top of page

MARKET OF DESIRE(S)

A text by Boyana Djikova


When in 2021, Vikenti Komitski and I launched POSTA – a gallery-shop window, with exhibitions to be viewed only from the outside, the main stake or “added value” of this type of space seemed obvious to me – the potential of showing contemporary art in an urban environment – a practice not widespread enough in Bulgaria, unlocking the possibility of all kinds of themes and approaches. However, few of the invited artists present their art per se. Most seemed genuinely concerned with something perhaps obvious, namely the process of “cracking” the city space, weaving of art into these standard urban cells designed for something else, in the face of the showcase window. In their projects they approached its nature with respect, often seeking a connection to its “showcase-ness” through exhibitions following the principle of advertising banners or slogans (Dessislava Terzieva, Mark Fridvalszki, Sophia Grancharova), but also those that deal with the notion of space – integrating in the showcase artworks-passages, optical illusions, or those that change under the influence of the external environment (Marta Djourina, Stela Vassileva, Mihail Novakov, Martin Penev). Others took a quite literal approach, imitating the scenography of a functional shop window (Kåre Frang).


Dessislava Terzieva, Comfortably D/Numb, 2016. POSTA, 2022.  Photo: Kalin Serapionov
Dessislava Terzieva, Comfortably D/Numb, 2016. POSTA, 2022. Photo: Kalin Serapionov

Six months later, Aaron Roth joined us and we opened PUNTA, a gallery located in an abandoned jewelry store whose facade we kept – the sign “Jeweler – orders, repairs, engagement and wedding rings” still adorns the transparent wall facing the street. As the exhibitions accumulated, a feeling emerged in me, tied on the one hand to the public’s reactions to these commodity spaces, which instead of commodities, however, are as far removed as possible from the vital and practically useful – namely art. On the other, are the artists with their subconscious motivations and directions of thinking in their readings. There was something special in the shop windows and abandoned shops, a je ne sais quoi element that enchanted and seduced all involved. Of course, this type of exhibition activity is practiced by many curators, organizations and galleries – only in the past year in Bulgaria such were the projects in underpasses by the Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, in 2023 under the title “Unexpected Care” curated by Vasil Vladimirov, the exhibitions in the underpass of the Triangle of Power by Art, Affairs and Documents Foundation and the Octopus Gallery, part of the locations of the BUNA festival in Varna and others...


In this text, I will try to derive several possible readings of the display of art in closed shops and showcase windows – through a coordinate where the trajectory of the pedestrian strolling the city (x) and the time axis relating to temporality in enclosed spaces (ct) intersect. I will consider the shop windows as specific mechanisms for creating imagination and their role in constructing collective experience in urban environments, but also the significance that their enclosure and subsequent inhabitation through art has for making sense of that same art. I will also base some of my reflections on Walter Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project”, in which he examines the passages in the buildings between the streets of Paris that began to appear in the 19th century and accommodated shops, galleries and cafés. I will draw several connections between his ideas and how they might be relevant and applied to the context of closed shop exhibitions. [1]



X MAP

                                                                                               

A taxi stops in front of a building in the empty New York City. A woman in an elegant black dress and sunglasses steps out of the car, her hair pulled back into a high bun. Her gaze lingers briefly on the sign above the entrance before continuing to her destination, a jewelry storefront with curtains flowing down either side. In her black-gloved hands, the young woman holds a paper package. Carefully, she pulls from it a croissant and coffee. Holly Golightly has begun her breakfast as she contemplates the contents of the place on her own, but only for a moment, by the second bite she has already moved on to the next window of the store, where we first see the heroine through her reflection in the glass, and then from the inside out, devouring the jewelry with her gaze. The young woman turns the corner, stops in a few more spots in front of the store, and dumps the packaging into a nearby bucket. She wraps a scarf around herself and quickens her pace.

 


The opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s has become a pop culture phenomenon. For the brief moment in which the heroine of Truman Capote’s novel of the same name indulges in introversion and daydreaming, Audrey Hepburn manages to nonverbally translate, without us catching her eyes even, the inner world of a young woman who actively desires but is also aware of the fact of her desire. The object of desire and its unattainability does not frustrate her; on the contrary, she takes advantage of its aura to satisfy and develop her fantasy. In a way, the heroine emancipates her lack, aestheticizing it, bringing it to pleasure. And yet, the object of desire is not entirely unattainable either, it is so close – its objecthood, in the sense of its physical existence in space, unleashes both physical aspirations but also imaginary plots that Holly takes with her even after the shop is lost from sight.


