My initial reaction to Art Against Knives was to roll my eyes in derision, thinking to myself “Oh brilliant. Another load of clueless middle class twats trying to make a stand whose closest encounter with knife crime is taking a butter knife out on a picnic. Yawn.” It reminded me of a march I’d been invited to last Summer in Hyde Park, and Lily Allen meeting with Boris Johnson to discuss the problem. Realistically, a bunch of outraged Facebook users convening in Hyde Park isn’t going to solve anything, and if I was the kind of person who felt it was necessary or cool to carry a weapon I wouldn’t stop just because a faux-chav or a silly-haired toff told me to.
Art Against Knives wasn’t like that – its curators weren’t expecting violent yoofs to suddenly sit up and take notice, disposing of their weapons with exclamations of “Yo blad, dat photo montage is sick! Knives are for wastemen!” Their aim was a lot more attainable, and that was to raise money for Central Saint Martin’s student Oliver Hemsley, who was the victim of an unprovoked knife attack. Fortunately, he survived, but as the perpetrators partially severed his spinal chord this left him paralysed and requiring constant medical attention. The event was organised with Oliver by his friend and fellow artist Katy Dawe and ran for one day only, with the work being auctioned off at Shoreditch House the following night.
Taking place in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, I had to stifle my laughter as I walked in and overheard someone say “I don’t have any money right now, I need to call my parents.” How Barley-esque. In all honesty, I was a little jealous that I couldn’t call up mummy and daddy and have them buy me some of the excellent work on sale. The exhibition itself was small and perfectly formed, featuring a mixture of well-established and emerging artists, including Hemsley’s own work. Some of the art on display quite obviously referenced knives, while other pieces were subtler in their approach, or unrelated. Rankin’s image was amazingly iconic, if a little clichéd; a massive picture of a knife with “FUCK THIS X” scrawled across it. Obvious or not, I would definitely have it in my living room. Some of the other high profile creatives who took part in the exhibition included Jeremy Scott, Giles Deacon, Cornelia Parker, Tim Walker and Anthony Gormley. Gormley’s smudgy, shadowy male figure immediately reminded me of the fear of walking through the city at night, paranoia provoked by unexplained shadows, worrying that the person walking towards you might be some angry nutter. Whether this was the intention or not, what makes Oliver’s story even more astonishing is that he was actually stabbed during daylight hours. It’s naïve to assume that all crime happens under the cover of night, but it’s also human nature to feel a certain degree of safety at a time when we are exposed and visible, just going about our daily routine as he clearly was.
The first thing to really catch my eye was a photograph by Tim Walker, the style very recognisable to anyone familiar with his photography – an old war plane crashes through the wall of a beautiful room, while a delightfully vintage styled girl looks on, startled in the most attractive way yet untouched by the wreckage, saved only by being in the right place at the right time. One of my favourite pieces was by Andy Merritt – an intricate graphic drawing in pen – its monochrome bleakness perfectly portraying the sort of mass-produced concrete dystopia that is the breeding ground for knife crime. Exploring the space beneath Shoreditch Town Hall, my friend and I discovered a small collection of treasures; there was something that fascinated us in every room. Wandering into one of the back rooms to a soundtrack of sombre, eerie violins we came across a darkened space with Martin Sexton’s take on the legend of The Sword In The Stone, a meteorite with a recreated ancient battle sword resting precariously on it – as historic and scientific as it was artistic. I also loved the taxidermised bird by Kelly McCallum, in its beak a golden worm, and a poignant slit in its belly revealing more golden worms nestled inside. Stu Lee’s work employed similar materials, showcasing a feather-bladed knife in a shattered mirror box with real butterflies surrounding it, at the bottom of the box a group of dead flies contrasted with the delicate beauty of the butterflies and the supposedly gravity defying knife.
Despite the tragedy that permeates this exhibition, I was pleased to find that the atmosphere was upbeat and positive. Oliver Hemsley was there, and although wheelchair bound he seemed to be enjoying himself, surrounded by a gaggle of friends. He may have suffered at the hands of knife crime, but thankfully he doesn’t seem to be letting it turn him into a “victim”, as such. This doesn’t make up for what happened to Oli though, and I couldn’t help but feel a little saddened looking at a series of photographs of him putting on his jeans before the attack, something so pedestrian that most just take for granted.