There's something deeply paradoxical about the idea of the 'living room'. All other rooms in the house are, by implication, merely functional - the kitchen for cooking, the bathroom for washing, the bedroom for sleeping. But the living room! This is where we really come alive; the space in which we get down to the business of living. Here, we can sloth off our public masks and our work personas and just be ourselves.

But there's a catch. While the living room is a place for relaxation and recreation, it is also the room in which we receive and entertain guests. It is, therefore, the least private of all rooms in the house. Historically, it is the most formal room in the house. The nineteenth century parlour was only used on Sundays or for special occasions. Even now, in our living rooms, we put on our best face; we display our taste, our values, our wealth, our families in framed photographs on the mantelpiece. This is the paradox. The living room is both the room in which we conduct our private lives and, at the same time, a kind of exhibition space, a gallery in which we showcase who we are.

This tension between public and private selves, and public and private worlds is fertile ground for the artist. There is nothing cosy about this exhibition. We are not invited to sit down and relax. We are invited to experience the edgy formality of the traditional parlour even as we observe what is usually hidden - the fraying insides of old chairs, the stains on the wall, the back of a cabinet. There are glimpses of the conviviality that this room can play host to, but mostly, we are asked to contemplate the more contradictory and disturbing aspects of this room.

Once, the fireplace was the focal point around which guests gathered to warm themselves, read and talk. Parlour comes from the French parler, to speak. But in the modern living room, conversation has fallen away. Rather than engaging with others, we sit mute in front of that big black box - or increasingly, that big flat screen, turn up the volume and retreat into this world of simulation and flickering light.

What kind of living happens in a room dominated by such an object? Are the images we absorb from the armchair a vicarious form of living, a substitute for life? These are some of the questions posed by Sarina Lirosi's video installation of random television images framed by shifting armchair shapes and backed by a pulsing, transmission sound track. Parts of faces, bits of landscape, fragments of cities and suburbs appear and disappear, as if a restless channel surfer has got hold of the remote control. The viewer becomes like a baffled amnesiac living only in the present moment, grasping at each new image as if it were the first. The shifting armchair shapes suggest a kind of jigsaw, holding out the promise of some larger story, picture or truth. Wait as we might, though, no narrative emerges. In this way, the work mimics how reality is forever escaping us when we watch the TV.

In her arrangement of the rocco and pastoral figurines that feature in many living rooms, Lirosi explores another form of substitution or simulation that occurs in this room. Such figurines, Lirosi points out, hark back to an idealised past, an age when people sang around the piano or lived like rustics at one with the landscape. The random groupings of the figurines highlight their ridiculousness and, by exposing the holes underneath, reveal them to be mass-produced. In its own quiet way, this exhibit savages the pretension and sentimentality of such objects. The way they appear to be something they're not. Junk art masquerading as the 'real thing'. Kitsch, says Czech writer Milan Kundera, is the enemy of art. Yet this same kitsch is, for many of us, inseparable from childhood memories of family living rooms or grandparents' homes. We might want to escape it, but kitsch remains part of us. When confronted with these figurines, or with Susan Knight's mirror cut-outs, we are forced to admit that all living rooms - even the most self-consciously modish - feature objects of dubious taste, objects meaningful to some yet worthless to others.

The Do Not Touch fragility of these figurines, which highlight the conflicting functions of the living room, also reminds us that when the display overrides comfort, not much living can happen. The room becomes a museum. Or a mausoleum - as it was in the nineteenth century, when the recently dead were laid out in the parlour before the funeral. The adoption of the term 'living room' reveals how we have attempted to strip this room of its association with death, even as we have clung to the idea of display.

