Natasha Caruana, Timely Tale (2017) (image courtesy the artist)

BRIGHTON, UK — The young London-based artist Natasha Caruana has chosen virtual reality (VR) as the unlikely vehicle to present a domestic portrait of her sickly mother. While the medium usually serves up vertigo and a lurching sensation in the stomach, here it delivers a quiet, painful meditation on illness and human nature.

Artists are increasingly using VR to stage immersive exhibitions. But don’t for a minute think they are pioneers. This is a tried and tested technology with many military applications and pornographic possibilities. Caruana researched Timely Tale by watching expensive porn on a cheap headset. She is candid about this, and says that it in fact taught her about depth of field.

There are echoes of this voyeuristic context in the six-minute film on display at the University of Brighton Gallery, as part of the HOUSE Biennial. The 360-degree camera never leaves the bedroom as we watch the artist’s mother wake up, check in with her online dating app, take medication from a carrier bag full of pills, and then get dressed. It appears that, despite her poor condition, Penny enjoys selecting an outfit from a wall-to-wall wardrobe filled with designer clothes.

Nothing must get in the way of Penny’s dating life. Not diabetes. Not a failed kidney. Not partial sightedness. Nor age. Nor dependence on a cocktail of prescription drugs. When Penny’s active love life shows up in the press release, it’s a source of amusement. But when you encounter her at home, in a state of vulnerability, her hamstrung romantic aspirations can be devastating.

Installation view of teapots for Natasha Caruana’s Timely Tale at the University of Brighton Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

This could have something to do with our vantage point — high above the bed, as if we were having an out-of-body experience. We might even be flies on the wall, a phrase that comes to mind when I notice the unlikely presence of a stuffed spider, propped above a lamp in one corner of the room.

While Penny makes slow progress around the bed, and we twist and turn to follow her, we hear her voice. It may be the first time that a VR soundtrack (which, like our image, is also captured in 360 degrees, or ‘full-sphere’ to be technical) has been used to talk about, among other things, a much loved teapot collection. She tells us about her five children. And even though she fusses over her appearance and admits to her ongoing search for love, she also tells us she has no regrets and, given her life over again, would make the same decisions.

The work takes on a political dimension, as Penny also reveals the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has saved her life on a number of occasions. In a way, her bag full of pills is a sad sight, but there is optimism about the care this aging woman receives and her attempts to keep her self-esteem alive. This is the emotional heart of our encounter with Penny — an affect made possible by the six cameras in a private space, which allow the artist’s mother to tell her own story without the self-consciousness that a cameraperson would instill.

Caruana and her team still had plenty to do, stitching the shots together and composing ambient music, after a two-day shoot with a frequently exhausted subject. The artist also took great care to recreate an NHS waiting room, where she arranged chairs sourced from UK hospitals facing closure.

A visitor wearing VR headsets in the waiting room for Natasha Caruana’s Timely Tale at the University of Brighton Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It is here we sit before donning our headsets, a setting familiar to all who rely on public healthcare. Alarmist posters around the wall act as memento mori before you even step into the film. A potted plant has spilled some earth onto the carpet, and a television, clamped to the wall, runs a 24-hour news feed. Death is never far away on the news, after all.

In an adjacent room, Caruana has collected a fine selection from her mother’s teapot collection. These are presented on one of the dressers from the family home and you are offered one of the Caruana’s wing-backed chairs from which to consider the display. It might sound twee. But the chance to recuperate after witnessing Penny’s critically ill state was like a much-needed cup of tea.

“Timely Tale” is no thrill fest. But the surveillance potential of 360-degree cameras and the theatrical presentation of those results has created a piece of art with singular power. It seems perverse to use VR and remove the wow factor, but in this case, sheer amazement comes from the unmediated glimpse into the life of a human who faces some of the challenges we all share, or at least one day might.

Timely Tale by Natasha Caruana is a new co-commission by HOUSE and Photoworks. It continues at the 2017 HOUSE Biennial at University of Brighton Gallery (Edward Street, Brighton) through November 5. 

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from the UK. He also contributes to Culture24 and Frame & Reference, together with his own blog Criticismism. In 2012 he appeared in Nature, a volume in the series Documents...