A Wonderland Behind Glass
I’m usually fairly cynical about the phenomenon of the shopping mall. They are, after all, very strange, entirely artificial environments, devoid of fresh air and natural daylight – coldly glittering cathedrals of consumerism. Spend long enough in a shopping mall and the advertising and displays will inevitably brain-wash you: you’ll begin to believe that there is simply nothing else to do with life except shop and eat and shop a bit more. And then get frozen yoghurt. As the temperature here starts creeping up towards its blistering summer zenith, the prospect of several months confined to the apartment, hotels and shopping malls looms before me like a sweaty prison sentence. There is, however, one thing about shopping malls that I cannot be cynical about, no matter how hard I try: I love a wonderful window display.
I don’t mean the usual arrangement of fashionably and expensively clad mannequins – they hold little interest for me (unfashionable and impoverished as I am); I mean those really beautiful, cleverly designed tableaux that take a whole week of artistic endeavour to install. The emerging theatrical secrets are hidden behind hoardings until they are ready to be revealed… And they really are theatrical – that’s why I like them. The really good designs have a lot in common with stage sets in terms of their originality and imagination, their use of colour and lighting. The Harvey Nichols displays are always worth stopping and gawping at. Last month, to mark the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Snake, the Harvey Nichols display featured a huge serpent, weaving its way through the windows and the ceiling of the entire ground floor: the audacious ambition of it was jaw-dropping (part of me always wonders how much such things must cost and what they do with the giant bits of snake afterwards…). This month’s Harvey Nichols display is about spring fashion – so the designers have created a series of windows with an edgy, urban feeling – chic, colourful clothing against an industrial corrugated iron background with huge metal springs appearing to burst through the edges of the tableaux: a playful and energetic visual pun.
The sheer scale and spectacle of these designs reminds me of the wonderful Harrods displays I used to walk past every day when I worked in Knightsbridge a few years ago. Every morning I would emerge from the dark depths of the Piccadilly line like a scruffy blonde mole. I would walk, wide-eyed, past the Harrods windows, clutching my hot, take-away cardboard cup of Earl Grey tea. Every morning, come rain or shine (usually rain, let’s face it), I felt lucky to be there – walking towards a job I loved, in the heart of London, surrounded by these beautiful tall, red-brick buildings and the tradition and opulence of Harrods and its surroundings. My favourite display was the extraordinary celebration of the 70th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, in the winter of 2009. Harrods became an Emerald City, its distinctive high, honey-brown walls covered with squares of sparkling green lights. The windows featured fabulous scenes of Dorothy, the Tin Man and friends, showcasing Harrods’ products in all sorts of clever and artistic ways. But the best bit was at the side of Harrods, just by the Tube station: sticking out into the street were the enormous feet of the Wicked Witch of the East, shod with the iconic ruby slippers – it was as if the whole of Harrods had just plummeted through the air and squished her. It was utterly fantastic.
There’s something about the idea of a fantasy world behind glass that has always fascinated me – ever since I made my own ‘television’ with Neil Buchanan on Art Attack (it was a tissue box with a hand-drawn backdrop of some fields and a few Lego men stuck inside, with cling film stuck over the hole to make a screen). I loved creating child-sized worlds, safely contained miniature theatres, in which I could play God. I would gaze into the swirling snow of a snow globe imagining the chilly little lives of the beings that dwelt within. Our goldfish tank was a glorious fishy-fairy-tale microcosm, subject to my various eccentric, artistic whims: I would arrange the brightly coloured gravel into sweeping contours, position the driftwood and the little painted castle in an intriguing way to create secret nooks and crannies; the elodea would be planted to make a miniature forest for our beloved goldfish (Bergerac, Albery Finney, Axl, and Von Smallhausen) to explore (while Fernando the water snail was generally happy to just cruise up and down the glass, nibbling at algae). I loved sitting and watching the aquatic adventures of our boys in this watery wonderland that I had created.
Talking of wonderlands, fashion store, Étoile, currently has an extravagant Alice in Wonderland display in its windows: it is whimsical and delightful – featuring a huge White Rabbit, mushrooms, floating hats and flowers amongst the label’s spring fashions. Such displays are all part of the glitzy nonsense of Dubai of course, but the work of these window designers and dressers is superior to much of the superficial, showy-offy bling out here: these shopping mall displays are often beautiful and quite brilliant. In the deadening heat and silence of the UAE summer that is nearly upon us, I’ll get my glimpses of Wonderland wherever I can…
Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head though the doorway; `and even if my head would go through,’ thought poor Alice, `it would be of very little use without my shoulders. Oh, how I wish I could shut up like a telescope! I think I could, if I only know how to begin.’ For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible…
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, 1865)