"Trapped, But Safe" – Scarlett Carlos Clarke

The British photographer discusses screen addiction, influences, and her new solo show The Smell of Calpol on a Warm Summer's Night at London's Cob Gallery

Courtesy of Cob Gallery

Speaking to Scarlett, I found her easy demeanour and openness surrounding the role of intuition in her work is disarming. For one, her images – cold, uncanny – do not necessarily suggest a warmth of character, but importantly, peddle more so in feeling than didactic exactitude: they are human in their multiplicities, and as the artist herself notes, contain many coexisting meanings and themes. However, I was fascinated to learn more about her influences and inspiration, and began to see an artistic lineage take shape – these images are intuitive, yes, but that intuition is formed through a deep understanding of photographic and filmic languages. Now, the only thing to do is to see what comes next.

Jacob Barnes: Your most recent exhibition, The Smell of Calpol on a Warm Summer’s Night, feels as if it might be about the pandemic, but that's not the case at all, right?

Scarlett Carlos Clarke: I started making the work in 2017, and all of the work was made before COVID happened – there are only two photos (the two daytime ones, all the others were shot at night) made after the pandemic even was a thing.

JB: I think that "otherness" or multiplicity of themes outside of COVID is clear in the work. You can of course recontextualize it through the lens of the pandemic, and have it gain meaning from that context. But that's not necessarily what it's "about."

SCC: For me, I had just had my son, and I remember pushing him in his pram while he slept, feeling mentally and physically exhausted, but I was still craving to be creative. You still have a creative mind, and you want to keep working, and suddenly there is something in the way of that. When I was looking through windows of houses on our walks, I had the idea for this series of work: everyone looked so trapped, but safe in a way that was both very comforting and also quite scary. It seemed oppressive; detached – like looking into a fish tank. I love the film Import/Export (2007, dir. Ulrich Seidl) and the Korean horror film I Saw the Devil (2010, dir. Kim Jee-Woon); the lighting in those films is so, kind of, cold but beautiful – very rectilinear, really straight lines. It's all a grotesque realism – real life, but just turned up a notch.

JB: I want to jump back to something you said about it being at once beautiful, but imprisoning. Looking through your work – and thinking about this grotesque realism – I'm struck by a sense of the uncanny; you recognise the world around you, but it feels like an alternative universe, which in your case is a rather dark one. This work clearly seems to emerge from a lineage of your past projects, but this darkness appears somewhat new: what were the influences you were sure to bring from the past, and who did you look towards for inspiration when moving in new creative directions?

SCC: For me, this is all completely new. When I was doing editorial work, it was always a collaborative process, but for this (I've obviously had people that I've teamed with) it's totally my idea. Before, there was always a stylist, or people who are influencing how the project is going to turn out, and it wasn't really my own, solely my own. So, one thing I kept noticing was that I would be wanting to take more and more things out of the rooms [in which the photographs were taken], until they almost become empty. In a way, I almost wanted to take the people out of the room. The rooms have such a strong presence; I think with the lighting and everything, you almost don't need the characters. The locations were so important in cultivating the weird tension of suburban houses that all look the same.

Courtesy of Cob Gallery

JB: It's interesting that you bring that up, because, as this was a project that started as being about motherhood, I think about the desire for minimalism being correlated to the chaos of a child. Perhaps my own thinking is rather superficial – I'm not a parent – but having been around small children, there's always stuff around! I can imagine this desire to clean away all of the clutter in a house, which corresponds to the the clutter in your own head visually. Can you please talk a little more about the intersection of motherhood and this work?

SCC: I think that's a really good point – I am always tidying, and there's always stuff everywhere, clutter and cluttered minds. But then again, people who come to the show say "Oh, this is all about you and your life," but I really don't feel it's too biographical; it's just how I am, this is the work I want to make. I am not my work, but I guess people always make that assumption about artists.

JB: I think it's much easier for people to draw linear, almost tautological lines through an artist and their work, instead of triangulating work with an individual outside of that practice, as well as a historical moment.

SCC: Yes, completely. I think the real link between myself and this body of work is that I would never have made this work if I hadn't had a child. I've found that at the end of the day, I will go on to my phone, and it's (almost) my only way of escaping the world – by looking at a screen. The lighting in these photographs is a reference to screen addiction, and using screens as a way to numb myself, because there was nothing else I could do to unwind.

JB: I think that expresses the knife edge we all live on – as parents, yes, but also just living in our contemporary moment. Life is very stressful, and we're able to find a (paradoxical) numbing euphoria through our screens. That's not to diminish the joy that we take from being on our screens, but it's also kind of depressing and sad. With that said, there seems to be a real dynamic between boredom, lifelessness, and conceptions of suburbia, but it's unclear exactly what the terms of that relationship are. The universe of these scenes is not all bad, but it also seems like it has the capacity to be quite depressing. Can you say more on that?

SCC: I have quite a dark sense of humour, and I do find some of the work humorous. I really enjoyed making some of that work, and it's not like I was sitting there getting depressed the entire time. When making them I wanted them to feel modern, not like they were in the 90s; not nostalgic. I think in the beginning [of the project], I was trying to establish what I wanted to create in the rooms and with the characters; Nick Waplington – who wrote a text for this exhibition – has a book called Living Room, which was a huge influence.

JB: Besides Nick, were there any other influences that you were drawing heavily on? I immediately saw Gregory Crewdson in these pictures.

SCC: I guess his work is dreamlike in a similar way. But aside from Nick Waplington, the inspiration mostly came from the locations – the location was the first thing, and the characters came after. Searching for the right location, I posted flyers through people's doors, thinking it was going to be interesting inside, looking through windows. And a lot of researching on the internet.

JB: You posted flyers through doors?

SCC: Yeah – I didn't really get much response from that. I think a lot of people were quite scared. Maybe they think you're trying to shoot a porn film or something; they don't really get it. So it was easier to do it online and go through either people that you know or through location agencies. All the locations are in England, but the last two shots are really different. Those are the daylight ones, and those were like shooting a documentary or something; they weren't staged at all. I don't know how I feel about that because I think I prefer it when it is more theatrical, but I think I didn't know it was a different way of working – I just relaxed and let it happen.

JB: It's funny that you use word theatrical: there is a campness to it all; something remarkably fun and exaggerated. Looking beyond this, one has to ask: what are you working on moving forward?

SCC: I would love to do more video work; more video installations in rooms. Create rooms, maybe. More sculpture. I don't know what direction I'm going to go. It's really open ended at the moment, which is exciting.

Jacob Barnes

is a writer and editor born in New York, raised in Dublin, Ireland, and currently living in London. After working in the film industry, he decided to start Soft Punk with Charlie in the summer of 2019. Since then, Jacob has worked as a writer, editor, publisher, and curator for numerous publications and organizations spanning the United States and Europe.

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