Shopping - Susan Shaw

Empty Spaces of Desire

" the empty space of desire, the seats don't come cheap..." 1 1977, the Fiorucci store in Knightsbridge, London. Too many hours spent reading Vogue have led me to window shop in monied areas, on the other side of London to the particular suburb where I live. Fiorucci, French Connection, Harvey Nichols, Harrods. I wander about and stare in at the glamour and fizz on display in the windows. On entering Fiorucci's I buy something very small, but the bonus is that I get to bring it home in a carrier bag. This bag is emblazoned with two little angels printed in warm flesh tones, one of them cheekily peering over the top of a pair of sunglasses. This is really the item I have purchased. More than the bangle or the tights that I have spent my money on, this bag gives me what I need. It gives me the illusion of knowing the latest trend, the hippest shops; a certain level of discernment. 1981, South East London College. I am sitting in an "A" level English Literature class. Enter the glamorous Cristina, envy of all the young women. Tall and slender, lightly tanned, her blonde cork screw curls cascade down the back of her immaculate and very fashionable clothing. Her Italian heritage shines out of her very pores, and on her shoulder, containing the mundanity of further education - text books, pencil case and ring binder - is a new, more up to date version of my Fiorucci carrier bag. What that bag gave us both across time, and what all the elegant, beautifully manufactured carrier bags that are given to us today allow us, is a complex set of feelings. One of these is the thrill that we experience from seeking out what will give us most pleasure and purchasing it. Another is the emotion of cultural belonging. Our aspirations are fulfilled. As we walk about with our labels showing, our newly branded self feels, at least for the moment, sated.

Purchasing the dream

Max Hollein talks of the act of purchasing as being "...much more than the mere satisfying of everyday needs: it is the important ritual of public and communal life, through which identity is created and changed..." 2 Brand awareness moves us to loyalty or disloyalty. Couturiers and the newly graduated fashion designers, whose presence draws to them trend seekers, are the measure of hip. What is shown on the cat walk this week is in Top Shop the next. Images, disseminated to us through Vogue, Elle and Hello! capture us in the cycle of >desire>need>purchase>.The ability to quickly manufacture cheaper versions of the latest fashions produces more and more for us to consume. The availability of multiples of choice makes of us chameleons. The 1987 photographic screenprint artwork by American artist Barbara Kruger Untitled (I shop therefore I am) plays on our tendency to think in polar opposites, as well as making reference to Descartes' Cogito 3. Kruger's artwork at the same time realises that in this post-modern age we can, and often are, constantly shifting and changing our identities hour by hour, if not minute by minute. What her artwork also does is make us aware of our position in relation to society and consumerism. We begin to see just how embedded we are within the culture of consumption. We do not stand apart, as perhaps we would like to think we do. Instead we are engaged in both the conscious and unconscious processes of buying into the need to consume everyday, literally. Kruger also unleashes in us the desire to be seen outside of our need to belong. Like the cultural theoretician Boris Groys said "...Nothing in the modern consumer society is consumed with such relish as criticism of consumption..." 4

"...For us Moderns, at any rate, art has ceased to be an illusion, it has become an idea..." 5 The installation 'Shopping' by Susan Shaw both engages us in and allows us to indulge in the criticism of consumption. There is after all nothing like a good moan about money, societal debt and how crazy it is that other people live beyond their means. When we criticise consumption however, we place ourselves in a position of supposed superiority. We imagine that we have placed ourselves outside of this cycle of >desire>need>purchase> . We like to think that we are not so easily manipulated as other people by advertisers and market forces. However much we criticise though, we are still there, looking in at the goods on display in the windows of the stores of our dreams. We still check out the logos on the carrier bags of others. We ache to buy. We ache to have. Like Kruger's photographic screenprint, Susan Shaw?s installation wittily makes us catch our breath. It is so obviously simple.


The Eastbridge Hospital Undercroft 6, is entered from Canterbury High Street. See it now full of purple shopping bags. All empty. All receptive. Holding nothing inside. There for the taking. Acres of them. These bags are enticing us, begging us to take them away, to fill them up with whatever we desire. The logo on them is a silver W, a silver representation of a Bishop's Mitre, the W that represents the Whitefriars shopping centre development. Church and Commerce entwined with the added twist of that erotic charge that shopping can give us. Shaw has said that her work " about the interface between consumerism and religion..." 7 Her 2003 Rochester Cathedral installation 'Lourdes' 8 asked us to make the connection between consumerism and religion through offering for sale cast concrete statues of the Virgin. Here Shaw makes a critique of the Church's harnessing and manipulation of our need for souvenirs (relics). Historically, pilgrims financed the Church by paying to see relics. This not only helped to keep open the large sites of pilgrimage but also paid for the building of new churches. As Shaw has said "...the shopping centre in the Whitefriars development will bring new visitors and life to Canterbury..." 9 Of course, it will also bring money. 'Shopping' develops her thinking further by not only linking religion and consumerism, but by also making us consider the value of the art object as consumer item.


So, we are back where we started, with a beautiful, Italian manufactured carrier bag. Made of good quality card, matt printed in purple both inside and out, purple rope handles and the logo of the silver W. On the underside of the bag, a silver signature, an edition number and a date: the artist's imprint. Now what is the bag? Is it simply a receptacle for objects? Or, is it an art object? What value do we put upon this bag? Set in this place of pilgrimage the meaning attached to these limited edition bags is changed. Shaw asks us to consciously bring awareness to this transformation. Consumer or consumed? She asks us to engage with the complex processes inherent in encountering an object that has a multiplicity of meanings and is not what it seems on first viewing. Here, the value is no longer about monetary worth. We are not buying this limited edition "print". We are being given it, to take away and do with as we will. Where does this leave us? We have a bag on our arm. It has a logo on it and inside it is a text. Already we begin to see that this isn't simply just a bag to fill up. With 'Shopping' Susan Shaw has illuminated the emotional and philosophical complexities that we live with day to day. She has presented us with a seemingly simple idea, but one which opens up a Pandora's Box.

Liz Kent - 2004

  • Footnotes
  • 1 Jean Baudrillard, "Machine Snobbery" , The Perfect Crime, translated by Chris Turner, Verso, 1996, pg 79.
  • 2 Max Hollein, "Shopping" , Shopping: A Century of Art & Consumer Culture, edited by Christoph Grunenberg & Max Hollein, Hatje Cantze Publishers, 2002, pg 13.
  • 3 René Descartes (1591 - 1650) "I think therefore I am" , A Dictionary of Philosophy, Pan 1980, pg 85.
  • 4 Boris Groys, originally "Der Wille zur totalen Produktion" , Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Bilder und Zeiten, no. 114, 16 May 1992, op.cit, Hollein, pg 13.
  • 5 Jean Baudrillard, "Machine Snobbery" ,The Perfect Crime, translated by Chris Turner, Verso, 1996, pg 76.
  • 6 The Undercroft was almost certainly the first part of the Hospital to be built (12th Century) and was used as the pilgrim's sleeping area. Now it houses exhibitions and functions. David Hayes, Master of Eastbridge Hospital, writes that the Hospital was originally built as a " of hospitality..." Eastbridge Hospital leaflet text.
  • 7 Conversation between artist and author.
  • 8 Lourdes installation at Rochester Cathedral Crypt and Rochester Art Gallery Dec 2002 - Feb 2003.
  • 9 Original project proposal text, Susan Shaw.

Essay commissioned by Land Securities and Canterbury City Council for Shopping part of the Public Art Initiative for the Whitefriars development