I am in a sex shop in the heart of London's red light district, browsing racks of pornographic DVDs. I draw closer to inspect Face Gush, featuring a mixed-race girl masturbating and squirting over a disembodied, floating male head. Fat drops of purplish ejaculate drip down into his left eye. Nearby, a DVD called Period Virgins depicts a panty-clad girl merrily dripping blood onto white sheets.
This is no ordinary sex shop. I'm at the new solo show of artist Lucy Sparrow, who creates large-scale installations from textiles, predominantly felt. For her latest show, Sparrow has taken over a former barbershop in the heart of Soho, which she has renamed Madame Roxy's Erotic Emporium. Until October 17, members of the public can visit to view or purchase over 5000 sex products ranging from condoms (to be dispensed from a working condom machine) to spanking paddles. Everything—right down to the butt plugs, helpfully arranged in size order—has been constructed by hand, entirely from felt.
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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.
A former lap-dancer, Sparrow explains that Madame Roxy's is the culmination of a lifelong ambition. "I worked in the sex industry for five years to fund my first exhibition, [The] Cornershop. This is the show I wanted to do from the start, but I had to work my way up to it." I ask how lap-dancing compares to her current career as an artist.
"To be honest, I thought nothing of going on stage naked and dancing—but the fear that courses through me on the opening night of an exhibition is immense. That's when you're really naked and vulnerable."
As I browse the shop, I'm drawn to a glass display case showing a selection of gold and silver metallic butt plugs, displayed alongside diamante eye masks reading "slave" and intricately sewn ball gags. In the corner, a life-sized felt man looms large, his gimp mask and knee-high boots only accentuating his enormous, hand-sewn black strap-on. The sign around his neck says, "Madame Roxy Does Not Accept Returns On Dildos, Vibrators or Butt Plugs." Fair enough.
I'd sit sewing in the lap-dancing clubs between clients so felt has always gone hand in hand with that.
"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."
Soho was traditionally the heart of the UK sex industry, a place of neon-lit sex shops and peep shows, titty bars and working girls and boys. Much has been written about the gentrification of this particular part of London; the threat from developers, stricter regulation from local authorities, and diminished demand for pornographic magazines and DVDs have all caused dramatic change in this once-louche corner of the city.
Madame Roxy's is Sparrow's tribute to a Soho that will soon be no more. "Soho has a rich history as a permissive corner of our capital city, yet it is now filled with coffee shops, bakers and brands, brands, brands. This is a subject so many people visiting Madame Roxy's want to discuss—one woman told me how sad they were when the sex shop next door to her daughter's school finally closed after rents spiralled."
One woman told me how sad they were when the sex shop next door to her daughter's school finally closed after rents spiralled.
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.
"It's unrecognisable. This is nothing like Soho used to be many years ago. Then, it was a thriving hub of underground pornography... Over the last fifteen years, [the porn industry] has been saturated by the Internet. So the porn industry is really dying. So you walk around and you see coffee shops everywhere—all the porn shops have gone."
Sparrow's work also explores the increasing politicization of sexual desire. Last year, the UK government amended the 2003 Communications Act, prohibiting certain practices from being depicted in porn. The new regulations banned spanking, caning, female (but not male) ejaculation, and face sitting from British-made pornography, to widespread protest from workers in the sex industry. DVDs such as Face Gush would never appear in a real British pornographic shop.
"Why [is the government legislating] when sex is a perfectly natural and normal activity that ensures the continuation of the species?" Sparrow says. "Where is the harm in two consenting adults taking part in mutually enjoyable pastimes? Why are we legislating against bodily functions? It's a crazy neo-Victorian paternalism that I think we all need to be wary of."
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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."