Wilma Tabacco's plaster coated objects - a cherub on an oval dish, a palette and scouring pads, fruit-shaped plates mounted on wood - tap into this funerary mood. Their plaster shrouding brings to mind objects and furniture covered with white sheets in a living room where the inhabitants have gone away. They are also reminiscent of the decorative aspects of the old-fashioned parlour with its plaster cornices, scroll-work and rosettes which, it is worth remembering, covered the joins between walls and around light-fittings and were thus, a form of disguise as well as embellishment. In this way, these exhibits invoke the living room as a place in which the cracks in our lives are plastered over and even death is made presentable.

This mood of formality and emotional restraint is felt in the way the plaster objects purify the gaudiness of normal living room objects, eliminating differences and exposing shape. The experience of making them was, says Tabacco, a kind of cleansing. A way of dismantling, re-assembling and therefore transforming the accumulated stuff that clogs up our homes. With repeated sanding, she was able to hide the process involved in applying the plaster and create an immaculate, almost ethereal appearance. The result is a defiant expression of the power of art to transcend death - in particular, the deathliness of living room itself.

Susan Knight admits that not much living happens in her living room. In the last house she and Trevor Mein owned, they spent eight years renovating it. Once again, in their current house, they are in the midst of renovation. There is paper all over the floor, exposed brick and insulation. 'We never stop and sit down in the living room,' she says. All this mess and disarray has led her to think about abjection, which comes from the Latin abjectus, meaning 'thrown away' or 'cast aside'. Hence her compressed newspaper balls, like the detritus of the day - the newspaper being a potent symbol of daily life and its transience. There is nothing quite as dead as yesterday's news. The sheer number of these balls are reminders of all the life that is irretrievably gone. Yet, with each ball looking the same, they also allude to the rituals repeated each day in the living room, one day much like the next.

Another kind of abjection - the expulsion of waste from the living room - is explored in Knight's hard rubbish photographs. French writer Julia Kristeva says that the abject is not, as we might think, what is grotesque or unclean, but 'what calls into question borders and threatens identity'. When we put our televisions and couches and boxes of unwanted ornaments and rolled up carpet out on the nature strip we discard what we once loved and disdain what we once valued. The poignant and disturbing quality of these photographs arises from this act of rejection. The very identity of the living room itself is brought into question when the border between inside and outside is breached in this way. When student households put old couches on the verandah or on the median strip in the road, they defiantly claim the wider world as their living room, leaving the rest of us to huddle inside our houses, as if afraid of being exposed.

The television may have replaced the fireplace as the centrepiece of the living room but Mein's and Knight's photographs of mantels show that this feature still tells a story about who we are - whether we intend it to or not. In the bricked-in fireplace with its clutter of dolls either side, clock in pride of place on the mantel along with a sepia photograph of a child, we see a conscious arrangement of objects designed to create a homely environment and convey information about values and taste. While a number of the mantelpieces are of this variety, Mein and Knight have also sought out those which offer a stark challenge to this conventional notion of display: the blue rubber gloves strung in front of the fireplace, with cleaning fluids on the mantel(?); the bare mantel with nothing but a tiny picture of Christ, and stained wall behind; the chimney remains of a burnt-out house.

The ghost of living room's past is also invoked by Liliana Barbieri's taped trompe l'oeil with its rectangular panels of pale blue and central pillar of Italian playing cards featuring kings, knaves and knights. It is a setting, says Barbieri, inspired by childhood memories of Saturday night card games that went on until the sun came up. Hence the blue of the window panels, suggesting the dawn. Barbieri recalls the living room as a kind of stage set on which intense emotional dramas were played out. There would be much animated discussion and slamming of fists as the men drank Anisette and played Briscola all night long. Yet the implied spaciousness of this virtual living room and its classical design, along with the trays of glasses melted by the heated mood, create an impression of excitement and life well-lived. Nobody here is on their best behaviour. And while these dramas played out at night, Barbieri's living room is filled with the light and promise of the coming day. This exhibit, with its emphasis on recreation with deep cultural roots, and on passionate exchange, reminds us that the living room need not be a space in which display and decorum are everything. That it can, just sometimes, be a room in which people feel free to recklessly be themselves.


Fiona Capp