Speculative Windows text

For Walter Benjamin, fashion is incorporated by the passage with the full hypnotic force of shop window that is like a narcotic to the flâneur. In the Parisian arcades – the first streets covered with shop windows – the windows are so fabulous that they actually observe the outside world. “Pedestrians in the arcades are so to speak inhabitants of a panorama. [...] They are observed from the windows but they themselves cannot see in.” The shop window is the space of visual speculation. It is the stage of visual ecstasy, fashion’s place of seduction. In the 19th century, the window ceased to be an architectural opening for light and ventilation and became its modern function of framing a view. In this sense, the shop window can be regarded as the window of fashion, which demonstrates inside itself, the ever-changing fashion.
 
As Benjamin illustrates, the era of glass architecture begins in department stores with their rows of display windows and grand light courts or light wells. For him, the collective, dream-like unconscious of the modern industrial age is to be found in the transparency of the glass that consistently exteriorises the interior. Glass, with its main properties of transparency and protection, keeps the outside out and at the same time brings it in. Its transparency forces a two way model of visuality: framing a private view outward (the picture window) and framing a public view inward (the display window). Commodities, seductively shown behind the glass surface of the shop window, frame the gaze of passing flâneurs and increase their desire for purchase.
Richard Sennett has illustrated glass as a “material, which lets [us] see everything inaccessible to desire.”One can look through but cannot touch, which means, desire, but not possess. Thus, the view trough the shop window reduces street life to merely viewing. It allows vision but prohibits touch and sound, which intensify the desire of consumers and make commodities “look better than they really are.” The shop window becomes a dream world of material pleasure and of the phantasmagoria of commodities.
Salvador Dali was commissioned to design two display windows at ‘Bonwit Teller’, a fashionable New York department store on Fifth Avenue. One of the Displays symbolizes ‘Day’, and the other ‘Night’. For  ‘Day’, Dali places a frightful wax mannequin, which is stepping into an old-fashioned hairy bathtub lined with astrakhan and filled with water, from which three wax arms arise holding mirrors.  For ‘Night’, in the other window, he shows another frightful mannequin lying on a bed, whose canopy is made of a buffalo head that carries a bloody pigeon in its mouth; the feet of the bed are the feet of the buffalo.
 
When arriving to see the reaction of his windows he was shocked that “everything, absolutely everything, had been changed,” because shoppers have raised such a hue and cry at the shocking display. With anger Dali sees the changes, and asks the gentleman from the management to remove his name. After their uncooperative talk, he goes to overturn his hairy bathtub of the ‘Day’ window. It crashes through the plate glass of the display window, and he falls through the broken window. Time Magazine among others reports this happening: “‘Oomph’ went the tub as he jerked it from the moorings. ‘Crash’ went Bonwit Teller’s beautiful plate-glass window as the small struggling artist and his tub went through it and lit ‘bang’ on the sidewalk.”
Some other print media, including Art Digest, suspects the apparent accident was a publicity stunt. Dali is arrested because of this accident, which is a big spectacle that made all the New Yorkers and the newspapers talk of him.
Far from being incidental, high fashion is always central to Surrealism’s project, providing raw material, a model of craft-based production and theatrical modes of presentation, all of which prove a fertile ground for Surrealism’s obsessions: the fetish and the dream. Fashion is obviously at the heart of Surrealist interest, and becomes an important part of their visual language.
Following Louis Aragon, the co-founder of Surrealism, fashion is the element, which is common to all forms of modernity. In one of his most well-known works “Le Paysan de Paris” from 1926, Aragon identifies the passage with the ‘Théâtre Moderne’. He sees the passage as the site of erotic spectacles, where commodities on shop windows are more actors than the prostitutes. The shop window becomes the stage, the space of performance, and the spectacle. And the passage becomes an ocean as walking sticks in a shop window turn into see animals.
In his essay “Some Notes on Shop Windows” Friedrich Kiesler proposes that the shop window should be performing a play, starring Mr. Hat and Miss Glove. He refers to the shop window as a peepshow stage, describing the street as the auditorium (of the theatre) with constantly changing viewers. He concludes with a rhetorical question, asking if anybody has written a play for commodities yet. The shop window is a central issue in several of Kiesler’s works, in which he wants to attract the attention of the observers and turn them into active viewers, to awaken their desire to purchase.  In 1930, he publishes an extensive work on shop windows titled ‘Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and its Display’, focusing on the topics of contemporary art and architecture and their relation to consumer culture. He maintains the significance of the commercial market for art and architecture, since he sees the department store as an important conduit through which to communicate with the public. He even calls one of the chapters “Contemporary Art Reached the Masses Through the Store.” The department store is regarded as “the true introducer of modernism to the public at large. It reveals contemporary art to American commerce.” It should be “the interpreter for the populace of a new spirit in art.“ It should be an active agent  – or sender – of the message of contemporary art and architecture. And it should function to bring the new of art to the public.



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