Wednesday, August 27, 2014

'Cornershop' by Lucy Sparrow, 26th August 2014

I'm a bit late to the party in writing about Lucy Sparrow's Cornershop.  Everyone from The Guardian to Buzzfeed to Time Out has been enthusiastically singing its praises.  Even The Daily Mail has given it a nod of approval, which is either horrifying or deeply impressive. 

The idea is to recreate the entire contents of a generic cornershop from felt; from beer cans to crisps to sandwiches to newspapers to cigarettes to chewing gum.  Even the till is felt! I've written about Sparrow twice before; at the 2013 Whitecross Street Festival where she was standing next to her felt Warholised portrait of serial killer Rose West, and again at POP MODERN later that year, where she was exhibiting felt-based hardcore pornography.

So does Cornershop mark the point where the artist transforms from punkish enfant terrible to cosy mainstream kitsch? After all, having your smiling picture appear in The Daily Mail is a wallop to anyone's subversive credentials.  If you just looked at pictures of Cornershop you'd be forgiven to thinking this is the case.  Tiny smiling vegetables peek out from wire racks, looking for all the world like something a Japanese schoolgirl might tote around Shibuya.  The objects are individually impressive as a slavish recreation of corporate branding, but is it just an exercise in cutesey "Omg so random!"?

Actually visiting Cornershop is a different kettle of fish.  As soon as you walk through the door there's an unexpected air of oppressive.  The location must have been abandoned for years previous, the space filled with the cool smell of organic rot.  A heavy silence hangs in the air, as if the outside world had been blotted out completely.  On the rainy day I was there, a fat drip of water fell on my shoulder from a swollen, sodden ceiling.

These sights, sounds and smells dredged up memories of breaking into abandoned buildings, bending back wooden slats and sneaking through somewhere I shouldn't be - praying that the "Dogs Patrol Here" signs were bluffs.  They reminded me of illegal raves in office buildings where commerce was a decade dead, picking my way through the leftover detritus of 1990s officeware, feeling like a forensic archaeologist.

The upshot of is that the felt objects within are infused with a slightly uneasy aura. To understand why this is, I'm going to go via Baudrillard.  His famous treatise Simulacra and Simulation interrogates the distinction between symbols, signs and how they relate to contemporaneity.  Sparrow's felt objects (and the performance of running of the shop over a month) fall into the simulation category; "the imitation of the operation of a real-world object, process or system over time".  

It's worth picking over the similarities and differences between, for example, a can of Stella Artois and its simulated felt doppelgänger.  The original can is a commercial commodity, a disposable object with a clear use.  It's a temporary metal object that passes through our lives without comment, coldly gripped between meaty fingers, glugged down and summarily disposed of.  

The felt can is also a commodity (on sale for £20) but shorn of its use value it comes to represent something more sinister. This is Baudrillard's "perversion of reality": in opposition to its real-life cousin the felt can is soft and pliable, its status as art according it permanence rather than disposability, the hand-crafted nature divorcing it from impersonal mass-production.  Baudrillard's conclusion as to the consequences of unfaithful simulation are that the copy "masks and denatures" reality - the felt can nudging us towards a different view of the simulated subject.

Zooming out from this individual can to consider Cornershop as a whole, it functions as a lens through which the blizzard of branded consumer goods is distorted.  We're one step removed from normality and the knowledge that the felt goods have no 'use value' allows us to consider the world around in an unnerving new way.

This, coupled with the damp, slightly run-down surroundings gave me an idea of what it'd be like to have an alien perspective on modern consumerism.  Imagine if a normal cornershop underwent some kind of Pompeii-like thousand year sealing.  What would future generations make of these logos, designs and and colours?  "Who the hell was Alberto Balsam?"

We can get a taste of how quickly the familiar transitions into the alien by examining the case of 'the shop that time forgot'. After just forty years the familiar transforms into the strange; the common becomes bizarre - you can feel the foundations of normality shifting under your feet.  It's a queasy sensation, one that Cornershop accurately creates.

It's not a seismic shift in perception, as effective as Cornershop is in lifting the curtain of consumerism and letting us peek behind the curtain, Sparrow is kicking back against the fundamentals of capitalism.  But the lingering effects last for some time - venturing into a Tesco later that day to buy some dinner the products glowered down at me from the shelves, logos frantically bleating "buy me" like lost sheep.  For a split second the whole artifice was obviously ridiculous, then, inexorably, the illusion descended once more as I pondered whether I preferred a four cheese or spinach and ricotta pizza.

Cornershop is awesome in the most literal sense of the word - art that's both epic and totally humdrum at the same time has to be by definition.  The time and sweat that's gone into this is palpable, but effort alone doesn't make things worthwhile.  What does is that Cornershop pierces the veil of everyday for just a moment, letting us briefly see the clicking, grinding cogs that power our brains, our bodies, our economies and our wallets.

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