High Fructose Corn Syrup. Image courtesy of the artist
It was likely back in the teenage years and little more than a pen or something of similar value, but many people have shoplifted at least once in their life. It's one of those crimes that, while far from victimless, is undertaken by a large swath of society because it's seen as no big deal (which, of course it is for the shopkeeper) and can be done swiftly and spontaneously. It's also undertaken for various reasons, perhaps a mini act of rebellion against consumerism; or a product of self-assessed entitlement; sometimes it's just for thrill-seeking; and for some it's thought of as a desperate act of necessity. It's also the subject of a new show from British artist Lucy Sparrow, a.k.a., the Queen of Felt,at London's Lawrence Alkin Gallery. Known as Shoplifting, the show features some of the most frequently shop-stolen items in the UK, including luxury products like Chanel No. 5 perfume, Creme de la Mer moisturizer, a Chanel handbag, and a Fabergé egg—all of them crafted in felt and displayed behind glass cabinets, to entice but prevent would-be thieves.
Image courtesy of the artist "Shoplifting is fascinating to me," Sparrow tells The Creators Project. "In the UK at least, but I imagine this is the case in a lot of countries, it almost seems to be a rite of passage for a lot of teenagers. Their first sniff of rebellion swiping a lipstick or some sweets [candy] on an after school pilgrimage to town. However this isn’t something that is just exclusive to teenagers and that is what I find interesting. There is no way to spot a shoplifter. Police say that there is no set criminal profile for your average non-professional petty thief. It could be anyone. So is everyone a suspect? Also it’s certainly the most classless crime, rich or poor, the items might change but the methods are often the same. Shoplifting focuses on the different items that are vulnerable to a light fingered thief." Sparrow herself has come into contact with the odd shoplifter from her time spent working in a supermarket when she was younger. Working there she says gave her an education in how to spot suspicious behavior, so she could then alert security. She has also been on the other side of this game of cat and mouse. "Let’s just say I may have almost got banned from the local Boots [a pharmacy chain] at one point!"
For Richer for Poorer. Image courtesy of the artist In these post-financial crash times where food bank usage remains at a record high since 2008, with major factors for referral being low income and benefit delays, it's no surprise to learn that more people are shoplifting—either to get the actual product or sell it on for money. "Retail crime is on the rise," notes Sparrow. "We are constantly bombarded with advertising for products ranging from luxurious to more every day. Consumerism is on the rise, I think most people use things as a comfort and in uncertain times I think people turn for material comfort more than ever. The pressure for needing the latest version of something or rising costs of every day items drives people sometimes to resort to desperation. Or needing to inject some adrenaline into their daily lives, they need some sort of rush to fill a void. Meat theft is on the rise amongst drug addicts, as a quick source of income stuffing steaks into concealed pockets and selling them on for half the price in pubs or round estates."
Her. Image courtesy of the artist The show, for Sparrow, is not only a way to address this issue but also to take a humorous look at this petty crime and its place in our wider culture. Of all the illegal acts, it's not considered the most morally appalling or nefarious, yet it does have huge consequences for the retail industry. It's also symptomatic of all these shiny, colorful products staring at us when we enter a store. Their packaging and placement has been honed through a huge effort—careful design, studies on buying behaviors—to make us want them. Sometimes that want becomes an urge to take.
"I think consumerism plays a part," says Sparrow. "I think people have become more impatient and waiting for new things seems to be unreasonable. We as society have become more materialistic, I think advertising does have its part to play with its tendency to suggest that we can’t be happy unless we have x, y, z—but obviously it’s down to the individual purchaser as well, a little willpower."
Image courtesy of the artist The show exhibits the vast variety of products that get poached, from packs of bacon to cheese, condom packets to pregnancy tests, chewing gum, and a huge variety of medicines and beauty—male and female—products. All of them recreated and replicated by Sparrow in the hues and shapes of their recognisible packaging—but given over to the soft, bloated, coziness of felt. It's like they've come from a kids' playset, except with the contradiction that no kids' playset would contain imitation Prozac.
Image courtesy of the artist Sparrow has previously recreated an entire cornershop from felt and also the products of a sex shop, including porn mags and bondage gear. So why felt? "Felt as a medium is non-confrontational but I have found that it seems to spark conversation because it is a more approachable and brings up often difficult subjects in an easier way," Sparrow explains. "As long as difficult subjects are being talked about I think it doesn’t matter how they are brought to peoples’ attention. But the colors and familiarity of felt bring a level of nostalgia that really encourages interaction with the art and those people who are viewing the installation at the same time. I used to love fuzzy felt sets as a child, the idea that you had the set pieces but essentially you could make up the scene however you wanted, mine were always a little weird and different."
Him. Image courtesy of the artist