Growing up under the gray skies of post-recession Britain, Lucy Sparrow was mesmerized by the Technicolor splendors of Los Angeles. She was obsessed with the power of bright colors, catchy logos, and familiar forms. These days, Sparrow's art installations take a cue from Hollywood's glossy imitation of reality, but with a twist that infuses the ordinary bits of life with wonder.
What Sparrow is best-known for is building a series of corner stores, pharmacies, and even a sex shop where all the merchandise is meticulously crafted out of felt. She recognized the charm of recasting commonplace items in an unexpected material, and tapped into the persistent cultural identity that comes from consumption (cue Barbara Kruger’s I shop therefore I am ).
Last summer, Sparrow opened a felt bodega in New York City selling plush produce, junk food, and even felt condoms. The installation, 8 'Till Late, drew so many visitors that it closed in under a month—a full week early—because the shop sold out. (Everything in the store was for sale, with prices starting at just $1.)
On the heels of that incredible success, Sparrow just opened her fifth fully-felted installation, Sparrow Mart in Downtown Los Angeles, modeled on the city's ubiquitous convenience stores. It's four times larger than the New York show and took a year to create, and it's stocked with more than 31,000 items, all of which are for sale.
I caught up with her as she was putting the finishing touches on Sparrow Mart in LA to chat about her fondness for felt and why she's obsessed with supermarkets.
VICE: Could you speak about your inspiration for Sparrow Mart?
Lucy Sparrow: New York was a bodega, but here it’s bigger, it’s brighter, it’s a brash way of doing things. I grew up working in supermarkets so that was always an inspiration, to recreate real life. It’s like an escape—it’s a violent and scary world out there and anything we can do to get away is very calming. The supermarket is very comforting. Nothing really goes wrong here, short of something falling off the shelf, and even then it doesn’t matter.
What makes this an important place to explore in your artwork?
Some of the most important artworks have come out of times of uncertainty. As artists, we respond to that. Some people go one way of addressing the issue head-on and other people use a wonderful technique known as distraction [ _laughs_]. It’s like an alternative to real life. I find that I can always retreat.
What do you think it is about the combination of soft material, familiar object, and cute installation that makes people go bananas, so to speak?
It harkens back to childhood—whether something is in a different material, or it is too big or too small. Something that is turned on its head, it’s very difficult for people to dismiss. They realize something they look at every day looks different because someone has presented it in a different way, a way that surprises them.
Even the most hardened person would find it difficult not to be moved when they see something that is so normal in such unusual material. You think of a bottle of Windex, and you’ve never given a second thought to the trigger handle, but then you realize, “Oh, that’s really lovely and now that it’s made of felt, it feels even lovelier.”
How do you choose which objects to create?
A lot of things go into it. Number one: Is it a good color and is the logo strong? Unless you’ve got something that is going to pop out, it’s not going to look good. It has to be iconic. The most common color I use is red. Anything that you see in the cleaning aisles is very calm and blue-colored. There’s a lot of research that goes into this.
The other thing is: Does it have a funny name? Also embarrassing items—I like doing that, like toiletries. A good font, I love. If a product is particularly well-known to people in that area, I need to make it realistic and choose the right ones. Or sometimes it’s just: “Do I like it? Yes!”
I’ve always been interested in tiny details that some people don’t notice but other people definitely do. When you come to any of the shows, you can spend three hours here and still see new details. It’s like a treasure hunt. It really draws you in. Your subconscious has such a massive part to play in it, like: “Where are the Goya beans? Oh, there they are!”
What was your process for researching Sparrow Mart?
I’m always photographing supermarkets whether I am allowed or not and constantly going through the pictures. You become such a nerd about things like shelving. I know how to put them together. I know model numbers [ _laughs_]. It’s a passion of putting on something that is so huge and such a narrative of expertise. I’m actually more worried about people who work in supermarkets full-time seeing if I got that right than I am about the general public.
Can you share some of the secrets of market research used by supermarkets that you’ve learned over the years?
There are teams of people around the world and it’s their job to decide what goes where in a supermarket. They decide how things will be grouped, and where the next logical step occurs. I’m interested in those layouts, those details, where it has taken years and years of investigation to achieve the ultimate shopping experience, where you will spend the most money, whether it’s down to impulse buys or the fake smell of fresh-baked bread. That’s really powerful. People are paid a lot of money to do this research!
People have no idea what goes into it in normal supermarkets. When I stocked the shelves, I’d ask, “Does it really matter if it’s three rows wide and four rows back?” and they would say, “Yes, it’s on the spreadsheet. It needs to go like that.” [ _laughs_]
Do you bring this knowledge to your installations?
Oh, absolutely, right down to the layouts of where the things should be. I like the way things are grouped, where the next logical step occurs. Like refried beans—what would they be displayed next to? The mind goes crazy with it. It’s so immersive.
You’re a part of the show. How does that work?
I’m there every single day; I’m there opening up and closing the door. That is part of the thing—it’s a performance. Whether I am ill, tired, annoyed, it really is an experience doing one of these shows because there is no escape. It’s really rewarding to have people tell me how much they like it, especially after having spent a year in a very small group of people and then suddenly there are all these people, and it’s like, “Oh! I have to come out of my cave and interact.”
Could you speak about the importance of creating affordable art?
It’s really important to me to have accessible art. Most people can come in, and even if it’s down to buying a pack of postcards, there is something you can take away from the exhibition so it doesn’t alienate anyone. Anyone can afford it and they are not going to be excluded.
Would you describe your work as a comment on consumerism?
It’s never been a critique of consumerism at all. It’s a celebration of how much everyday objects and brands that we love can bring someone so much joy. Someone can be in the hospital and you bring them their favorite chocolate bar, and instantly their mood is lifted.
I think people are way too quick to call consumerism evil. I am sure on some meta scale consumerism is bad but we are all making these choices of buying stuff. We have built a society where we can swap money to get things. That’s not to say it’s about expensive things. If I like something, I like it for what it is. It’s about cherishing objects as much as people and I find that special.
Sparrow Mart is on view at The Standard, Downtown LA, through August 31, 2018.
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