• The Improbable Truth

    Anaïs Comer, Celeste McEvoy, and Maddy Plimmer | Curated by Sophie Agocs
  • Please be advised; This text and this exhibition contain references to instances of violence against women

    Every woman who has ever walked home alone at night can imagine a story based on the past. The Improbable Truth is an exhibition which confronts London’s history of crime through the language of its crime museums, but it also acknowledges how women are viewed, treated, and situated within this history.


    In May of 2022, I enlisted artists Anaïs Comer, Celeste McEvoy, and Maddy Plimmer to create work in response to three of London’s Crime Museums, The Jack the Ripper Museum, The Clink, and The Sherlock Holmes Museum. Our goal for this project was to highlight how these institutions promote narratives about women, crime, and the city of London in ways which not only misrepresent, but fetishize, exploit, and further threaten the experiences of women in the city. We researched London’s history, explored criminological concepts, and exchanged difficult ideas. Anaïs Comer, Maddy Plimmer, and Celeste McEvoy have for the past year, been processing and navigating their own personal reactions to exhibition displays which involved real traumatic violence, overt objectification of women, and intentional attempts to invoke fear. We did not set out to uncover the power of empathy and sharing stories when we started this project, though these factors emerged naturally, out of a genuine response to the treatment of real women we identified with, and through months of personal reflection. The Improbable Truth has shown us that empathy, truth, and art, can change the way we see history and help us understand exactly how it feels to be a woman walking home alone at night. 

  • Installation views

  • Before you enter this exhibition, we ask that you orient yourself and become rooted in this place in space and time. You stand in Kupfer, a woman-run gallery in the Borough of Hackney. Over one hundred years ago, a select group of women also resided here in East London. They walked these streets alone at night and slept there too. In 1888 Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were murdered on five different nights each while sleeping outside on the cold pavement by a suspect we now refer to as Jack the Ripper. We hope this exhibition helps to acknowledge the simple fact that over one hundred years after the lives of the women who inspired so much of this show ended tragically, we can now remember them in ways that could not have been imagined during their lifetimes. This exhibition asks Londoners, and all those who venture here, to think deeper about this city’s history and association with crime and how it impacts the way we live and navigate this city today. Above all, this exhibition seeks to acknowledge the experiences of those who traverse this city’s museums, streets, and public transport. We ask audiences to remember that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (Sherlock Holmes.)

  • Anaïs Comer

  • The entrance of this space is marked by a series of immovable formal garden topiaries created by Anaïs Comer which transport us to a place in the past, and also in our imaginations. In retelling a history of famous crimes, who speaks and who is left voiceless? What objects and elements become symbols for something larger than their original context? What happens to the truth? In her work for this exhibition, Anaïs Comer has tackled the role of symbology in retelling the history of women and crime in the city of London. Comer has enchanted objects belonging in public space many times before. Her work involves storytelling, and an ability to infuse objects with fantasy, folklore, and superstition, and incorporates the potential of the handmade and of provincial ambiguity to animate and inspire. Embedded within the felted outline of this topiary is a bone structure of crinoline cage skirts, traditionally worn by women of the Victorian period which have been warped, molded and sprayed with flocking. The figure confronting us is caught in a state of tension between agency and animation, and confinement and restriction. The work is historical, harkening back to a place and time where a woman’s ability to move freely in space was not only questionable, but dangerous. Comer’s topiary transports us to a public space, but one that is not defined by any clear parameters, just the sense that in this space we are not alone, but that something is there haunting, lingering, perhaps even mourning. Comer’s topiary asks us to consider what the implications of being a woman in the street might be; perhaps it may mean being placed on trial, in a state of regulation, or between realms. 
  • Maddy Plimmer

  • Moving deeper into this space one will find themselves confronted again, this time by works of a smaller scale. Maddy Plimmer’s Muzzle, Hold Thy Tongue, and Baddie, are replicas of antique scold's bridles we encountered together at The Clink. Muzzle and Hold Thy Tongue are direct replicas of existing scold’s bridles, and Baddie is an invented bridle inspired by the monstrous feminine. There is a complicated history dating back to the early makings of this city which involves a hazy border between protection and control of women in public space. Our visits to The Clink revealed this relationship to be ever-present and is represented especially in Maddy Plimmer’s work for this exhibition, including Bite/Bitten

    Scold’s bridles were meant as a punishment most often for women. They used humiliation and occasionally bodily mutation as the method of choice. By making these scold’s bridles out of leather, Plimmer reveals the fetishistic nature of these humiliation devices. Although the pieces have been hardened with beeswax, they are still supple and gently slump in their hanging position. This softness is juxtaposed against the hardness of their iron original, yet their eye-level position provides them with greater power and status against the counterparts displayed at The Clink. At The Clink, they are made available for man-handling and mockery, in this context, hung from the ceiling at full height, they gain a looming and assertive presence. 

    Maddy’s previous work has included film, moving image, and sculpture integrating critical commentary about contemporary gender dynamics using key feminist theory and text. In working on this exhibition, the artist created visual interpretations that not only draw upon a greater gender discourse, but seek to operate on a deeper, emotional level that is not purely critical. 

