There is going to be a moment, late on a Friday evening in NYC, during the run of Lucy Sparrow’s 9,000 piece bodega pop-up, 8 'Till Late, where someone is going to walk in and want to buy a cigarette. And Lucy is going to, straight-faced, hand someone a felt Marlboro, and the unsuspecting customer will, indeed, come to the realization that they are in a world of… felt.
For the past seven years, UK-based Sparrow has taken the universal moments of daily life, trips to the corner store, sex shop or deli, and transformed them into installations of felt, where each item is constructed as both parody and ode to consumerism, but also a reimagining of the intersection of art and life. 8 'Till Late will be her first major exhibition in the US, nestled into the Meatpacking District, around the corner from one of the world’s most famed art institutions, the Whitney Museum of American Art. In volume and scope, Sparrow is making space outside of the art world, while concurrently placing herself right in the middle of the conversation among universe-creating visionaries.
Evan Pricco: You sound busy. What are you doing right now?
Lucy Sparrow: I'm painting Doritos as I'm talking to you. I've got three flavors on the go. Cool Ranch, Nacho Cheese, and Jalapeño.
Explain to us what you are working on for NYC.
I'm working on 9,000 felt pieces of food to go into a fully fitted-out convenience store. So that means, well, today, I spent most of the day in fridge number two. I've got a drinks fridge, and this is a savory fridge. I was literally on top of the fridge today, all day, sewing the roof on. So all the fixings are covered in felt as well. There's hopefully not gonna be a single bit of the room which isn't covered in felt. Except the ceiling.
You're five weeks out, so how many pieces have you done so far?
I reckon I'm on about 6,000. But, actually, most of them are done, they just need painting.
When you started the idea for the New York bodega, did you have a general idea of how much you would put into it? Or, once you started doing your research, did you think, "Oh, damn, this is going to be 9,000 pieces." I mean, is there a particular understanding of what you're getting yourself into?
The number one overbearing rule I have is that each project has got to be bigger and better than the one before. That's kind of the rule of felt. So, in this case, it has to be bigger and better than The Cornershop in the UK, The Gun Show, The Sex Shop, and The Deli at Scope in Miami…
Yeah. It all sort of goes from there. I also made the decision quite early on that everything will be sold off the shelf. Because that was the only thing that sort of let Cornershop down, really. I didn't know how popular it was going to be. I was like, "Oh, I'll just have six cans of beans," and then it's, like, fuck, I needed 300 cans of beans! So now, everything is going to be sold in the store, people can literally go in and put stuff in the shopping basket and buy it.
It can literally function as an actual bodega?
Yes, unless I get totally mobbed, which I'm slightly... I'm really more worried that we're going to clear out in the first week, than if no one comes.
So your felt factory is coming to New York from your UK studio, then? Just in case you need backup product?
Yes, 100%. I'm bringing the sewing machine, so it's gonna be that shelves are clearing and I’ll be trying to restock them at the same time. I don't know how that's gonna go.
And are you going to be working the bodega everyday?
Yes, 8AM until late, so the store's called 8 'Till Late. Otherwise it's not genuine, is it? It's supposed to be crazy. It's supposed to be like, "Oh my God, we've been here for 16 hours!” I'm going to do that for an entire month.
Well, if you’re an actual employee at a bodega, you're there 16 hours a day and nobody questions it. But because you're an artist, someone's gonna question it.
I think it would actually be illegal for me to work 16 hours right? Unless I owned the bodega myself. I work 16 hours a day anyway, so this won’t be too much of a change.
In the UK you are known, and you have actually worked all your installations. If you did something there, would it not feel like a surprise anymore?
Maybe this is my chance to go for surprise. I think if it was in London, I wouldn't be able to do that again. In the States, I get this new audience. People aren't gonna come in and be, like, "Of course, this is the felt girl who made the felt Cornershop, unless they're specifically going there. I think people are gonna be like, "What the fuck is this?” I'm hoping for that real surprise element, because that actually did happen with the first Cornershop. People lost their shit because they weren't expecting it, and that's amazing if I can keep it going.
Where is the installation going to be?
It’s at 69 W. 12th Street in the Meatpacking District around the corner from the Whitney Museum and Standard Hotel. It's what I've always wanted. There will be a felt hot dog stand on the corner, sort of like welcoming people in.
Was there a particular bodega on which you’re basing this?
I've seen some pretty good ones in the Lower East Side and quite a lot in Brooklyn, but it was really a sort of a mishmash of all of them together. I wanted that kind of tired branding, so that's why it's called 8 ’Till Late. The narrative is basically that it's an off-brand 7-Eleven that's been franchised, but sort gone downhill a little bit, things are a bit tired. Boxes aren't undone and stocked in the shelves very well, and the uniforms are a little dated. It’s set in the 1990s.
This is more about you, you as Lucy Sparrow, who's going to be sitting in there... you do play a character, in a way, and you are asking people play along with the whole experience, right?
I love it when people play along, but I'm kind of surprised when it happens. I remember when someone came in to Cornershop, and with a deadpanned face said, "Can I have a lottery ticket?" And I sold them a lottery ticket and they literally just took it out of my hands, a felt lottery ticket, and walked out of the store. And I was, like, "Is that person mental? Are they playing along really well, or are they taking the piss out of me?" I don't know which one it is and there was quite a lot of that. I had this one couple that came in and they'd made their own felt checkbook and they tried to pay with a felt check. They researched the show, made a felt checkbook, and came to pay for their groceries with a felt check.
I’m curious about you in relation to your on-site projects, because there is this tradition of artists creating their own universes and worlds, most recently like Damien Hirst’s project in Venice, or anything Banksy does. Those artists don’t have to be present to make it all work for the audience, but you personally are part of the experience. Does that add a little pressure?
I don't feel like it exists without me it. Not in a kind of God complex way or anything, but I feel like I've got this huge responsibility as narrator. I'm maybe the person holding the puppet strings, sort of bringing it to life. It's so ingrained in me, and I'm so ingrained in it, there's no separation between the two.
If you sent the felt factory to San Francisco and I ran it, it wouldn't work.
That's right. I need to be there, and I don't like being away from there. If I'm away, I'm missing it. It’s like not attending your own party or something.
What am I going to see when I walk into 8 'Till Late?
So, from the outside, there'll be a fruit and veggie stand. They all greet you as you come in, and they've got faces because they're the only things that are alive. They're the only living things apart from the cockroaches and the mice in the meat counter. And flies; we've got a fly zapper.
You walk in the door, and on the floor is checkered linoleum, sort of retro looking. To your left, you've got a video rental for movies. You can get every kind of grocery that you could imagine, like hot dogs. There's a pretzel tree, the hotdogs are actually rolling on a hotdog roller, so they're being heated up. On one counter, there's a pizza slide that is spinning around so you can actually go and get a fresh slice of pizza. There's a deli counter that has sausages hanging from the ceiling and big lumps of cheese. But then, amongst all that, you've got your normal groceries: your alcohol behind the counter, your cigarettes. You've got a drinks fridge that's full of cold beverages. You've got newspapers sort of hanging over the door when you come in.
So, wait, hold on. If I want to buy a hot dog, and I want condiments on it, I’m buying a felt hot dog with editioned condiments?
Someone will be serving that to you. I mean, it’s 9,000 pieces of original art.
I just like the idea of New Yorkers stumbling into this place looking for a cigarette on a Friday night.
You're gonna have people that are stumbling out of the neighboring Biergarten thinking they've taken acid or something. That's a real possibility.
8 'Till Late is open for business June 3–30, 2017. It is located at 69 Little West 12th Street in NYC's Meatpacking District. All photos by Halopigg