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Beauty Tech Art Spa exhibition
Courtesy of Minor Attractions and Cornershop / Photography Izzy Scott

A new exhibition spotlights the unique world of nail salons

Co-curators Jonny Tanna and Jacob Barnes and artist Zoë Argires explain the process of their new show Beauty Tech Art Spa

In 1878, Mary Cobb opened one of the world’s first documented nail salons in New York City, allegedly charging $1.25 for a manicure. A century and a half later, nail shops have popped up all across the globe, and have become valued third spaces and community hubs. In the UK alone, it is approximated that there are almost 17,000 nail shops across the country. And while a manicure under £5 is almost unheard of, the communal environment of nail salons remains as in demand as ever.

This month, curators Jonny Tanna and Jacob Barnes have opened their latest show dedicated to the world of nail parlours. The show follows the debut of Minor Attractions, the duo’s brand new ‘non-fair’ initiative and sister event to Cornershop, which launched during Frieze last month. 

Titled Beauty Tech Art Spa, the collaborative show is hosted in Borough Yards and calls upon six dynamic artists: Zoë Argires, Hoa Dung Clerget, Athen Kardashian, Nina Mhach Durban, AP Nguyen and Zöe Tsoláki. Originating as a response to diverse communities that run Britain’s nail salons, the exhibition sees these visionaries infuse their own cultural influences into the conceptual nail bar narrative...

While the show features a range of different mediums relating to nail art including sculptures, paintings and sets, it was Zoë Argires’ site-specific latex-coated fountain sculpture that was the starting point. Argires explains it then drew in “other works and artists who shared the idea that a fountain is to be a centrepiece in a salon of peace, reflection, self-care and visual trickery”. Eventually, all the pieces came together to take the form of a conceptual nail salon.

With a mix of pieces directly inspired by nail shops, including neon ‘open nail’ signs, a giant acrylic nail sculpture and nail varnish bottles, and other works with more subtle references, the show aims to challenge the popular idea of what a group show can look like. “[We did this] by making the whole gallery into a collaborative installation by a group of female artists from different backgrounds and different ways of working, but who all shared a common artistic vision,” says Argires. “A visually and conceptually cohesive group show, and not just a bunch of separate things in a room.” As an extension of the show, the collective has also enlisted a resident artist Jenny to take custom nail appointments and walk-ins for attendees throughout the show’s opening.

Beyond the exhibition, Argires has a strong stance on the future of wellness treatments within the wider world of healthcare. “All beauty treatments including hair, nails, waxing, and maybe even esthetics, in a perfect world, all contribute greatly to the mental health and well-being of the contemporary woman and should therefore be covered by health insurance,“ she explains.

Discussing what they hope people take away from the exhibition Tanna and Barnes say, “We hope that people foremost have fun, but also consider the beauty spaces – the nail bar, salon, masseuse – they inhabit and how they’re working on an aesthetic level. Art is an opportunity to reflect on all of our lived experiences and deconstruct and examine why and how we experience them as we do; the artists participating in Beauty Tech Art Spa all do that very successfully.“

The show is open now at Cornershop in Borough Yards until December 17. Find out more here.