Feltism and consumer culture – what’s the price of art?

An artist in London (obviously) has built the contents an entire newsagents out of felt.

Lucy Sparrow created felt versions of all of the products by hand, including chocolate bars, crisps, jars of sweets, fags, magazines and all the general tat you can find in you local paper shop. With impressive attention to detail and an uncanny ability to recreate logos in felt and thread, Sparrow has managed to make the shop a woolly version of the real deal.

Photograph: Rosie Hallam/Barcroft

It’s all super cute and showcases real dedication and crafting skills. Like Grayson Perry’s work, who Sparrow counts as one of her inspirations, it combines a kind of simplistic and childlike approach with real technical talent and a slightly skewed take on the everyday. Taking something mundane and ordinary and twisting it into something different is a a well worn path trodden by many artists, often creating something disturbing or macabre (like The Chapman Brothers and Jason Freeny). Sparrow, in contrast, has made the cornershop cute and, literally, cuddly.

Cornershops and newsagents are temples to consumerism. From crisps and chocolate bars to fags and scratchcards, there’s not much of lasting substance you can purchase in there. The goods are produced and consumed quickly, forgotten about in less time than it takes to dig out the change from your pocket. Sparrow’s hand crafted reconstruction has taken a lot longer to make, the 4,000 plus items put together by the artist and one assistant. There were no production lines or factory machinery, nor an army of art students gluing Swarovski crystals to skulls. This is mass production but not as we normally know it.

Of course, the felted products are all available to buy, either from the shop itself or on The Cornershop website. Like any other newsagent experience you can walk in, grab a paper and a bag of revels, plonk them on the counter and say “ten B&H as well please” and the till won’t open with a ding (because it’s made of felt, of course) and you’ll pay your money. A bit more than you’d usually pay admittedly, but the experience will be largely the same (although you’ll have to wait three weeks to get your stuff – they’re all made to order).

Felt till
Photograph: Rosie Hallam/Barcroft

Once you’ve got your felted confectionary what will you do with it? Put it in a drawer and forget about it? Or display it somewhere prominent to remind you of the real folly of consumer culture so you never buy a Drifter again? The sewn packets of Lucky Strikes and KY Jelly will most likely end up on the mantle in cool suburbs of London to further showcase the owner’s quirky sense of humour and cutting edge style. I imagine them taking pride of place next to moodily lit photos of pets and/or children, rusted metal ads for lemonade from the 50s and a collection of salvaged glass bottles carefully selected from second hand shops, car boots and reclamation yards. And you can rest assured the point will have been well and truly missed.

Perhaps artists like Damien Hirst have the right idea, why bother doing anything that involves any effort on your part, when all people really want is something that sets off their exposed brick wall and mismatched tea sets. Art is a product now, is it really any different from a packet of crisps, or even a mass produced print of Klimt from Ikea? Can we even understand it once it has become another thing to consume? Art and so called “high” culture used to be the preserve of the rich, and the aim to make it something everyone can appreciate is a noble one. There’s funding available from the Art Council in boroughs across the UK that is available to anyone who can show that what they’re going to produce will engage the subset of the population that are under-represented at art galleries and theatres; so basically anyone not middle aged, middle class and white. Or an art student.

But however noble the aim is, if we allow it to be co-opted by consumer culture then aren’t we watering it down and making it less than art? Sparrow’s cornershop was part sponsored by sweet manufacturer Swizzels, perhaps making it a more corporate endeavour than it might have been. A load more money was raised from Kickstarter and granted by the Arts Council than Sparrow got from Swizzels, but it still remains that some of the cash for the project came with an agenda.

Photograph: Rosie Hallam/Barcroft

According to the project website Sparrow’s creations often discuss issues including the “politics of consumerism”, something that seems perhaps a little problematic, especially when the statement is coming from a site with a shopping basket. By producing works of art that are available for relatively small amounts of money (a felted can of Rubicon Guava will set you back £10, a bargain and without the insane amount of sugar either) it does open it up to people who otherwise generally wouldn’t be able to afford an original piece of artwork. But with an online shop, what’s to say it’s really any different than Etsy or any other retailer selling crafts and decorative goods? Can you really question consumer culture when you’re participating in it?

Perhaps going guerrilla style and placing the felted objects in real newsagents around the country (or realistically, London, as everyone knows no real art happens outside the capital, right?) will work better to make people question the reality of capitalism and buying things for the sake of it. The sight of a bag of Walkers hand crafted from felt nestling between the real salt ’n’ vinegar would be at least jarring, if not quite startling. The Cornershop, full of felt, is far too soft and cuddly to really expose the jagged edges of our consumer culture.

You can visit The Cornershop every day during August between 10am and 7pm, at 19 Wellington Row, London E2 7BB. www.thecornershoponline.com  

(Pictures from The Guardian)

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