the blue, red and yellow rooms, which are all angular and unyielding like a Mondrian painting, the couple becomes progressively deranged. Creative, too. Touching themselves and the walls, eventually, they make art.
Throughout the film, H engages in a profoundly physical relationship with her home. She curls her body around the sharp edges of rooms, visits the boiler just to hear the rhythmic chugging that comes from warming water and languishes on window sills like a drowsy cat. In one scene, we see her pushing her naked body up against the Venetian binds and running her fingers up and down, shutting the light in and out, in and out. Can you have sex with a house? Is that why she’s not having sex with her husband?
Later, H tries to make D want him – but she just lies on the bed, her pale limbs stiff and hard under his kisses. “I can’t just have sex with a body you know,” her tells her while buckling his belt back up. She says nothing. He walks away. Is she having an affair with the oak hardwood floors beneath her husband’s feet? The red of their sliding room separators? The jade-coloured tiles in the bathroom?
Exhibition shows that when you’re in a house for a long time, you start to interact with it differently. Time slurps by as slow as syrup running off a spoon. Without any incentive to rush, you dwell in places for longer. Rather than doing up earrings as you run out of your room to the bus, you’re getting out the shower and lying on the bed, still in a towel, staring at the ceiling until your eyes get sticky with sleep.
Bored of staying in bed, you find new places to occupy. Perhaps you put your back against the radiator and surround yourself with pillows, or sit on that bean bag that’s only ever been there for show. Neglected corners are given the attention they deserve. Somewhere in this stillness, your hand creeps down under your pyjama bottoms.
Since the lockdown, it’s become a meme to joke – or maybe they’re not all jokes – about talking to inanimate household objects. “When my lamp says something funny,” wrote one Twitter user alongside a gif of Kylie Jenner in hysterics. Others discuss their newfound obsession with organising and reorganising shelves and cupboards. A special drawer for nail varnish. Do I need this top anymore? It’s like we are living inside a womb again.
In Exhibition, the house is similarly alive. D and H’s offices are conjoined by a spiral staircase that resembles a helix of DNA. They communicate over landline phones whose long winding cords are almost umbilical in nature. They have sex on their velvet sofa and the cushioned squares of plum eat up more of the camera lens than their writhing bodies. Despite their attachment, the couple is selling the house. D tells the estate agent: “I’m going to have to cut off emotionally otherwise it is going to become too hurtful.” He reassures her: “We’ll try and make it as painless as we possibly can.” You’d think she was talking about an ex-boyfriend, not something made out of stone.
Sometimes, we see D looking out the window, but when it’s dark out, all she sees is her own body reflected back at her. In this way, the house becomes a stage for her interior world. She wants to watch the neighbours mowing their lawns and parking their cars, but instead all she’s confronted with are her own feelings. Discussing the architecture of the James Melvin-designed house, director Joanna Hogg said, “It is a house of projections or even a house of cinema itself. It forces you to look inside. You can be looking out towards the garden, but then your gaze is forced inwards with a reflection of yourself sitting on a chair suspended in a tree – the house directs you inside.”
It seems that being trapped helps D’s art. While initially, she is unsure of her work, flicking through the pages of coffee table books trying to find inspiration, as the film drifts on, she finds all she needs within the walls of her office, on her skin. She wraps herself in expensive blouses and then humps a wooden stool. She covers herself in neon tape, eyeshadow and blue scarves and poses on a chair in front of a mirror. She’s thought of an idea for her new exhibition, “a mix of performance art and sketches”. It would evolve with her. She would “make mistakes along the way”, and it would “change with her body”. It sounds like the sort of thing you’d laugh at in Tate Modern, but someone from a successful private gallery is willing to pay a lot of money for it.
The way that D makes art with the limited resources available in the walls of her house reminds me of all the TikTok videos people have been making in quarantine. In one post, someone bends over so their hair looks like a horsetail, another stands up behind them so it looks as though they are riding them (it looks smarter than it sounds). A house of four flatmates recite the lines from an anime while pouring pints of water over themselves, opening umbrellas, twerking in capes. A woman puts on a white mask and pops and locks her joints over Twin Peaks-style checkerboard tiles. Everyone is giving themselves stick and poke tattoos.
Most of us aren’t going to write the next King Lear, even if Shakespeare managed it during the plague. But many of us are finding beauty in the seven-square-foot box we pay too much money for. “I thought I was going to get my life together in quarantine,” wrote a man in the caption for a video of himself breakdancing. Why do that when in falling apart, there might be beauty in the shards? Being cooped up might help us become more in touch with our inner worlds. We bake sourdough, we masturbate, we do what we must to cope. It’s awful, it’s boring, but at points, it could be delicious.