29 Jun, 2009

Shopping: The detail of retail

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

A till receipt from a supermarket for a cluster of goods ranging from Allinson flour and Kraft Philadelphia through paper doilies to two rolls of Andrex is now on display on the walls of Tate Britain. This is not quite the original work by Ceal Floyer which the Tate acquired a decade ago for an undisclosed sum; since till tickets fade, the gallery has had to procure a fresh one, from a branch of Morrison’s. Yet shoppers who loiter on the car parks of supermarkets lost in awed contemplation of bills recording their latest hauls of large wholemeal loaves, chicken thighs, and onions red, loose will be missing the point.

The essential purpose of the ticket displayed in the Tate is that every item on it is white, and the till ticket lists them in exactly the order the artist prescribes. It constitutes, says the gallery, a still life in which objects are imagined rather than seen.

Shopping has a problematic place in our culture, especially now that boom has turned to bust. The case against “turbo consumption” is set out by Neal Lawson in his timely new book All Consuming. But the Tate’s display also seems an appropriate moment to recognise the undervalued role of shops in the daily pageant of public art, from the brilliant windows of swish department stores, to lovingly lettered inscriptions over the doors of old-established businesses, often embracing words such as haberdasher or poulterer, which have largely fallen from use.

Sometimes, inside, there’s a kind of accidental art, from the riotous colour of a battery of large-screen TVs all showing identical pictures of racing at Ascot to piles of identical goods stacked on shelves. (It took Andy Warhol to reveal the previously unsuspected beauties of 32 stacked-up cans of Campbell’s soup; yet shelf-stackers create such spectacles daily.) You may still discover the kind of modest general shop, recalling that run by a sheep in Alice Through the Looking Glass, against whose windows noses used to be pressed when people had less money to spend – places whose proprietors liked to cram behind the tiny panes of their windows as many representative objects as space would allow, from jars of sweets to tins of talcum powder adorned with imagined scenes of Georgian England.

From the gleaming fruit and veg at the front of a greengrocer’s shop to the monster bottles of healthful potions still sometimes found in pharmacies, there’s a visual richness in such of our high streets and markets as have survived the rise of the supermarket and economic hard times. These are scenes we tend to glance at rather than truly observe. We should savour them while we can.

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