Art: A discomfiting Habitat lounge

John Windsor settles into a comfy sofa to watch TV and finds a Habitat paradise turned into a nightmare
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Domestic strife, alienation - not quite the ambience that Sir Terence had in mind when he launched his Habitat furniture. But Habitat has lent its unmistakable armchairs, sofas and tables to furnish an art installation consisting of three sitting-rooms, each with a television playing video soap operas of broken relationships, loneliness and divorce.

Are you sitting comfortably? Feel you can withstand a little urban angst? Then watch the stars of the videos - a different 2ft tall rag doll in each one - being given a hard time by live actors who, for some reason that never dawns on them, just can't seem to communicate. It's absurd, sad, funny - and too close to home for comfort.

Scripted and shot by 35-year-old Janette Parris, who also made the dogs and designed the installation, one of the videos, a five-minute loop titled "SE5 Episode 5: The Affair", shows a male actor raking over the ashes of a failed affair with a rag doll.

"It must be a year since I last saw you," he ventures. "I knew there was something wrong because you didn't phone. You promised to write, but you didn't." The doll remains mute. His parting shot, as he leaves in a huff, is: "You were never the most communicative."

Such everyday tragedies unfold in rooms glossy with Habitat paint (Fresh Green, Good Yellow and Nice Blue) and with little Habitat side-tables and table lamps, Habitat scatter cushions and tasteful striped Habitat rugs.

In "8005 Episode 1: the Divorce", a young woman calls on her husband of 10 years - a rag doll with a ponytail - in order to collect her CDs. "I think I bought The Carpenters' Greatest Hits," she says, grabbing them. The doll does not demur. "Aren't you going to talk to me before I leave?" Apparently not.

Most poignant is "8005 Episode 2: Blind Date". The male actor is chatting up a rag doll in a bar, describing his split from a long-term relationship. Yawn. You really can imagine a woman remaining mute during this one. He develops snaps in a supermarket, he tells her. He would like to be a photographer, but this is the closest he has got. "We could go to the cinema - or go for, something to eat. I know they're not very exciting choices." Finally, despairingly: "You don't have to give me an answer right now. Give me a call. It was nice chatting to you. Maybe we'll meet again."

Been there yourself? The videos will make you squirm in your Habitat armchair. And there is no relief from the telly apart from Habitat paint and Habitat furnishings.

Ms Parris, who graduated in fine art from Goldsmiths College in 1994, says: "It's inevitable it should seem as if I'm sending up Habitat, but it wasn't deliberate, and it doesn't seem like a send-up if you see the show. The furniture is supposed to recreate an ideal home. You know, of course, that there's no such thing.

"Some people do find it disturbing, but most of them have a laugh at the same time. Those who are disturbed recognise something in it about themselves. Maybe they are going through relationship breakdowns, so they take it personally.

"I drew the scripts both from personal experience and from observation. I see such things happening among my friends. Most of us make attempts to communicate and most of us fail at some time or another."

Have Habitat been had? They're too smart for that. Habitat's Ben Weaver, who lent Ms Parris the furniture, is famous for the shows of cutting-edge art that he launched in the stores three years ago, including a show by Ms Parris. He said: "The furniture was lent with no strings. She's free to make whatever use she wants of it."

So think twice before you chuck out that Habitat sofa. Pretend you're sitting on a social comment.

'Copyright', by Janette Parris, is at City Racing, 60 Oval Mansions, Vauxhall Street, London SE11 until 29 March (12 noon to 6pm, Fri-Sun). Her videos are pounds 700 each in editions of three; her framed cartoons hanging in the installation, pounds 250. Inquiries 0171-582 3940. Habitat is showing a mural by Lili van der Stokker at its store in King's Road, London SW3, from 27 March until 2 October (0171-351-1211).