In between visits to Nadia Belerique’s exhibition, SLICE, at David Dale Gallery in Glasgow, I’d been engaged in moving flats for the first time since March 2020. The imaginative potency of private spaces, their arrangement and density of feeling, was something I’d been reflecting on as I packed up my partner’s and my life. During the extended periods of pandemic-induced lockdown, our drawers, alcoves, and cupboards had accrued meaning, and it felt strange to break up an ordering of sentiment (the bookshelf) into one of practicality (the box). Now in our new place, I find myself untethered, desperate to unpack and organize everything, without quite knowing why.
Belerique’s installation was full of the tensions that underlie the making of a home. SLICE gave escapism with one hand and took it away with the other, tracing the ways that domestic spaces both provide shelter for our imaginations and keep them in check. The show comprised five separate lines of humane mousetraps made of green and brown Perspex that lay between the pillars of the gallery. The lines were various lengths, each resembling a suburban street or hamlet. Within those streets, some traps sat alone, others in pairs, and a few in threes. Most of the traps had curved tops and little air vents—they are designed to catch a mouse without killing it, and “humane” is their common retail description—but there were a couple of larger models that had pitched roofs, making them more, or perhaps less, attractive to be stuck inside, depending on your personal relationship to the home and its trappings. Invitations to look closer were offered by objects placed between, inside, or on top of the traps: bait. These included pieces of dollhouse furniture, dried grass stems, photographs, knickknacks, and other ephemera.
The mousetraps sat between the metaphorical and the literal, and continued a preoccupation of Belerique’s with the domestic (in a 2018 review, Sky Goodden referred to the artist’s consistent interest in “the house as metaphor”). Each trap was a home; each home was a trap. “Humane” became a darkly humorous pun, calling to mind Betty Friedan’s words in The Feminine Mystique (1963) about the “slow death” of the woman who dreams of housewifery. While elements of Belerique’s tableau felt charming and playful, there was something unsettling, even nightmarish, about it. On detailed inspection, her arrangement of antiquated little objects evoked a suburban scene gone wrong: a set of drawers swimming in resin resembling a flood; a tiny grandfather clock lying broken on its side; two photographs of children in face paint (one happy and one sad) curled around the inside of separate traps; a dried flower lying mournfully on a single bed; and a minuscule bottle of red wine spilling onto a table in an image of cartoon desperation.
The lonely, scattered objects failed to disguise the traps or hide their true purpose. I could still only think of mice shut inside them, perhaps forgotten about for days, weeks, or longer, unnoticed until someone looked closely. In On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart writes that the dollhouse “represents a particular form of interiority, an interiority which the subject experiences as its sanctuary (fantasy) and prison (the boundaries or limits of otherness, the inaccessibility of what cannot be lived experience).” Like a dollhouse, the traps in SLICE produced a space within a space, but in the place of a dollhouse’s security, there was a sense of ruination.
The windows running down one side of the gallery were whitewashed (as when a shop closes for refurbishment) and covered with thin muslin curtains that trailed lazily on the floor. The effect was to bathe the space in a thick, diffuse light redolent of gloomy afternoons stuck indoors. On the ceiling, twelve Westinghouse Vegas fans, complete with lights and pull chains, operated on a timer that turned them on and off at regular intervals. The slight change in atmosphere and movement of air consistently caught me off guard. The fans would stay off (or on) just long enough that I would forget another change was coming, but when it did, I again became aware of the real space, the sad light, and my own containment in the room.
Belerique used the dollhouse as a model for the show while at the same time accusing it of a crime, of perpetuating the fantasy of a comfortable, conservative life (the house, the dog, 2.4 kids). The installation was a kind of fun-house mirror that exposed this imaginary by showing the home’s duplicitous character—its tendency toward both ornamentation and confinement. The lines of mousetrap-homes, dwarfed by the gallery space, spoke of a little life, narrowed horizons, the smallness of a big dream. They don’t constitute a hermetic world but simply a series of haunting fragments, dark and absurd in equal parts. I kept imagining little Beatrix Potter-esque mice ambling around in human clothes, making the best of a bad situation, trying not to think about what fate has condemned them to. Belerique’s arrangement forced me down to the floor—to squat, squint, shuffle around, and think about what we can all get caught up in.