They look like fantastical, high-tech chastity belts — with teeth.
But these unsettling art objects — constructed from stainless steel plates, padlocks, razors, electrodes and hypodermic needles — are meant to convey an empathy for victims of rape.
Artist Ira Sherman calls his creations “impenetrable devices,” and they are currently on display through March 18 at the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, the show’s only stop.
His inspiration for the anti-rape devices comes from interviews he had with five victims of sexual assault who were trying to regain a sense of physical safety. What they wanted, Sherman said, was body armor.
“When you talk with someone who’s been raped, you start getting details that are just horrifying. That horror I transform into my work,” Sherman said. “But if I were to make pieces horribly ugly and brutal, there’s no redemption. The beauty of the work has a kind of redemptive quality.”
Sherman’s devices have names like “Bear Trap Corset,” “Saber Tooth Speculum” and “Intimate Electric Fence.” They are mostly steel and brass, with some electrical wiring and small mechanical parts. Several of the 16 pieces have been in other shows, but they’re together in a single exhibit for only the second time since Sherman made them four years ago. They debuted in 2002 at a museum in Denver, where Sherman lives and has a studio.
But the disturbing nature of the work has prompted criticism that public money is helping finance an exhibit of “genital armor and castration mechanisms.” The museum received a $32,500 grant this year from the state art commission.
Drew Johnson, director of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, said his group opposes all public financing of art exhibits.
“More people are offended by their tax dollars going to support an exhibit that features castration devices, but frankly, I’m as offended when a community theater receives money to put on a production of ‘Annie,”’ said Johnson, who said he had not seen the Memphis exhibit.
Museum administrator Charles Ferryman said the art commission money goes for salaries, not exhibits, and comes from the state’s sale of specialty license plates, not taxes.
“There’s no state money in this show,” Ferryman said.
Assault victims expressed desire for securityFor Sherman, complaints about his work, for whatever reasons, aren’t necessarily bad.
“I want people to see my work, for their reactions better or worse. Let them look at it,” he said from his Denver studio.
While the “impenetrable devices” are designed to be worn, Sherman doesn’t expect anyone to use them as practical anti-rape devices.
“All my work is plausible. It’s an artistic tool that gets people engaged in the piece. Often, engineers come up to me and offer tips on how I can make them work better,” he said with a laugh.
Most of the pieces are designed to be worn around a wearer’s hips.
“The Injector,” with hypodermic needles, can deliver tattoo dye to mark an assailant and a sedative to lay him low. The “Intimate Electric Fence,” lined with electrodes, is capable of delivering a serious shock, as Sherman discovered when he accidentally shorted it out in the studio.
“I almost broke my finger when my arm snapped back,” he said.
Sherman said the assault victims he worked with had one common desire: “They all said, ’I want to be secure. I want to be behind a security fence.”’
His most impressive security device is the “Cremasteric Reflex Corset,” an 84-inch-tall mechanism that needs support from crossing metal bands around a wearer’s neck.
By far the most complex and elaborate piece in the show, it’s equipped with steel spikes driven by pneumatic cylinders that, according to an exhibit flyer, “perform basic cutlery functions when activated by a strategically located pressure sensitive air valve.”
None of the devices are displayed on mannequins and only a few small photographs show models wearing them.
“I create my work as exoskeletal sculpture, metal shells and wires formed around the human form, to be viewed from the inside out and the outside in,” Sherman said.
Exhibits at the Memphis museum generally focus on more traditional forms of metalwork, and a show downstairs from Sherman’s features fireplace tools and andirons.
But museum director Jim Wallace said Sherman’s pieces, regardless of their intended use, are examples of metalwork at its finest.
“These are incredibly crafted,” Wallace said. “Ira is a first-rate metalsmith, which is what we look for.”