In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly makes use of the attributes the city has given her – those of reverie.


A century earlier, the idea of city-provided opportunities for daydreaming had been developed en masse through the practice of flâneurism – wandering the streets of the city, seemingly without purpose or endpoint, the flâneur crawls and explores the city, gathering impressions, reading its codes, psychologizing the socio-economic situations that have occurred, and so seeking sources of illumination in the urban environment – His eyes open, his ear ready, searching for something entirely different from what the crowd gathers to see. [2]. Through his actions, he also achieves a more holistic result – to bear witness to and analyze time, the present tense. Benjamin dedicates an entire chapter to the flâneur visits in his book on the arcades, from which the following quotations are taken.


In a prologue to the Parisian newspaper Le Flâneur, published in 1848, flâneurism is given the inclusive status of the performance of a civic duty:


To go out strolling, these days, while puffing one’s tobacco,...while dreaming of evening pleasures, seems to us a century behind the times. We are not the sort to refuse all knowledge of the customs of another age; but, in our strolling, let us not forget our rights and our obligations as citizens. The times are necessitous; they demand all our attention, all day long. Let us be flâneurs but patriotic flâneurs. [2]


Flâneurism has been thought of through multiple points of reference – including as resistance to the exploitative nature of capitalism and work because of its seeming “laziness” and unproductiveness. As a counterpoint to its unproductiveness, however, is the argument that ‘the fruits of idleness are often more valuable than those of labour’. It is as if the main quality of the city through the practice of flâneurism is its ability to predispose to daydreaming, to serve as a visual backdrop, but also a catalyst, an occasion for our own reflections. On the one hand, the stimuli of the city cause internal tensions, and from them follow accumulations that lead to processes of creation – random sounds provoke the musician, and external stimuli help the philosopher to stir the sea of his thoughts. Having entered the world of dreaming, however, the city is transformed into a surface on which our gaze glides as we think of something elsewhere. Something of a paradox arises here – the presence of space enables us to think and imagine another space, whether real or illusory:


In the first years of this century, a man was seen walking each and every day – regardless of the weather, be it sunshine or snow-around the ramparts of the city of Vienna. This man was Beethoven, who, in the midst of his wanderings, would work out his magnificent symphonies in his head before putting them down on paper. For him, the world no longer existed; in vain would people greet him respectfully as he passed. He saw nothing; his mind was elsewhere. [3]


Thus, our relationship to the urban landscape works both ways: the city awakens in us irritations and inspirations, which we then project onto it:


The undying scenes we can all see if we shut our eyes are not the scenes that we have stared at under the direction of guide-books; the scenes we see are the scenes at which we did not look at all – the scenes in which we walked when we were thinking about something else – about a sin, or a love affair, or some childish sorrow. We can see the background now because we did not see it then. So Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind; he stamped his mind on these places. [4]


In this regard, some of the invited artists in POSTA used precisely the practice of flâneurism for their projects. Such is Sophia Grancharova’s exhibition “Fallacies of morning rose” (2023), in which she recreates a half-folded, falling apart advertising banner that forms a shape as it disintegrates. Its decay, however, the artist perceives as a bittersweet beauty. In Sophia’s words:


I often notice the broken or simply dilapidated billboards around town. The vinyl folds into lovely shapes like textiles, like the drapery of a Baroque painting, and the colors become paler and fuzzier. The advertising light bulbs stay in place and illuminate only themselves. Nobody particularly notices these advertising hoardings, and I find them very poetic and much more interesting than normal ones. In the work at POSTA, I decided to make such a shrunken, wrinkled and spoiled work out of vinyl. In it, however, it is from the folds at the bottom of the window that an image emerges, a figure in decay that assembles something new and colorful.


Sophia Grancharova, Fallacies of morning rose, POSTA, 2022. Photo: Mihail Novakov
Sophia Grancharova, Fallacies of morning rose, POSTA, 2022. Photo: Mihail Novakov

Another similar project is Brad Downey’s exhibition Street Impressions Sofia (2022), in which the artist photographs a large number of swastikas in the area of Dondukov Blvd., on which unknown artists have painted, in an attempt to “invalidate” hate symbols by turning them into windmills, flowers, the old Windows logo, etc. The exhibition captures a non-verbal dialogue between communities in the area, taking place on the facades of the buildings.


