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hermanns 2001 art award
Few things on this planet can compete with the shoe as an object of desire; it is the fetish item par excellence, stock in trade of the femme fatale, indelibly linked with excess and corruption (and 'fess up-how many of us, whilst tsk tsking at the extravagance, did not experience a secret twinge of envy at lmelda's outrageous shoe collection?). The deserving winners of this year's Hermanns Art Award, Julie Rrap (1st prize) and Prue Venables (2nd prize) were among the few entries that managed to transcend the Award's simple brief for shoe inspired art and comment on the absurdity of our slavery to the shoe. Venables's immaculately glazed porcelain slippers sit atop modest cardboard boxes in Memories of ldonia. This demure footwear almost suggests the comfortable slipper yet the imposed geometry and ceramic construction render it unwearable. The child-like dimensions also hint at foot binding practices; like Cinderella the chosen's 'model' servitude and humility are embodied in an impossibly cruel, yet beautiful, slipper. Julie Rrap's deliciously repellent Overstepping presents a Western scenario for foot binding, although cosmetic surgery is more likely to claim responsibility for grafting the human heel into a permanent stiletto. One is reminded of Venezuelan beauty pageants and supermodels- airbrushed, lipo-sucked and scalpelled into increasingly impossible paragons of thinness and beauty. Rrap puts the digital print, based as it is in photographic 'reality', to particularly effective use. Overstepping is both compelling and disturbing precisely because it might be possible; it looks real. The stiletto-archetypal fetish shoe-understandably dominates the Hermanns, but is celebrated most unashamedly by Sue Saxon. Her thigh-high, chain mail, stainless steel heeled and toed boots with matching suspender belt are easily the yummiest and most covetable footwear on display. This is battle armour for the warrior sex goddess. The suspender belt, its traditionally fragile lace replaced with the finest chain mail, doubles as a chastity belt. The tiny metal beads that hang from its waistband promise to jingle with every stride; the sound of all your Christmases coming at once. The accompanying photograph was unfortunate, tending to relegate the boots exclusively to the realm of fashion. A surprising number of finalists paid tribute to shoes of the past, particularly the seventies and eighties, resulting in an overall 'dated' feel to the award. lt is probably indicative of the limitations of a theme based award, where artists must conform their practice to an 'artificial' subject. Stefan Gevers's platform heeled, white felled, leather trimmed, blanket stitched posts with curved tops look all the world like refugees from the Yellow Submarine. Somewhere between periscope and Finnish ugg boot, the four progressively shorter 'boots' in March 2001 seem to owe allegiance more to the occasional table than the human foot. A different nostalgia is at work in Virginia Ryan's Centra Passi a collection of one hundred sepia photographs. These are regular, common-garden variety shoes, all of them worn, many slightly shabby, propped on hessian bags or the occasional wooden wedge. Ryan documents the signs of roads travelled, of miles walked, of dirt trammelled, of decidedly human journeys. The Hermanns is one of the more accessible of the contemporary art awards, and the comments I overheard were overwhelmingly favourable. Its appeal no doubt lies in its license to indulge one's secret shoe vanities and fantasies, granted to both artist and viewer, but the overall impression was one of a token nod to the subject. For most of the artists, their fetishes and passions clearly lie elsewhere.