A group of students from the Masters in Fine Arts course at London’s Goldsmith College have come up with an usual sculpture exhibition at a most unusual venue.
In the backstreets of London near Borough Market, a stone’s throw from the site of the old Marshalsea debtor’s prison made famous in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, lies a small patch of derelict land that has been turned into a wild garden. In the short distance one can see the towering buildings of the City, and closer still, the dominating presence of The Shard, London’s tallest skyscraper. The garden’s railings have become a shrine to honour those recently departed.
This is Crossbones Graveyard which for centuries was the last resting place for outcasts in the area once known as The Mint, one of London’s poorest and most violent slums. It was said to be a no-go area for the police.
The majority of the 15,000 people buried here from the 12th century up to 1853 when it became full up, were women and children, with 40% being foetuses or babies under one. Many of the women were prostitutes who, though they were licensed by the Bishop of Westminster and became known as the “Winchester Geese”, were said to have been denied consecrated burial elsewhere. They plied their trade in the brothels or “stews” in the area known then as The Liberty of the Clink.
The site is now overseen by Bankside Open Spaces Trust along with Friends of Crossbones who, since they formed in 2004, have held a monthly vigil for the outcast living and dead.
For the exhibition, Outside, six sculptors have each created a site-specific work which are now on display in the garden. Co-curator Aubree Penney explained to me the theme. “The idea is to connect this rich history of Crossbones and the idea of outsider communities of impoverished outcasts especially those dealing with sex work to contemporary sex work…we have a strong point of view that we need to spend more time with the history of things and stop thinking they are contained in the past and can be relegated instead of being something more continuous.”
Each sculptor was asked to spend a short time with a sex worker to help inform their work and each developed very different takes. Alexa Phillip’s Terms of Inclusion, Terms of Exclusion (above) involves stepping up to a brothel door reminiscent of those in Amsterdam’s red light district. Her sex worker consultant was very much concerned with how the law affects her and her trade. So, on one side of Phillips’s work, behind red perspex, is a copy of the current government law on the Sexual Offences Act while on the other is a version of what a future act could be. Phillips has annotated both to highlight many of the incongruities of the current Act with regard to terminology, definition, stereotypes and so on, and the precariousness of sex work within the terms of the law.
Aron Rossman-Kiss has modified a child’s dollhouse to address the prejudices which accompany so-called women’s work, be it sex work or domestic duties. Avril Corroon has covered a garden hose with text from Irish sex worker Laura Lee who died recently. It’s moved around the garden to water the plants snd explores the joy derived from having the opportunity to personalise one’s labour.
The most predictable sculpture is Kate Howard’s large pink phallus sex toy that stands as a celebration of sexual agency and is part of a series she’s researching into the oppression of women. “The phallus stands as something of a memorial to the work of some of the women laid to rest here and that it was nothing to be ashamed of,” she explains. Made of styrofoam but heavily coated in paint, the work stands at eight feet tall, a playful nod to the presence of The Shard. Its title, above, is as monumental as the sculpture.
In the corner of the garden stands two flags, the idea of artist Joe Steele. Each contains a quotation from his conversations he’d held on sex work. “To understand sex work you have to do sex work”, says one. “You’re paid to say that”, says the other. “The first point comes up a lot in contemporary art,” says Steele. “At what point are artists allowed to talk about an issue that they’re not directly affected by?”
Richard Ensor’s sculptural contribution to the theme seems, on the surface, somewhat baffling. It comprises a vegetable rack containing potatoes to which wires are attached and with a button to press. A faint flashing LED appears when you do so. It’s basic science – an anode and cathode copper and zinc wire creates a weak current when combined with the acid in the potatoes. For Ensor, the vegetables resemble the bodies beneath the surface referencing the buried bodies that give the site its significance. The cheap laser that’s illuminated is pointing towards The Shard. “I wanted to create a kind of connection between both sites to highlight certain inequities and I think the potatoes giving the laser power was a kind of gesture that made me think about the people that are below our feet and giving this site importance and power.”
Interestingly, the sex worker that Ensor spoke to has graduated as an artist herself. Politically engaged, she’d like to be buried in Crossbones. She and the other sex workers defy stereotypes. More than one say they offer a form of therapy as much as sex to their clients. Some enjoy the work and the money it brings in and the way it gives them flexibility especially when looking after children. Others say they turned to sex work after all other avenues were exhausted.
All seemed to agree though that the world’s oldest profession should be decriminalised and their working conditions made safer. Outside does its best to be thoughtful and respectful towards those they are celebrating and the place they are celebrating in. As Aubree Penney put it, “We’re good guests.”
The sculptures will remain in the Crossbones Garden until 2nd June. Crossbones is in Union Street, London SE1 1SD.