The shops with their vitrines are an integral part of the trajectory and experience of the flâneur. Showcase windows are a particular part of the urban environment because they have the specific function of provoking desire, desire to possess. Once unlocked, this desire, as in the case of Holly Golightly, creates worlds in individual minds, and in collective ones. In and through the shop windows we see collective manifestations of a city’s dreaming. This has been imprinted, including at the linguistic level in some languages, through concepts such as window shopping – contemplating windows without the intention of buying goods and imagining scenarios. I think here of all the scenes from “Sex and the City” in which the protagonists pause in front of fashion store windows and their expressions change, as if possessed by an inexplicable force – I remember the episode in which Samantha enacts a series of schemes at the mere sight of a red Birkin bag. The rush of euphoria, the sudden astonishment and display of awe – the states of the heroines draw a resemblance to the religious experience, and why not that of art. In any case, they experience some kind of illumination – be it profane. [5]


Sev and the City. Photo: pelssi.flacso.org

By making window displays, we take advantage of their already established role in the collective behavioural patterns of perceiving the city – the attention of passers-by is habitually drawn to them, and we ‘lure’ a gaze already subconsciously charged with the expectation of being ‘taken in’. In a sense, we thus build on the potential for profane illumination and replace it with the aura of the artwork.


This behaviour of the viewer is most often manifested in exhibitions in which the display window appears as a functional commercial object – for example, Kåre Frang’s exhibition “Attachments”, in which biscuit sculptures of a teapot and a sewing machine caught the attention of passers-by and their children. The glances paused initially with curiosity, which then transformed into wonder and amusement at the sight of the ‘impossible’ household objects, most likely reminding us of childhood stories and fantasies in the early years of human life.


Kåre Frang, Attachments, POSTA, 2022. Photo: Kåre Frang
Kåre Frang, Attachments, POSTA, 2022. Photo: Kåre Frang

Art in a shop window would follow a different path of perception – that of the pedestrian’s route in the urban space. His/her experience is part of a larger context – that of experiencing the city (for example, through a walk and looking at all the shop windows, cafes and cocker spaniels on the boulevard. Of course, we can also observe the cocker spaniels in a white cube, but that’s not the idea). The pedestrian’s impression of the storefront art will mix and carry to all the other storefronts along his/her route. A key moment of experiencing art in a shop window is also that of the sound of the street or boulevard mixing directly with the artwork and modifying the way we experience it – modifying the art itself – the city looking around and projecting itself onto the art.


Unlike the white cube, which creates a sterile environment for the perception of art, in the shop windows the outside world is constantly present – through the glass partition between the two spaces. Everything that can be seen from the world outside will be uninteresting and boring, but inside everything will be different. The transparency of the glass allows the contents of the window/shop to penetrate the world outside, becoming part of the urban landscape, as its reflective property in turn allows the world outside, especially when it is light, to reflect onto the shop window. The two images are superimposed and a kind of confusion is created – an optical illusion, because of which in the two-dimensional plane it is sometimes not noticeable at first sight which details belong to which world. In fact, we often use shop windows as mirrors – we are interested in their contents, yes, but also in our own bodies reflected in them. And somehow this window surrealism, uniting and shifting worlds, includes us.


In his work on arcades, Benjamin suggests that they, like any gates, serve as passages, to a world elsewhere (or in this case, to the other side of the relevant infrastructure, but symbolically, elsewhere). It seems to me that the appropriation of shops into something else could serve as a kind of mirror world, a passageway to a similar but different situation to our own. The otherness of the jewelry store is not only in relation to the urban environment and other real stores, but also in relation to itself. They are characterized by their position in spaces already saturated with meaning and significance, including certain expectations. It happens from time to time in PUNTA, for example, among the jelly forms of Kalina Dimitrova, that a passer-by enters and asks a ring to be fixed, and even insists “Are you sure you can’t fix it after all?.”


