As you step out of London’s North Greenwich tube station under the shadow of the O2 Arena, you will notice a bra, a stiletto shoe and a corset. You can’t miss them. They’re monumental in size and made of steel.
They’re located outside the Now Gallery in what has become known as Greenwich Peninsula’s Design District, where various creative industries have been encouraged to gather together and which is to be opened officially in 2019. So, in one way at least, the pieces are very much in keeping with the atmosphere of their surroundings. They’ll stay there for six months.
They are the work of London-based Greek artist Kalliopi Lemos and are part of a series she calls Tools of Endearment, that address the position of women in society. Two of the works, Bra and Stiletto Heel, have been displayed before, the latter until recently in Soho’s Golden Square, while Corset is new.
Tools of Endearment provide a metaphor for the protection women need in order to face the demands made upon them by a male-dominated society. The title, she assures me, is not ironic.
“The word ‘tools’ suggests a kind of manipulation of endearment. A woman is trying to attract love but, at the same time, she wants to protect herself and put on these sharp blades and armour-like underwear. While she needs to function in society, she receives a lot of abuse and bad treatment. She needs to show that she’s attractive, is a good mother, good at her work in every way but knows that she’s efficient, knows that she is beautiful but people abuse her so she needs to put up some defence.”
Each of the pieces represent items that are in some ways constricting on the body, particularly the corset. Lemos is saying that on a higher level, the things that try to make you beautiful also cause you pain which could also serve as a symbol for any marginalised or repressed group. There is no body in the sculptures – these are universal metaphors.
The sheer scale of the works, two and a half metres high, emphasises the meaning and importance of what she’s trying to say. It reflects too the heroic nature of the female struggle for equality. It’s poignant that the exhibition is opening at a time when women’s voices are shrill with the Harvey Weinstein scandal over sexual harassment, the gender pay gap row, and, of course, the 100th anniversary of female suffrage in Britain.
Kalliopi Lemos has been tackling the issue of women’s rights for some years. She sculpted grotesque and distorted female forms for a show in 2013 at the Istanbul Biennale to highlight female abuse. She also made a prize-winning film, At the Centre of the World, in which a young woman wakes to find herself trapped in a spherical steel cage in which she tries to escape, thereby fighting against oppression and fighting for her freedom and dignity in the world.
She will continue the theme at another show in March at the Gazelli Art House in which she will feature the verses of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho. Of her, Lemos says “She was so sincere, so immediate and so free that she was a tremendous symbol of feminine discourse 3,000 years ago. And here we are in 2018 still trying to find our voice, still trying to talk about things that are happening to us.”
These are thought-provoking sculptures – intimate female clothing challenging the urban landscape which has become a kind of infinite wardrobe. Normally small and soft items are now rendered metallic and monumental like the issues they symbolise. One hopes that the people who interact with the sculptures by sitting in the stiletto or pulling at the bra straps will also give a thought to what they’re trying to say.
The images are courtesy of the artist and Now Gallery.