Thursday, 19 October 2017

Semiotic Shopping

Performance artist Miranda July has joined forced with Artangel and installed a charity shop in Selfridges.

When I visited, on a quiet-ish weekday afternoon, Selfridges itself may have been comparatively quiet, I don't know, for me it was heaving busy. I can't stand department stores, I avoid Oxford Street at all costs, and I'm not a fan of shopping at the best of times. However, I do enjoy a good charity shop, and art with a purpose, so off I went.


The first thing that struck me was the very deliberate definition of space. This shop is very obviously 'other'. Across the department store stands blend into one another, the floor is open, and brands and businesses intermingle. The charity shop is partitioned off: windows, frames, a door, a doormat. The shop itself wouldn't be out of place on any street in the country, but here it stands out and stands apart from its surroundings.
The contrast between 'inside' and 'outside' is also reflected in the prices: charity shop price-tags on one side of the window, with dresses and jumpers for a fiver; on 'the other side' was a truly hideous black shirt being sold for more than my monthly rent. 
This very deliberate 'othering' highlights the disparity between those who could afford the black shirt, and those who couldn't. It mocks our capitalist, consumerist, and yet disposable society, and made me wonder how many of the items on sale around the charity shop will end up, at some point, in a shop very much like it at some point in the future.

And it makes people uncomfortable. I spent some time 'outside' the shop, watching people walk past. Some people acknowledged and walked on, others laughed, some looked disgusted or offended. This invasion of a 'high' class space by a 'low' class shopping model is challenging. "What right does a second-hand store have to be in a temple of capitalism?" Phenomenology is important in an art work: any reaction is valid when the viewer is a key component of the art itself.

All money from purchases is split between the participating charity shops. None of the money raised goes to the artist or the company.

Who 'owns' the space? I felt quite uncomfortable walking into Selfridges from the street: the columns and statues create a temple to the gods of shopping, of spending without thinking. I got a bit lost inside, which is surely the intention of the planners, and found myself wandering aimlessly through the concessions selling everything imaginable: caviar next to concealer, boots and books, coats and Christmas trees. This is not 'my' space: I am not rich, I have little-to-no disposable income. I have no 'right' to be in this place that glorifies selling. Selfridges is shopping as worship, as religion, as theatre and as spectacle. This is the street as a stage, and the store as a performance.

The collision of worlds, of prices, of habits, and of faiths (it is an interfaith charity shop, a collaboration between four different shops) forces an acknowledgement of the 'other', creates questioning and intentional chaos. It makes the 'high' ridiculous: was the hideousness of the black shirt made all the more palpable because it was positioned opposite a similar shirt, only the second one was in the charity shop and therefore a fraction of the price? (After we discussed this juxtaposition, I noticed one of the concession assistants moved the shirt!)

And yes, I bought a couple of items, as much for the tag as for the fact that I like teddy bears and the brooch is my initial. Is it art? Is a slightly battered teddy bear made all the more important because of its unwitting participation in an immersive social art experiment? I don't know. But he sits on my desk now and prompts this questioning of space, ownership, art, and intention, and that's good enough for me.

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