13/01/17 to 29/01/17
130 Vicar Lane, Leeds, U.K.
Artists: May Hands, Jemma Egan, Lindsay Mendick, Rebecca Molloy, Paloma Proudfoot, Sarah Roberts
I just managed to get to see SellYourSelf before it closes on Sunday 29th Jan (tomorrow, as I write – sorry!) and I’m very glad I did.
Situated in one of East Street Arts’s pop up exhibition spaces, next to the Leeds Print Workshop, passers by could be forgiven for mistaking the installation as an actual retail unit, with the aesthetic of a low rent nail bar or market stall selling hair extensions and perfume. Though the bizarre double ended banana ceramic sculpture in the window could make you think you were about to purchase some quirky homewares, or enter a sex shop. (Or maybe that’s just me….. I do read Viz.)
I was welcomed warmly by artist Sarah Roberts, who was sitting behind a bespoke chipboard table, playing the role of shop assistant and artist all at once.
The densly packed interior gave a realistic retail environment, unlike the usual art space method of giving each artwork a lot of space between each object. This felt like being in a huge metaphorical puzzle, with many objects to decipher and make associations with. Shop fittings were used to display artifacts which I was encouraged to rifle through and examine as one might in a shop.
The intention of SellYourSelf is to “explore the relationship between sculptural installation and the alluring yet perturbing nature of the world of retail and constructed leisure/pleasure spaces.” To this end large slabs of acrylic, with coloured prints of gels and creams on them hung from metal islands, fabric sample swatches hung from the wall and small sculptures and objects such as more black ceramic fruits and strange pink and brown ‘chicken nuggets’ were displayed in glass cabinets. A mannequin wore a pair of faux-suede backless chaps and on the wall there was what appeared to be a straight jacket like tubular construction made (I think) from a padded bomber jacket. There was a display of hair extensions and fabric, and a perfume island, with bottles of perfumes that looked like the type you find in Poundland. I commented on how nice the smell was in the ‘shop’ and Roberts explained that the diffuser on top of the perfume display was pumping out her signature scent that she had developed, using the bulk synthetic fragrances that pad out many cheap perfumes. I was kind of embarrassed that my olfactory tastes would betray my proletariat nature so well! I do love a bottle of ‘Exclamation!’… 😉
When I was examining the ceramic fruit on the glass case, Roberts admitted candidly that though the artist Paloma Proudfoot usually exhibited these in galleries where they couldn’t be handled, resetting them in a ‘retail’ environment where they could be picked up made Roberts desire them more and want to own them; something she described as making her feel guilty. I found this fascinating, that one would ascribe feelings of guilt to wanting to buy and own an item that is normally revered for its conceptual rigor rather than the seductive weight and sheen, or pleasing shape in one’s hand. It illustrated to me the gulf between what is considered fine art and what is considered craft, where many ceramicists would gladly display pots in a shop, and sell their pieces on these very tactile and aesthetic attributes.
The number and variety of items in the installations are too many to pick up on here, but they included flumps (long, phallic marshmallows), two videos (one showing women in leotards – possibly the artists? – dancing and posing with plaster eyeballs and large flat wooden breasts from which they drank shots of milk, and holding pink plastic apples. The symbolism of apples, and eyes could be an iphone reference… selfies? And there’s the original sin reference whenever a woman holds an apple in art. Is this the sin of vanity, as seen on social media? – The second video involved a woman’s hand being dipped in pink gloopy liquid, then stuck with feathers and glitter glue and gems. Is this a reference to witch testing, or being tarred and feathered?), a changing room made of plastic strips with photographic prints of pink gel, with a matching swimsuit, ceramic(?) fast food drinks cups, and plaster eyeballs on hooks (made me think about butcher’s hooks, and ‘Having a butcher’s’ – ie having a good look). I really could have done with a few hours in there to try and figure it all out!
The fake retail atmosphere of SellYourSelf was familiar and somewhat soothing, and as I talked with Roberts who was very helpful in explaining the installation to me I felt that she took on the role similar to that of a retail assistant; friendly, encouraging and available to chat. I assume that this is because the artist has a genuine enthusiasm for making the art accessible to visitors and obviously because of her own lovely personality – but it did make me think about other experiences visiting art exhibitions where I have vainly tried to strike up conversations with artists or invigilators about the art; and also the general church like reverence people usually display when visiting galleries. Being an artist who has worked extensively in retail too, I enjoyed seeing the two worlds collide.
I wondered if the ‘shop’ was generally a less intimidating way for people to engage with art than a standard gallery experience. I asked if anyone had come into the shop thinking that it was a real shop, and Roberts said yes, and that she of course welcomed them in and explained the situation. I really wish that had happened when I was visiting so that I could gauge a reaction, as I had deliberately gone there knowing it was an art installation. As I mentioned above, I really don’t know if I would have walked in at all if I had mistaken it for an actual shop.
When considering art and commerce as two separate entities, it’s worth remembering that fine art is the choice investment of billionaires and cultural institutions and is regarded not only as something that can accrue material value for the owner but can offer cultural salvation and be a soothing leisure activity. And so shopping for many is as much a legitimate leisure pursuit as engaging with art, and for the very rich, the two can be combined!
Before visiting SellYourSelf, I had a small fear that the exhibition would have a moral tone that alienated other retail outlet neighbours. This was unfounded when I arrived, but I had seen this happen once in Leeds when artists took over spaces in the Merrion Centre indoor markets – I sat in a neighbouring cafe listening to stall holders coming into the cafe and complaining about their artist neighbours and their perception that the artists thought they were better than everyone else. They thought that the people coming to look at the art were not spending money in their shops (which possibly they weren’t) and they thought that the art was elitist and excluded them. It was ironic that in the attempt to integrate themselves into the retail and working class community, and bring art into the non-art world, the artists had actually alienated the people they were hoping to reach.
SellYourSelf’s aesthetic reference points are very much female beauty and glamour and with that go connotations of fakery and questions about ‘real’ beauty. In a time when consumers demand artisan coffee and craft beer and the ‘no make up’ movement is a growing trend, people are turning more to consumer choices that offer a link to the handmade, and a guarantee of authenticity. Tired of feeling manipulated, shoppers are looking for handmade, ‘sincere’ products, and in this respect surely art is that commodity. Whether art wants to acknowledge its link to dirty cash is another subject and its something that SellYourSelf has been very successful in making me question.