When I was younger, my parents spent an exorbitant amount of time shopping at the department store Sears. It was one of the kid-in-tow errands I most detested. As a child, I considered this habitat overwhelming and exhausting: the overzealous salespeople, the crowds, the smells of new products and open boxes, the corny advertisements, the endless special offers. From entrance to exit, accompanying my parents on their routine department store escapade was a first-hand lesson in what I now know to be overconsumption. It was always a rather pathetic experience.
For her Performa 2015 Biennial contribution, Heather Phillipson transported me back to those moments of my youth. In her recreation of a modern department store at A + E Studios (the project press release describes the installation as an "online warehouse"), it is as if Phillipson offers pity to those poor souls who still yield to the intoxication of large-scale retail environments. On the other hand, Phillipson wants her viewers (shoppers?) to wrestle with a targeted inquiry: what should we make of the physical retail space and our relationships to this space in the wake of the proliferation of e-commerce?
In FINAL DAYS, Phillipson combines soundscape, video work, and language to create a “televisual retail arena.” Her department store is divided into six sections: Underwear, Office, Bedroom, Hosiery, Towels, and Special Offers. Floors lined in green tape guide the shopper’s path throughout the installation. Lawn chairs in which to relax—these were always a Sears staple—add a humorous finishing touch. A short video screens in each section. Though really one contiguous film, Phillipson has chosen to break it into episodes, utilizing the first person point of view narrative technique as a way of inviting the viewer into this world.
In FINAL DAYS: Underwear, we watch as Jockey brief packages dance on-screen alongside imposed images of actual horse jockeys.“How about the crotch, so expressive?”our narrator asks. In FINAL DAYS: Hosiery, the camera pans over stacks and stacks of stockings as the narrator descends into a rapid reflection on female orgasms. In FINAL DAYS: Bedroom, the narrator lays on a bed pondering its materiality. A beating heart floats across the screen and, as if she had been shopping online, a single curtain appears on screen and is added to the narrator’s cart.
Phillipson’s use of angles and perspective within the videos are interesting despite the fact that the imposed images of underwear or legs or office supplies feel a bit like the insertion of clip art. What is most distracting however, is the poetic language in which the narrator speaks as we move throughout the arena. Certainly, Phillipson’s work as a poet informs this stylistic choice, but it has the effect of cluttering an already content-dense video project.
It is not until the final video, FINAL DAYS: Special Offer, that we get to the heart of the work, and the clearest language. As the narrator notes: people come here to look but also to look away. Department stores offer many things—particularly anonymity, the ability to blend into the masses as one satisfies one’s thirst for mere things. Perhaps there is a small comfort in knowing, in actually seeing, that you are not the only soul following the green tape. This is not possible with online shopping. Maybe this is why department stores are still around, no matter how overwhelming and exhausting.
(All images: Heather Phillipson, Final Days, A Performa Project, 2015. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa)
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