A Portrait of the Nation’s Tastes: Martin Parr’s ‘Sign of the Times’.
In The Poetics of Space, French writer and theorist Gaston Bachelard explores how the comfort we feel in our homes is an ancient, universal and intrinsic feeling:
‘The well-being I feel, seated in front of my fire, while bad weather rages out-of-doors, is entirely animal. A rat in its hole, a rabbit in its burrow, cows in the stable, must all feel the same contentment I feel’.
Here, Bachelard describes the physical pleasure we experience when in small, intimate, and familiar spaces. Where Bachelard describes the idea of ‘refuge’ as intrinsic to the experience of a home, however, Martin Parr’s 1991 series A Sign of the Times: A Portrait of the Nation’s Tastes turns this idea on its head. The series, created to accompany the BBC’s reality TV series of the same name, suggests that our modern-day interior is becoming increasingly exterior: dominated by received wisdom, refracted tastes, and lifestyle advertisements. The BBC’s intrusion into and broadcasting of these spaces is, in itself, testament to this.
In this series, Parr interviews a number of home-makers who describe their own burrows. The title of each photograph is a quote from the owner of the house depicted. Some of particular note are: ‘To come home in the evening to find the kids have carried out their own form of anarchy is just about the last thing I can face’, describing a side table with a little cowboy figurine atop, and ‘Alec has shown good taste once – that was when he married me’, adjacent to a picture of the couple in question on their wedding day. ‘We keep buying things thinking: that’ll look better, and it just doesn’t’, is a title which accompanies a tired, brown sofa, with three ill-placed cushions resting atop it. As with the majority of Parr’s work, his style is heavily documentary; he lets the rooms and their ‘curators’ speak for themselves, with minimal stylistic intervention from the photographer.
Perhaps the photograph which encapsulates this link between taste, home, and comfort, is a picture of some pink, satin, ruched, curtains, hanging garishly atop a window. The ruching is reminiscent of an elaborate Edwardian bustle skirt. There is a large, saccharine bow positioned in the centre of the curtains, sitting in pride of place. The photograph is entitled ‘I get such pleasure in them every day when I sit in the bath’. Here, the strong link between the speaker’s pleasure and these curtain’s presence is unclear, and bizarre.
Here, Parr’s series gently teases out the idea that taste, oft used as a means of securing superiority over our peers, is at best subjective, and at worst arbitrary: an amalgamation of received wisdom, tradition, and what is ephemerally in vogue this month. This moral has matured with age, too; the 70s or 80s interiors which were perhaps the pinnacle of fashion at the time, have aged to seem garish, kitsch and comic.
Here, Parr documents our anxiety to ensure that our homes perfectly extend our own understanding of ourselves, and how we are perceived by society more broadly. This series is one for those who are redecorating, or perhaps reconsidering their relationship with their homes.