Ten minutes walk from Project Native Informant’s converted garage project space in Mayfair is luxury department store Liberty. Opened in 1875 by Arthur Lasenby Liberty, over the past 140 years it has become a global household name, selling high-end homeware and fashion brands alongside its own-brand products. It has a history of working with notable designers like William Morris and Archibald Knox, and has been an important site for the advancement of design in the UK. The Liberty building on Great Marlborough Street is itself an iconic location – built in the 1920s in a Tudor revival style it’s an instantly recognisable building, and a London shopping landmark. It’s not cheap, though. Sitting somewhere between couture and high-end high street, it caters to a particular strata of the rich.
In L.I.B.E.R.T.Y. Morag Keil has transposed the mock Tudor facade of the department store into the gallery. Each wall is decorated with strips of black half-timbering – appropriately treated, carefully cut and professionally attached. It’s a slightly disorientating experience, the framing exists as a relief whilst shifting the reading of the entire space with its specificity. We’re suddenly enclosed within a form that suggests an exterior – the facade of Liberty is wherever you look. We are trapped outside, inside, with no way to access what’s behind the walls.
In the corner of the gallery are two Windsor chairs painted with copper paint and splashed green with oxidation. Arranged like in a waiting room they hold copies of the exhibition text – an interview with Keil by Harry Burke. Titled Can you live in art? it’s conducted in a 20-questions format, like an unedited magazine lifestyle interview, informal but professional. They discuss Keil’s recent work, as well as her approaches and ideas on the art world and the state of contemporary living. One answer is conspicuous in its absence, there’s simply blank space in response to, “Do you have a social art practice or a formal art practice?”
The ideas sold about freedom in contemporary living constitute a deceptive ideology: ostensibly defined as the increase in flexibility, our lives mainly manifest as precarious and alienated, despite how much money we might accumulate. Keil shows us Liberty as a site where the galvanisation of this ideology is exceptionally evident. It’s a brand that flourishes largely because of suggestions of its own historic importance. It deals in adornments, designs and fashion – the materials and objects that furnish our lives and act as signs that distinguish our relative level of success under capitalism. The precarity of contemporary living means we will never fully achieve the freedom that owning an item from Liberty might suggest we have. In Keil’s L.I.B.E.R.T.Y. we are allowed to step in, to be immersed in the signs of heritage, but never allowed real access.