Thursday, 21 February 2013

Of display cases and shop windows...

The last post got me thinking about all my travels to Eastern Europe and the things I had seen there that are somehow relevant to museeme. Wandering the streets of Belgrade I was always fascinated by how the displays from shops migrated out of the windows to display cabinets in the street. Here is a particularly good example below.

I have even seen wedding dresses on headless mannequins in free standing cases in the middle of the pavement! There was no labelling and no real clear indication of which shop the dress belonged to. It was almost as if this dress and the objects in such displays have been abandoned by their sellers to attain a life of their own. I like the idea that in this way these objects become part of a wider identity of the street - almost like accidental street art - that is then "curated" by the viewer as they take in the street around them and register how it is identified for them.

These cabinets could also be seen as lost street collections - static found objects waiting for a collector to document them. Almost like the Bagpuss shop window but for ghosts! I am always fascinated by the life of forgotten objects. Bagpuss was one of my favourite childhood TV programmes for this reason. Apart from my love of big old stripy cats, I loved the idea that random things this little girl found were all hiding stories, and could be brought back to life by these stories as if by magic, and then left to be found by someone new who would then continue the story of this object's life. In fact thinking of it like that half my work could be said to be influenced by Bagpuss!

But back to Belgrade shop displays, as well as the strange street cabinets I would sometimes find a shop that was never open with a half done display:

Again it seemed to me that these displays, which were supposed to be about commerce, somehow had more in common with old dusty museum displays or abandoned objects. But here like in Bagpuss there seemed to be a backstory - had the shop closed and no one had bothered to clear away the old displays? Was there simply not that much to sell? Had these displays in abandoning their commercial roots somehow turned into something else - a collection, a curation of random objects? Why do the mannequins have no arms? Looking at this scene it feels like we are watching a paused moment in time - that something was interrupted and hasn't been finished - that when we go away maybe these objects and mannequins will come to life and finish what the shopkeeper started... Slightly going off point, this reminds me of a creepy bizarre window of mannequins I once saw in Istanbul:

Again I could not help but feel that there was something else going on here - some strange story possessing the objects. The mannequins are looking out of the window, which seems a conscious way of displaying them. Even in a shop where nothing is for sale, people still arguably think about how things are displayed as if they have to react to the display construct of a window or a cabinet. Shop windows are always curated and the design of them in large stores is big business. It's curation as advertising, but as I have shown this can sometimes take on a life of its own...

But I'm rambling. Back to Eastern European display cases! When I was in Bucharest, as I was fortunate enough to run workshops in the Peasant and Natural History museums, I again stumbled on little separate shop display cases and interesting windows:

But I also became really interested in the empty advertising cases in the metro stations. I was lucky to win a commission to make an artwork for the metro station (though sadly due to being funded by banks the recession somewhat scuppered it), and I used these cases as inspiration and filled them with secret stories of the city. It seemed obvious to me somehow after all my travels that these cases should contain more than adverts - that they were waiting for the unseen city to be displayed and brought to life again. Here's the model I made for an exhibition and the plan of what it would have looked like in situ:

Mythology and history was rising through the city in words, embroidered images and old photos, names of past residents were written on secret notes in bottles...

But again I am arguably rambling, so if I were to conclude I guess I would say that maybe all this shows us that cases and windows inherently display whatever is in them, and that whether it is a purposefully curated display, or something more accidental, it is always interesting to think how these displays work within the city as we walk around it. Are they in some ways a collection of the city's - the city as curator? How can we as creative residents engage with this? I would argue that we all engage with windows and displays automatically - whether by window shopping or the voyeuristic delight of staring in house windows if they've left the curtains open at night. Many people choose to close their curtains and shut out the world, yet also put pretty plants in the window when "curating" their front room. Yet maybe if there is a practical thing we could take from this, especially at a time of recession when there are so many empty shop windows on our high streets, it is that it is a shame to waste these spaces that communicate so automatically with a place's residents. I would applaud the growing number of schemes where artists have been allowed to occupy empty shops and create something interesting in the windows. The Derby city council's Empty Shops Project is a particularly good example of this. I would be interested if anyone has any other interesting examples of this happening, or images. After all, it's what Bagpuss would have wanted...

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