A couple of months ago, I wrote about the window display of a shop called Squint on Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch. It is a boutique that sells antique furniture upholstered in brightly coloured, contrasting fabrics; the sort of pieces that you love in the window but that have no logical place in the average home. That window makes me happy every time I walk past it, not only for the colours and the vibrancy of the place amidst the general disrepair of Shoreditch, but also because it is the sort of emporium that encourages you to dream of the hypothetical future house that you’ll fill with this sort of impractical but delicious purchase. Squint is window shopping at its very best, combining bold aesthetics with craft and showmanship, and it highlights the potential for window displays as alternative spaces for the display of art.
In the centre of town, Central Saint Martin’s employs the same technique in its two street-facing windows to record the work of its 2010 MA Degree Show artists. One window is filled by Fagner Bibiano’s Transition, a black and white photograph of a girl jumping into the air above train tracks in a deserted rural setting. She appears as a flying blur, as though she were not entirely human, her pose part otherworldly creature, part Fame. You can’t tell if she is jumping for joy or whether the train tracks reveal a darker side to her intensions, so the emotion of the photograph – and in a degree show, you must assume that there is reasoning behind the piece – is ambiguous in a slightly frustrating way, robbed as it is of the potential for meaning by the viewer being offered neither the subject’s face nor any explanation. It’s a shame, because the photograph has a feeling of that Robert Doisneau monotone cheerfulness, but without the all-encompassing warmth of small French children in the snow.
The other window alternates between various video pieces. I don’t know how much artistic pressure the tutors at Central Saint Martin’s place on their students to produce work in a certain medium, or indeed if they are directed towards specific subject matter, but I imagine that a certain level of liberty exists within those hallowed walls. The video pieces these artists have produced vary from static filming to rambles with a hand-held camera, but, bizarrely, none of them contain that sense of youthful artistic freedom that I expected from such a prestigious art school. Two works demanded comment. Rekha Sameer’s film offers the viewer a series of empty doorways and corridors, devoid of human activity, but no sense of why this should be considered to be of artistic merit. Stephen Harwood’s Hartland, in contrast, sees the artist wandering around rural England with a video recorder, the viewpoint alternating between footage of rolling hills and close-ups of the artist’s buffed leather boots, crisp suit and designer sunglasses. I imagine that the intention here was to juxtapose earthy country life with the city dandy, and certainly it made this country girl miss home, but other than being a tongue-in-cheek look at how out of place city folk appear whilst in the sticks, there was no profound message or sense of uniqueness here.
Showcasing their degree show artists in windows overlooking a busy street is a brilliant move by Central Saint Martin’s, but there was something missing here. The works on display should make contemporary art more accessible and encourage passersby to stop and have a look, especially as there is a bus stop directly outside one of the windows. However, for people to notice art in this context, the art on display needs to be something a bit out of the ordinary, either aesthetically or in terms of subject matter. New media and large-scale paintings or craft-work would work well in this space, but a black and white short film of empty doorways just doesn’t cut it on the Charing Cross Road.
-- Alex Field