You want it, you buy it, you forget it

A new exhibit explores the evolution of our shopping habits and uses art to delve into what drives us to shop, consume, and shop more

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Shopping on Sunday in Germany is strictly forbidden. For the past few months, however, people in Frankfurt could window-shop in a museum on Sunday where an art exhibit devoted itself to the consumer world's favorite pastime.

"Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture" at the Schirn Kunsthalle museum (which opens Dec. 20 at the Tate Modern in Liverpool, England) took artists such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Christo, Joseph Beuys, and Jeff Koons and used their creative works to help visitors reflect on the roles of shopping in our lives - shopping as necessity, shopping as leisure activity, shopping as escape, shopping as civic duty, and shopping as art.

The first installation was a full-scale grocery store called "New Supermarket." Artist Guillaume Bijl reconstructed a Tengelmann store that is stocked daily with fresh food and newspapers. The idea is to encourage people to observe their everyday consumer environment in a fresh way.

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Putting the consumer under the microscope, the exhibit asks: What compels us to consume? Even though it's ultimately unsatisfying, why can't we stop? Are some societies free from the seductions of the consumer world?

Dan Cook, a sociologist at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana who has studied consumerism and children, sheds light on this love-hate relationship with shopping:

"The ugly side of consumerism exists because there is something deeply meaningful about shopping," he says. "Shopping is the provisioning of care, and the marketplace brings social intercourse and cultural exchange."

But the question of why we shop is not as important as the question of how we shop, argues Don Slater, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. The morality of consumption - whether it's a good or a bad phenomenon - is less pertinent, he says, than how society is structured around consumption.

"We've come a long way from the idea that shopping is purely rational. It's somewhere between fantasy and reality," says Professor Slater, author of "Consumer Culture and Modernity."

Most people are not the dupes they're made out to be, he says. We're all subject to the forces of advertising and the media, but we can still think for ourselves and respond creatively to the bombardment of the marketplace.

In his book "To Have or to Be," Erich Fromm describes two states of existence. The "having" mode concentrates on possession, acquisition, and power; the "being" mode is based on love, sharing, and meaningful activity. By striving to exist in the "being" mode, we hold the key to shedding greed and egocentricity, Mr. Fromm argues.

But Slater believes the idea that we can exist in a pure realm of "being" rather than in a corrupt realm of "having" is a myth.

"Consumption is only one part of our relationship to the world. In most societies, who we are is bound up in the kind of goods we share in common," he says.

For example, a family can be defined as a group of people who share certain possessions - such as particular foods. The pitfall is allowing an outside force - a marketing message - to define the meaning of those possessions and hence what it means to be a family, he says.

The material world in art

Max Hollein, cocurator of the exhibit, describes the shopping landscape as the archaeology of the present. Reaching back through a hundred years of consumerism to Paris storefronts in 1910, the exhibit shows how the launch of department stores changed the shopping experience. Designers of the first such stores took inspiration from the World Expos as they sought to build a themed environment.

The 1960s and Pop Art are represented through works from Claes Oldenburg's "Store." In 1961, the New York artist sold food, clothes, and other everyday items made of painted plaster from his workshop. Oldenburg was working in harmony with consumer culture just as the artists of centuries gone by collaborated with the church or the ruling family.

Consumption in the Bauhaus movement is represented in photographers' serial arrangement of objects. Surrealism shows up through the exploration of the body as a form of commodity. Several photos by Man Ray depict mannequins sparsely adorned with fabrics, feathers, and odds and ends. Another, by Denise Bellon, shows Salvador Dalí carrying a mannequin in the same way a man would carry a briefcase.

The exhibit was well received by the German public. On Frankfurt's main shopping street, a 7,546-square-foot poster of two eyes hung down the front of a department store. It bore the words (in German): "You Want It, You Buy It, You Forget It," allowing visitors to ponder why they shop just as they are consummating the act.

Shopping remains primarily a female activity, sociologists say. Since most women shop for someone besides themselves, shopping becomes a way to show love and attention. In some patriarchal cultures, shopping is the only morally sanctioned reason for a woman to leave her house and interact with others. In this way, shopping can be an act of liberation.

Some consumers shop as a way to leave their mark on the world - to exercise "personal agency," as Dr. Cook calls it. Others want to do their part to help the economy.

"We're not going to stop the planes going over Afghanistan or alter things," Cook says, "but we can buy a piece and put it on our mantle and change our world."

The exhibit has ended its stay in Frankfurt and opens at the Tate Modern in Liverpool, England, on Dec. 20. For more information, go to: www.tate.org.uk/liverpool/exhibitions/shopping.

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