Inside, Sparrow—a petite, bespectacled presence—advises visitors on the best way to frame the replica Playboy covers available for purchase (she recommends an A4 triple picture frame). Only 29, she appears younger in her navy hoodie and printed Converse, but she's already been compared to the likes of Tracey Emin and American sculptor Claes Oldenburg.Her debut show, The Cornershop, first brought her to the attention of the art world in August last year. The installation filled a derelict store in Bethnal Green with over 4,000 handmade felt versions of familiar grocery items, made possible after a Kickstarter page raised over £10,000 and secured additional funding from the UK Arts Council.
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"In the run-up to this installation, I literally spent all day, every day for five months hand- stitching in my felt cave—a felt-lined room on a farm in the Essex countryside," Sparrow says.I wonder whether she enjoys the visual dissonance between her medium and what she depicts. After all, most people don't associate hand-stitched textile work with ten-inch black strap-ons."For me, [the dissonance] is an integral and complimentary part of my life. I'd sit sewing in the lap-dancing clubs between clients so felt has always gone hand in hand with that… I understand this isn't the case for most people, but I think felt is a great medium for raising the questions around sexuality and censorship because it's so accessible and non-threatening."
I'd sit sewing in the lap-dancing clubs between clients so felt has always gone hand in hand with that.
One visitor in Sparrow's shop confirms exactly what she says. Dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit, with a perfect gold grill between his front teeth, Kenneth Barnetson runs a sex shop called Simply Pleasure, one of the few left standing in the area. He says he has spent 37 years watching Soho change beyond recognition.
One woman told me how sad they were when the sex shop next door to her daughter's school finally closed after rents spiralled.
I ask Sparrow about sex worker rights, which have been slowly gathering pace in the UK, with legislators in Scotland currently considering decriminalization. "I think the move to get sex work and pornography regulated and criminalized in various parts of the world is problematic. While of course I completely abhor the practice of people being trafficked for sex, I totally support the right of sex workers who make an informed choice to work in that industry to do so. It's their body and their right. It's not for male politicians, religious types or feminists to proscribe what they can do with their own bodies."Leaving the installation, I walk out into a chilly Wednesday afternoon in Soho. Just around the corner, I pass the site of Madame Jojo's, the legendary former burlesque club considered by many to be the heart of the area's nightlife, now closed down. I think back to what Kenneth, the sex shop manager, told me: "I don't think there will be many sex shops left in Soho in the next ten or fifteen years. There will be one or two, scattered around. The sex industry is dying, in front of our very eyes."
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