Souls for Sale
During the confusing moments immediately following a cataclysm, particularly one with a high death toll, people evince a variety of behaviors, some predictable, others bizarre. There’s praying, the quest for divine intervention. (“Dear God, please don’t let that happen to me!”) There’s sex, the quest for companionship, comfort or, on a primal level, reproduction to replace lost lives. There’s the quest for laughter, often the only emotional release available for people who’ve been taught that crying is unacceptable. And then there’s shopping, the quest for divine shoes.
Of all these behaviors, shopping is the most enigmatic and probably the least universal. When an earthquake destroys a Peruvian village, it’s doubtful the locals rush to the nearest mall. Shopping as therapy is a phenomenon endemic to the United States and other affluent countries whose economic engines require consumer oil to keep running. But what is it that shopping provides consumers in return, that keeps them moving through the checkout line like cows through a slaughterhouse chute?
Retail Therapy, May Tveit’s installation at the Gallery at Village Shalom, proposes some interesting answers and, as a consequence, raises some interesting questions. The exhibition is the artist’s own behavioral response to a cataclysm. Before September 11, Tveit had been researching “the psychology of consumption,” focusing on consumer “products” such as “need, greed, thirst, hunger, fulfillment, desire, procrastination.” After the attack, and particularly after “hearing a plea from President Bush to ‘go about your business of being American’ by going shopping,” Tveit says, the project mutated into an exploration of the language of media and how that language drives us to spend. The result is a work of art that resembles a patriotic microcosm of the megamart.
The gallery contains three industrial shelving units painted red, white, or blue that reach from floor to ceiling. Each unit is layered with five shelves of huge balloons, color-coordinated to their respective shelves: red balloons on red shelves, for example. The balloons are branded with words that, Tveit says, “were becoming embedded in our American consciousness and are now on the verge of becoming buzzwords.” The red unit displays a wealth of “security,” “normalcy” and “relief.” The white holds “life,” “liberty” and “happiness.” Blue is for “before” (the pseudohalcyon days prior to September 11), “belonging” and “duty.”
At first glance, the installation appears remarkably simple, perhaps even obvious. But Tveit has been careful to explore the deeper metaphors of shopping and the symbolism of patriotism. Take, for example, the installation site. The gallery space is relatively intimate, with a high, vaulted ceiling that evokes a place of worship. In our culture, materialism and spirituality (not to be confused with religion, spirituality’s deviant spawn) are constantly at war, and the battlefield is the heart and mind of the consumer. What the church or synagogue or mosque cannot provide, perhaps the mall and megastores can: a semblance of control over our uncontrollable lives — the loafers or the lace-ups? the cashmere or the cotton? — and escape from self through hours of mind- and sole-numbing entertainment.
“Material possessions,” says Tveit, “are conduits to connect with our inner selves. The institutions and the rituals of the spiritual are also conduits to our inner or higher selves.” But she frames the comparison by quoting Erich Fromm, from To Have or to Be: “In a culture in which the supreme goal is to have — and to have more and more — how can there be an alternative to having and being? On the contrary, it would seem the very essence of being is having; that if one has nothing, one is nothing.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that the purveyors of something are located just down the road from Village Shalom, along the graceless, homely and terminally busy 119th Street shopping district.
“My beef is with these anonymous boxes that get a name and a sign slapped on them and then are called ‘Town Square’ and Town Plaza,’ as if they were creating a central meeting place, a new Main Street, USA,” says Tveit.
They’re not, because Main Street has moved inside: In Retail Therapy, as at Home Depot, industrial shelving rises above aisles like skyscrapers above boulevards, and shoppers walk up and down them like Sunday strollers, gazing at the comforting abundance surrounding them.
“Shopping walks the line between being a true provider of goods and services and being entertainment in and of itself,” Tveit says. “Although with the advent of the superstore culture, the nostalgic nature of shopping has changed. It’s not Breakfast at Tiffany’s anymore, it’s Starbucks to go and then off to exercise at Costco.”
Tveit’s shelves, though, are stocked not with oversized boxes of laundry detergent or hundred-roll packs of toilet paper but with intangibles, simple words with complicated meanings that trigger a host of reactions and, consequently, questions regarding the viewer’s position in this universe of material wealth and immaterial doubt. Not only is “happiness” plentiful — the artist’s shelves are full of it, after all — it’s also enormous, the letters near bigger’n your head, to use Texan vernacular.
But here’s Tveit’s clever catch: The balloons are hollow; they contain only air. As they age, their shiny surfaces grow dull and the air inside expands until they burst, leaving empty spaces on the shelves. Every balloon must be replaced, and Tveit replaces them daily, as if abundance has no limit. But it does. Over the course of the installation, Tveit will run out of balloons, the shelves will cease being stocked, and what will remain is not an endless supply of “security” or “life” or “liberty” but their prominent absence.
Only a person who lives an unexamined life would claim immunity to the symptoms of buyer’s blitz, and Tveit is quick to admit her participation. “I can be very critical of our consumerist culture, but at the same time, I participate and am a product of that culture. So I feel conflicted and hypocritical at times. The act of shopping definitely fills some kind of void.”
So does Retail Therapy. Its questioning of the marriage between patriotism and consumerism, and between consumerism and spirituality, is compelling and propitious — especially with the U.S. economy’s slow but steady leak. And the project provides viewers, regardless of age, with easy entry. Says Tveit: “I had a resident of the Village Shalom come in and say, ‘Hey, is this Sam’s Club?’ That was a satisfying moment.”