Monday, June 8, 2009

Selfridges Centenary as World Model by the Windowless Consultant

In the work of a window consultant, certain stores have to be observed closely as trend setters, and one of these, so goes the orthodoxy, must be Selfridges. I say the orthodoxy not in the least dismissively, I think - that, in my other blog, is the firm belief I espouse. However, for the substance of this blog to emerge, the first requirement is that that of the other be, if not quite dismissed, at least not assumed.

The content of the present post, though, was originally intended for the other. Readers will recall that this all began in my increasing down time from the consultancy work. The occasion was this feeling of having wandered into a different kind of space from the one I was used to, my task to identify and record the changes.

Well it's happened again, I think, but this time in a different way, in a way that makes it more urgent than ever for me to identify what it is that happens, what I've described elsewhere, as I recall, as the opening of the windows on the street. The windows this time were those of Selfridges, but that they stood for all windows, and very possibly still do, accounts for the sense of urgency.

I'd long heard about the celebrations at the store, of course, and the exhibition, and seen it as my duty to check it all out at some point. I get myself quite worked up about these things, about my mission (I? She? the blogger elsewhere) to transform the street. So, since the two are a mere stride away, when a Mayfair job was cancelled recently there seemed an obvious way to turn the loss to profit.

This is how it happened. Immediately I arrived in front of the store, I began to take notes and shots of the windows and how the public interacted with them - which they did, what's more, to an almost unprecedented degree, photographing, pointing, standing back, moving close, commenting, smiling, frowning, none of which I include here in the interests of clarity - lest anyone, including myself, confuse my roles, this being an attempt at the contrary to that elsewhere. Besides, my main interest lay in the exhibition downstairs, the purpose of my visit to pick up what I could of the knowledge of a century of shopping.

The exhibition was downstairs, and what first struck me was how well presented it was, with what imagination. We learn, in fact, that presentation has always been Selfridges' thing, throughout the century of its existence, and, indeed, if this was its first exhibition so named, in spirit, the store had always been engaged in something more than mere retailing, always had a curatorial role, been a collection of items of interest, excitement, exploration, education.

There was no reason to expect that the information in the exhibition should have included reference to any other store than Selfridges, of course, the subject as described. And yet, going around, seeing the history of the century from the standpoint of the store - a century of Selfridges firsts, biggests, onlys and bests, learning that it was the first department store to feature a plane complete with pilot, the first to sell a telephone, the only to have used I forget what, the best at something else, I began to wonder whether this was an exhibition at all, whether I hadn't in fact wandered into the wrong department.

This was a department in which what was on offer was not particular items, but the store itself, its image, an intangible going free. But at some point that changed. It was clear that in fact, as the image on offer was that of display, exhibition, and this, not an exhibition at all, was an exhibition of an exhibition, and, what is more, an exhibition of an exhibition which was Selfridges, this was a model of the shop that I was inside. The fact of being inside a model of the place that I was inside made me wonder whether I was included in the model, whether I might encounter myself here, in what light, if so, I'd be shown. I looked at the other customers or visitors, they looked at me. Since they exhibited so perfectly the spirit of Selfridges for me, so must I, I supposed, for them. Walking mannequins, we negotiated a model of the world as store, a model, I realised, the world to negotiate intangible, of the extent to which I was unsure.

The activities on display in that world, though I had seen them all in reality before, never had I seen modelled in that detail, with that precision, and, in my duty to report, though at the time unsure of what I might, I photographed avidly.

It was when I arrived outside that it struck me.

Some while ago, to much media attention, the Metropolitan police announced that a deal had been struck such that any shoplifters caught on Oxford Street would be held in a cell on the street itself. A deal had been struck such that a room would be rented from a department store for the purpose. I recalled that the store had been Selfridges, the room somewhere tucked away inside. I'd thought from the first it had been something of a publicity coup for them, but also something of a strange one, this desire to be known as a prison service. For some reason the story simply petered out, and I had heard nothing more of it. For it to have happened, then, it had to have been in a way entirely unexpected. I wondered what I might have stolen, not to be free to go, since, the world Selfridges, there was nowhere else to go. It was not, since I'd picked nothing up, anything tangible, that was sure, which meant, I feared, that I would be unable also to put it down, protest my innocence, be free to go.

The thing I might have picked up was a belief, I decided, concerning the true extent of the exhibition, and the only way to put that down might be to retrace my steps, seek out the boundary where the exhibition ended, photograph that point - those points, since there were several entrances - hold onto it as evidence of the limitations on the extent of the exhibition.

I present them, then, here below, in the hope that they might establish what I hope: that the exhibition was untrue, that the world does not end at the window, is not contained in the exhibition, is not only a model, that we can escape. But, as I look at the pictures of where the boundary is supposed to lie, I realise that they are by no means the most compelling, lack the power to convince, that I may have to keep on trying, using this blog as a means, to identify how I might prove that I had come away with nothing - to escape.








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