Image: Rhian Williams


clinky glass, running water.

Shattery || squelchy burrs, ..//[[

interference, cross wires, dark organic,

counters hard shards above.

This is Ilana Halperin’s ‘Vatnajӧkull, the Farthest North’ (2002): an absorbing soundscape that draws the viewer into Domestic Bliss. Halperin’s is a recording of ice crystals melting in Icelandic lagoon water, but I hear the sound of milk bottles in childhood, glasses in washing up bowls gently bumping with cutlery, bobbing and floating in sudsy water, chattery over the quiet, dark seabed of food detritus gently settling beneath.

The curatorial note tells us that Halperin’s recording of earth processes ‘captur[es] ideas of loss, change and impermanence’; the softly-lit space in which it sounds leads gently into Jo Spence’s photographs about her mother. I enter eagerly into the domestic, to the chores. I remember how my co-editor, Maria Sledmere, and I were compelled to think, in March 2020, of how, ‘in the waking up each day, the routines, the food, the drinks, the washing, the cleaning, the caring for pets, the tending to the body, the maintenance of the flesh with which we thrive as mammals, is adumbrated our relationship to the earth; our status as “climate subjects” is constellated in our daily encounters and intertwining with other beings, with objects, with materials, with the spores and detritus of life lived’. [1] This woman at the table, bearing a plate; these ice crystals melting; this sound of organicism. Scott Myles’ ‘Ice Cream Paperweights’ (2002)—bronze cast splats of ephemerality. (Domestic) Life on earth: endlessly repetitive, yet precarious, prone to slip out of view. A conundrum for exhibition.

‘Love on a Plate’ (1989): Spence is lit with the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio, except that the subject is a woman clothed (only) in a pinny, bearing a dinner plate in supplication; a tired, domestic counterpoint to Salome’s fatal feminine power. Her floral apron, complementing the colour palette of the plate, chains together the labour that transforms harvested grains with digestible family sustenance. Okay, so in ‘Early Mother’ (1985), she’s going to spread that bread she’s slicing with Lyle’s black treacle (like other objects in Domestic Bliss, the tin evokes Glasgow’s relationship to the West Indies; the sugar transporter of Greenock leaves a sticky patina on the table), so perhaps this isn’t a sustaining meal, but it’s the thought that counts. This flatter-lit image of domestic focus reminds me of the family legend that my great grandmother could, with one hand, slice a loaf wedged under her arm, frisbeeing pieces from the head of the table onto the plate of each of her ten children. But Spence’s images alert me to the tipping point between skill and servitude; they are a moving, ambiguous start to the exhibit.

On an unseasonably warm, bright day in early June, not long before the schools close for the summer—when the homes of anyone who cares for children in Glasgow will be carnivalesque again—I am visiting Domestic Bliss, curated by Katie Bruce, on the top floor of the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art. This space was opened up in Spring 2019 in a bid to interrogate how, as the curatorial note explains, ‘home interiors and lifestyle magazines and social media present flawless examples for us to emulate in our own lives’. Conjured here is the dream of a pristine home determined by socially agreed-upon (celebrated!) notions of taste and display … but of course since then we have lived through lockdown. Domestic ‘space’ narrowed. The private retreat unceremoniously smashed with the precarity of hanging on to employment, parenting, sustenance, survival. Exercise bikes in the kitchen, cans of tomatoes in the bathroom, bedrooms on zoom, spreadsheets in bed. What are the visuals of the home now, in Summer 2022? What kind of relationship with trauma do our homes now carry? Where is the ‘bliss’?

Image: Rhian Williams

Bruce’s Domestic Bliss, as she explains in her curatorial talks (played on a tv set up with armchairs for visitors, but also available online), began as a question of curation. Glasgow Museums hold an extensive and varied archive of ‘social history objects’ as well as art works, historical documents and archive materials, and GoMA is housed in the former home of sugar and tobacco merchant, William Cunninghame of Lainshaw (1731-99). Home:Object:Art:Gaze:Record:Trade. How to bear witness to the complexity of this nexus of concern? The calculation of objects’ value slides together with the history of commerce that produced them, and lands in a space that someone once preposterously called ‘home’. Bruce’s response to this tangle is to ‘open up’ the top floor of GoMA to house these objects in a state of semi-permanence (the exhibit will expand and contract over time as objects are acquired or relocated), arranged within the idiom of mid- to late-twentieth-century home interiors (the mantelpiece, the sideboard, the display cabinet, the bathroom cabinet, the bookshelf).