In line with the latter, Rada Bоukova’s exhibition “Au Anagrama” (2023), curated by Vera Mlechevska, draws a connection between the “real” of the jewelry studio, where jewelry was repaired on the spot, and the artistic space, equipped with a technique for acquiring and handling gold taken from old manuals and the artist’s imagination. Through the jeweler’s doors, the audience finds itself in a world seemingly similar in function and purpose to the real one, but different – not belonging to the practical, serving other, unseen needs. The exhibition seems to situate itself in a liminal zone between reality and imaginary, thanks to the properties of its location, constantly jumping from one to the other – from contemplation of the installation and the scenography of the exhibition through workshops with a (semi-)educational purpose, devoted to alternative ways of the same extraction, and the very real documentation of the artist and the curator in the gold-bearing rivers around Sofia and the waste lands for old machinery, from whose motherboards, for example, gold is extracted. Key to this peculiar “confusion” were, on the one hand, of course, the artistic and curatorial approach, but also precisely the use of the already existing context, as well as the proximity of reality – through the window, life on the street is quite visible and immediate.


Rada Boukova, Au Anagrama, PUNTA and POSTA, 2023. Photos: Mihail Novakov

 

So far, I’ve highlighted a few characteristics of art shown in shop windows – their initial charge of awakening desire and curiosity, which we benefit from, but also the perception of art in a different way, within the flâneurs’ itinerary and marked by their more general experience of the city. I also touched on their qualities of ‘transparency’ and ‘mirroring’ and their attitude to exhibitions. Exhibitions in storefronts break the patterns of a city’s spectacle – introducing illogical elements into spaces thought to be otherwise. Through our contact with them, we pass from the very real of the street into an unfamiliar territory characterized by illusion. In this sense, a fundamental characteristic of thisexhibitions is the superimposition of world and reality.


Ct TIME


In the book Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Alice tries to get one of her cats to assume the pose of the black queen, the cat unfortunately does not cooperate, and as punishment Alice picks her up to see herself in the mirror not following her commands. At the sight of the mirror, ideas and daydreams form in Alice’s childish head about the mirrored room before her eyes, almost the same as the one she is in, “all but the bit behind the fireplace”, which Alice cannot see and therefore cannot be sure of. Almost the same except that in the mirrored room everything is reversed – “Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way,” [6], she says. As Alice imagines a possible path beyond, the surface of the mirror turns, little by little, into a thin silvery vapor that the girl passes through quite easily. In the mirrored room, at first glance, the basics look the same – “what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible” [7] – the clock has a face, the chess pieces are walking around, and so on.


Alice’s mirror world takes her back in time. It might be a dream. In it, the characters often have counterintuitive perceptions of the world, following an inverted logic of behavior that is nonetheless quite applicable to its context. The mirror world has the property of a radical otherness that is nevertheless referential to our world.


Analogically to the situation with Alice, the time in the abandoned stores is both the same and different, present and other. A characteristic feature of showcase windows is their relation to the present and their belonging to more global processes because of the supply of goods that people need or would like to own now. Shopfronts are constantly renewing constructions, aging differently from the rest of the building. When they bankrupt or move, the momentum of this happening falls asleep, frozen and captured. In shop exhibitions we work with a specific, pre-set temporal logic that can alter the way they are perceived. The relationship to time is ambivalent – on the one hand, by exhibiting art in these spaces, we automatically draw a connection to the present because of the nature of the storefronts per se, but also one to the time in which they were last functional.


As for the problem of historicity, we could generally think of the shops as an attempt at a legibility of history, a meeting point between past and present in which images of different times renegotiate the present. Characteristic of a shop’s departure is that its signs are preserved – often the owners leave signs and furniture to remind us of it. In other cases, the memory of the shops is vitalised through that of similar, neighbouring retail outlets or through its participation in a larger urban logic. In this respect, they are not exactly sites of forgetting and oblivion, even if their historicity relies heavily on image (but that is no small thing!). Rather, the closure of the shopfronts pushes their contents into the space of sleep and the unconscious, of collective memory, which surfaces at the moment of their awakening.


Choosing to relive specific places from the past revitalizes them. The past is aestheticized, acquiring a new reality, denser than before, because of the heightened regard for its constituent parts and their qualities – the golden reflections of the sign Jeweler glow more strongly when they reflect the present, the kitschy mosaics of a fish shop take on a romantic character, the varnished wood on the window of a bookshop becomes an example of an attitude to design and comfort.


