“Give us a smile, love.”
Surely that jovial statement can’t be street harassment. The speaker isn’t name-calling or slut-shaming. They aren’t grabbing you or following you along the street – but this comment is more than just a comment; it is a command. Someone else is demanding that you make yourself seem more friendly, amiable and sweet for their gratification. Ren Aldridge, Fine Art graduate from Goldsmiths, recognises this underlying message and challenges it. Through the creation of a large-scale, imposing sculpture, she is turning this intangible ‘passing comment’ into an ‘asshole’ of a sculpture. I met with Ren at her exhibition at ULU Play House Project space to talk about her work and the importance of feminism today.
All of Ren’s work exhibited at the Play House Project centres round the theme of street harassment. The work ranges from the monumental sculpture to interactive maps and includes an accumulative video piece showing the mouths of young women speaking street harassment phrases on repeat. (If you wish to add your own clip, you can do so here). The range of work, from the physically assertive to a focus on sharing experience, reflects Ren’s feminism and her personal approach to fighting sexism.
“Give Us A Smile Love” was made by welding, sawing and hammering – hard physical work most commonly associated with men’s graft. The ability to use your body to affect and impact the environment around you is something usually left to men, but it is important that women should be awarded this empowering ability as well. I feel I can relate to this: lifting heavy boxes of stock over four floors of a busy pub leaves me feeling proud of my strength. Yet, it is not just about the physical capability to do this heavy work, but having the will power and stamina to carry it out. Ren had the vision, the determination and the skill to create a mammoth sculpture and she was able to do it herself – a woman. Even so, we still refer to women as ‘tomboys’ if they choose to carry out strong physical tasks. Society seems unable to handle people who bend the rules of gender.
The interactive maps, which allow people to note their experiences of street harassment, reveals another side of Ren’s practice. Much like the way her sculpture turns a common, light phrase into something unavoidable, her maps become overwhelming in their collection of street harassment stories. Seated around a kitchen table in an area of the exhibition space, visitors are invited to share and discuss their experiences of street harassment, and create a 3-D network of stories on the surrounding walls. The diversity of experience is astounding, but the similarities are striking. People’s experiences shared feelings of frustration, fear and disempowerment. In providing a place for people to share this, Ren is making a strong case for community and unity.
The kitchen table is an important motif in Ren’s work and life. Active in the D.I.Y and Punk music scenes, Ren hosts gigs in her kitchen, and plans events and coordinates her group clothing line House of Astbury from her kitchen table. One notable influence on her work and life is Audre Lorde, a civil rights activist who co-founded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press – the first U.S publisher for women of colour. As the name suggests, the publishing company was established around, and works from, a kitchen table. As a symbolic motif, the table represents D.I.Y culture and a rejection of corporate establishments as the only means for creating and becoming active. The table emphasises the importance of community and shared experience. Perhaps ironically, the kitchen table also symbolises women’s domestic work.
However, Ren is subverting this link to domesticity. Instead of using the table as a symbol of being ‘tied to the kitchen’, she is using it as a symbol for liberation and activism, as a tool for women who may not be able to access feminist activity outside of their home.
For Ren, feminism is about breaking down gender binary codes and building an intersectional community of empowered, active and exciting people. These people aren’t going to accept that they have to act according to a set of rules prescribed by society. These are a community of people who aren’t going to smile simply when they’re told to.
To find out more about Ren and her work, click here.
Article by Rebecca Livesey-Wright