  • Maddy Plimmer’s additional work for this exhibition, Sleeping Observers, presents a series of 5 LED candles modelled after the shape...
    Maddy Plimmer
    Sleeping Observers , 2023
    Brass, Renaissance wax, 3D printed parts, wax, LED circuit
    22 x 15 x 10 cm

    Maddy Plimmer’s additional work for this exhibition, Sleeping Observers, presents a series of 5 LED candles modelled after the shape of a late 1800s woman, the era in which Jack the Ripper walked the streets of London. With this work, Plimmer retroactively replaces these candles with a witness of sorts. In the Jack the Ripper Museum, the victims are considered secondary to the elusive upper-class murderer. Their voices and perspectives are given no space outside the Ripper’s gaze. Their epitaphs are their crime scene photos - bloodied and mangled. Their story is described in terms that justify their victimization. These works imagine that their true presence could be felt as judging observers, since it is not reflected in the material of the museum. This piece turns the theatrical language of the crime museums back on itself, using faux candles, and historically-feigned recreations to make a sculptural piece that retroactively imbues the candles with witnessing specters. The LEDs heavily featured in the crime museums, now in the context of this work, provide an inexhaustible  flame that mirrors and provides an everlasting presence to the five victims. 

    The strategically tarnished brass sconces, their shape inspired by the sconces in the degrading and sensationalizing basement morgue at the Jack the Ripper museum, now provide a sacred pedestal for the personified candles. 

    For this permanent edition of the work, the candle's wick is replaced with a battery powered LED. It felt important for the exhibited candles to have an enduring glow without destruction, as each candle represents one of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper.

  • Maddy’s final piece for this exhibition, A Bed for Resting employs a similar tone to that of her Sleeping Voyeurs series and draws on the symbolic language of The Jack the Ripper Museum, namely the objects that represent the killer as a dignified genius, and the bed as the symbol of his victims. The bed as a symbol kept these women in a perpetually unconscious state, stripped of agency and personhood. Hallie Rubenhold’ s book The Five, dispels most of the myths the museum relies upon when discussing the victims. They were not in fact prostitutes. There is no evidence they were sexually assaulted within their attack, and they were all murdered whilst they were asleep, for most of the victims this was outside on a public street. This makes the bed a further insult to the victims who could not afford a bed to sleep in for their final night. In the museum they may never wake as their story is not told, and their representation is only via the bed, and their final autopsy photos in the morgue. This juxtaposed against the Ripper’s room that attributes to this unknown man, multiple possible careers -from Doctor to Artist. It’s truly a room full of agency and potential, that begs the Ripper to live on and on and on. 

    This piece presents a bed with a custom quilt. The fabric print is made using an AI generated image of Mary-Jane Kelly’s final autopsy photo transformed into a field of flowers. This was a means to transcend that violent image into a place of peace, in the hopes to offer peace to her. This image then printed onto fabric, was then constructed into the 19th century garments she likely would have worn, then unpicked and reassembled as a quilt. This work critiques and unpacks the repeated violence of The Jack the Ripper Museum. By taking the ways in which the Ripper was symbolized, via his clothes, and merging this with the bed, the place where Mary-Jane Kelly was murdered, and by specifically disassembling and rearranging her garments, Plimmer reflects the ways in which the museum mangled Mary-Jane Kelly’s personhood for the benefit of their museums goals (to appeal to an audience who venerates Jack the Ripper) and as means to act in cahoots with the murderer, and continue his violence indefinitely.

  • Celeste McEvoy

  • Throughout the making of this exhibition, we have had to grapple with stubborn, persistent narratives. We have had to ponder how this show can fit within the general culture and attitude towards women’s safety in the city of London. What can we, as art practitioners do, beyond simply visualize a personal experience? Celeste McEvoy walks at night, collecting and documenting London's residential exteriors; the assembled front gardens, standing guard. For The Improbable Truth McEvoy presents her own protective pillar; created in remembrance of the women who walked alone at night. An urn-like ceramic sits heavy, dark and still atop the glowing stained-glass plinth created in collaboration with her mother, Emma Alexander.

    Alexander was inspired by the tradition of stained glass windows commissioned in Victorian England to honour the deceased. The William Morris Memorial Window, for example, which featured a design inspired by the medieval Book of Revelation was of particular relevance for this work. Alexander subverts this tradition by employing a simple design inspired by domestic windows to commemorate the every-day/ubiquitous woman. The glowing light emanating from within the plinth creates a warm, inviting ambiance. This collaboration speaks to enduring generational experiences that we as women carry with us in our movements through public space. 

    In being an imposing, heavy, figurative object, and in being simultaneously a vessel, an urn, and a living continuous cycle of burning and melting, McEvoy’s work for The Improbable Truth fights against the disappearance of women and their stories. While allowing opportunity for mourning or honouring, McEvoy’s work ultimately acts as a light to guide through the dark, in both domestic and public spheres.

    Exhibition Text by Sophie R Agocs