Thus, by reactivating abandoned stores, we focus on their historical fate and, more specifically, the reflection of reality on “dream cities”. The shadow of time always refers to the present, or rather is interpreted through the way history has unfolded, culminating in the moment of now. The empty shops in the shopping center in Iliyantsi, Sofia speak of an unrealised capitalist fantasy, while the empty shops in the mountain town of Din-les-Bains in France are so precisely because of the entry of supermarkets into the country in the 1990s. Closed spaces in underpasses in Sofia’s ideal city centre speak of bad urban planning policies and the government’s attitude to these places in the decades since their creation – from key pedestrian nodes and underpasses, they have become marginalised spaces in the very core of the city. The high saturation of closed shops in the area of Rakovski and Dondukov boulevards during the pandemic refers to, by all means, a global health crisis. What is at stake in working with closed shops is the approach to their history and context and rethinking them in terms of the present.


The contemporary Bulgarian art scene benefits from the potential of shop windows-galleries to notice a particular social situation, even to pose a critical gaze to it. In the tourist shops in the Largo, under the so-called Triangle of Power, we think of the strange amalgam between historical ruins and the ruins of the souvenir economy with symbols of Bulgaria. This is why Martina Vacheva’s exhibition “Cycle” curated by Vera Mlechevska in one of the shops there, converted into the Octopus Gallery in early 2024, resonates in another way with its location. Inspired by mythology and folk narrative, it evolves to spaces where this folk narrative is sold under a brand. In the 2023 underpass project of the Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, “Unexpected Care,” curated by Vasil Vladimirov, nine video installations were shown in abandoned shops. We think not only about the art on display, but also about the potentiality of these cells of the urban environment along the walker’s route. And so, even if not intentional, the works on display reflect on the way we make sense of a wider perimeter of the city. Internationally, examples of this abound, and the extent to which they will engage with the fact of their ‘streetness’ always reflects on the art displayed within. For example, the Ulicna Galerija in Belgrade, situated in an old passageway, engages with graffiti culture, or Ventana in a Berlin underground station – with a thematic focus ‘in the swamp’, which presents socially and politically engaged projects.


(1) Unexpected Care, the underpass of Eagles Bridge, Sofia, 2023, Photo: ICA – Sofia. (2) Martina Vacheva, Cycle, Octopus Art Space, 2024. Photo: Octopus Art Space. (3) Tales of the Hurricane, Ulicna Galerija, Photo Credit: Ulicna Galerija.


We can read exhibitions in abandoned stores and showcase windows as an intersection between the trace of the past and the aura of the artwork. The two are pervasive and glamorized by each other – the shops are preserved, revitalized and made more vital than before, and the art displayed in them takes on a context, an added value, another meaning in and for the city. In this intersection lies, as it were, all the potential of displaying art in abandoned showcase windows.


The opening and closing of shops is a dynamic process that always has private reasons for happening. However, it relates to more general processes that culminate in the fact that we are ultimately dealing with the ruins of dream images of a city. This, I believe, is both the last point of interpretation of our shopfronts, but also the first point from which exhibitions in such must start – the shift of desire; the debris of dreams and the significance of these phenomena to the collective unconscious, but also the way in which they shape the future of a city. Somewhere along the coordinate axis of the intertwining of now and then, inside and out, is the flâneur, the person walking around the city, contemplating the windows – their contents, and the world reflected. Their illumination is the pledge of working with art in the shop windows.



[1] Pierre Larousse, Grand Dictionnaire Universel (Paris 1872, vol.8, p.436, Flaneur), quoted in Benjamin W., The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 453.
[2] Quoted in Benjamin W., The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 1999, p.448.
[3] Pierre Larousse, Grand Dictionnaire Universel (Paris 1872, vol.8, p..436, Flaneur), quoted in Benjamin W., The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 454.
[4] G:K.Chesterton; Dickens, Vie des hommes illustres, vol.9, quoted in Benjamin W., The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 438. 
[5] Profane illumination, “materialistic, anthropological inspiration,” distinct from the religious and perhaps a predecessor of the aura. The idea of profane illumination is put forward by Benjamin in his essay “Surrealism: the Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” published in Bulgarian by Kritika i Humanizam Publishing House, Sofia, 2022.
[6] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Pan ‘96 Publishing House, Sofia, 2004, p.125.
[7] Ibid., p.127.
3 views

Comments


bottom of page