The opening soundscape, exhibition title and Spence’s photographs had led me to anticipate a meditation on domestic labour, working, activity. I was curious about how objects brought together might somehow bear witness to the elusive, overlooked (unwaged) homemaker [2]. But there are no tools of labour on display here; no mops, brooms, knives, brushes, buckets or needles. Spence’s mother’s work is everywhere implied, but not made present before the eye. Domestic Bliss, in-keeping with the building’s tripartite history as ‘a house, Royal Exchange and civic space’, scrutinises the domestic bliss of capital, of decorative purchase, of display. Halperin’s ice crystals don’t sound to her of washing up; they resemble ‘sparkling cut glass from a chandelier floating in the sea’.

Image: Rhian Williams

Moving amongst the exhibited vases, shaving mugs, ornaments, souvenirs, perfume bottles and the unsettlingly comic ‘Yellow Foot Sofa’ (1967-68) by Nicola L, it is clear that what is presented here as ‘the domestic’ is, in fact, the ornamental. Throughout, attention is given to decoration, detail, surface texture and tangibility. Daphne Wright’s ‘Home Ornaments (2002-5) sought to commemorate public events (here the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow) at the scale of the knick-knack shelf (with all the humanity that implies); her knitted cacti and carefully stitched parrot bespeak the art of textile-care, the working-class mother and grandmother arts. Hanneline Visnes’ MDF works, ‘Farah Diba’ and ‘Sisters/Victoria’ (2003) mesmerise through their gorgeous biscuit-tin-shiny, lacquered surface, their miniaturist art registering a tense tightrope between control and collapse held in the delicacy of fine brush work.

Across the room a disruptive energy crackles in surface design; belying the thinness of its execution, decoration winks at the viewer, an astute agent of meaning. Bowls and vases by Chris Bramble, Emmanuel Cooper, and Grayson Perry unsettle how we experience vessels (for food and drink, or just ‘for show’?) through intellectually agile, knowing surfaces. Jessie M. King’s painted shaving mugs make ambiguous the gendering of the bathroom space, their leaves and petals bringing colour and form to razor-sharp edges. Perhaps most purposefully, Camara Taylor’s engraved zippo lighters and Louise Welsh and Jude Barber’s Empire Cafe crockery exploit the incendiary potential of the epigraph in all its productively surface suggestion. If Domestic Bliss is capitalised, then it’s about economic exploitation, violent histories, vice.

There is an unsettling here, a recalibration. James Rigler’s site-specific ‘Old Money’ (2020) arranges metal-leafed ceramic shapes as though they were jars and containers on a giant kitchen shelf, their golden luminosity marking the disruptive abstraction of hard currency even as their gleaming surfaces invite touch and feel. Domestic Bliss is haunted, blueprinted, by commerce, by the Royal Exchange, and by how capital translates utility into commodity-via-decoration. Our (coerced) participation in economic reproduction manifests in the tactility of lifting a cup, dusting a shelf, in the very gaze of appreciation we lay on aesthetically-pleasing objets. And yet, this is not a quiet, smooth, reproductive machine. Bruce’s curation sounds notes of dissonance; Halperin’s dual-registered soundscape scores the exhibition’s simultaneous warm affection and critical disaffection with what has been made of our homes.

Image: Rhian Williams

How Domestic Bliss will register our relationships with home as it continues, shifts and accommodates is unpredictable. The sensitive curation gives ‘bliss’ such a keen appeal, but it’s not clear that it can, or wants to, exactly reunite us with a tactile comfort or sensuality in domestic space, or necessarily generate self-care through home care (although there is hope). For there is also the sense that, at this point in our nation’s economic history, we have ourselves somehow been ornamentalised, made accessories, made surplus. What relationship might that force with the decor of our own spaces? It’s possible that there will be decorative cracking, a rupturing of the capitalist plane. Troubling geopolitical winds are gusting around the places we call home, rattling at doors and windows, and if we can’t turn the heating up, how will we stay warm, nourished? Domestic Bliss is full of light and colour, but there is a seeping melancholy too. It pricks at our feel for touch, texture, surface, but it probes beneath. It is a critical questioning of what ‘the domestic’ calls to mind, an evocation of all that it means to live our lives, daily. A condition of living.


Rhian Williams is a writer based in Glasgow, where she has written for SPAMzine and MAP magazine. She has recently sat on the committee for the Montréal International Poetry Prize.


Domestic Bliss, curated by Katie Bruce, Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, 1 Jan-31 Dec 2022


Tender a response probes and parses the reciprocities that can be found, cultivated and rendered between art and writing—what art may lend to language and what happens when language leans into art. It is led by reviews editor-in-residence Sara O’Brien.


[1] the weird folds: everyday poems from the anthropocene (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2020), p. 12

[2] See Federici, Silvia. Wages Against Housework. (Bristol: Falling Wall Press and the Power of Women Collective, 1975)