Here’s Looking At You

Feature in Issue 20-1 | Spring 2008

Pink parts on a platter, impassive mannequins or a 24-hour-long peek into someone’s life… What makes shop windows so compelling? Edward Taylor explores theatre behind glass.

It’s always intriguing to watch a window dresser at work. It’s like watching actors on stage, except that these actors are so focussed on their work that they have ceased being self-conscious. The way they handle mannequins in such a matter-of-fact way offers many opportunities for unforced humour, and you can get quite close to them without it seeming pushy or unpleasant. It’s no wonder that many artists have explored the possibilities of performing in shop windows.

In fact, we find shop windows so compelling that we are prepared to gaze through them even when little is happening behind…

Neil Thomas is a Melbourne-based artist. His first shop window show was called Blueboys and featured him and four look-alike dummies all with hands and faces painted blue and all wearing the same pristine clothes. They all sat impassively in the window and the audience knocked themselves out trying to guess which ones were alive and which ones weren’t. The odd thing was that Neil never really bothered with that mime statue stuff and would often break ‘character’ but the audience still played the game.

In fact they continued to stare at the mannequins even when he wasn’t in the window, convinced that one would suddenly move at any minute. It was a simple idea which provoked some fascinating exchanges with the public.

He developed this idea into the Urban Dream Capsule where four people lived in a shop window for two weeks. The artists built living quarters which were on full view to anyone passing by (except the toilet of course) and the performance ran 24/7. The psychology explored in Blueboys was magnified to an extraordinary effect. People changed their daily routines so they could pass by the windows and see what was happening, in Montreal a local choir came and sang to the inhabitants of the window, in London a woman came by daily to show them progress on a jumper she was knitting and in the process taught one of them how to knit and people whose birthday it was came with birthday cakes to celebrate on the pavement.

If the basic concept (four people with their lives on show every minute) sounds like Big Brother, it’s anything but – it’s very much a performance and there’s none of the bear-baiting or gladiatorial aspects you get on that show. The four get on with each other rather than dissolving into conflict. In fact the same four appear in every performance of this piece – it’s important to stick together in what must be a draining experience to undergo. This performance has travelled the world and appeared to huge success in many leading arts festivals. It seems the public’s curiosity with what’s going on in a window knows no national borders. Each show also had its own web-site where people could communicate more directly with the performers.

If Neil Thomas’ work is like a giant love-in, French company Cacahuete set out to provoke. They have two shop window projects. The first involves the five performers in the company and the second involves expanding this line-up with local artists and interested parties. No joke is too cheap or too shocking for Cacahuete! I saw them in Montreal – Pascal (the artistic leader of the company) was sitting cross-legged in the window of quite a chi-chi restaurant. He was naked and had tucked his bits in between his legs so they were out of view. He was holding a silver platter which contained what can only be described as a sausage casserole in tomatoey gravy. The gravy was smeared all over the window and there was a lot of it between his legs. He had a horrible vacant expression as he idly pushed the sausage about with a fork. Funny? Shocking? Disgusting? It was all these things and the surprise at seeing such an arresting image literally stopped people in their tracks.

The imagery the company uses is a carnivalesque mixture of sex and commerce. They are very good at creating images that get to the nub of things and which rummage about in our more basic thoughts. In Manchester, in the expanded version of the show, it seemed several windows were populated by the homeless rather than comic exaggerations of shop mannequins thus bringing another perspective to life on the street. By using normally-shaped people rather than the idealised forms we are used to they poked fun at the fantasies that advertised life promotes. A drunken couch potato watched the footie in the window of a shop selling TV’s and a florist had a naked Eve offering an apple to people passing by.

Cacahuete have a splendid book about 20 years of their activity, L’Aventure Scandaleuse, and in it you can read of the many times their shop window performances have been shut down by the police with an arrest or two thrown into the bargain. In Stockport I saw the manager of a shopping centre discuss Pascal’s performance in a sportswear shop with a policeman. He had a sock over his cock and every time anyone got close to the window a piece of fishing wire allowed him to display an enormous erection in double quick time. Despite the crowds of people laughing at his antics, the manager was furious – but in her annoyance she completely failed to spot a nearby vegetable barrow containing a nude, sleeping woman covered by strategically placed vegetables.

Funnily enough all the shops in Manchester that hosted the performance in 1997 wanted them back, despite all the nudity and bad taste (one window was shut down as people found the image of Lady Di leaping out of a coffin a bit hard to swallow) so have them back they did in 1998, with the number of participating shops expanded from the original 20 or so. Liverpool City of Culture will host a large version of the project in May 2008.

Royal de Luxe (the company that gave us The Sultan’s Elephant) have recently created a show about mannequins – there’s no live performers although the installation is very much a performance: eight shops will feature tableaux which will change and develop like a cartoon strip over eight days. They’ve created their own versions of mannequins so that they can play with expression and body posture. A mannequin of a small boy is eating soup from a bowl – next to him a sign says ‘Eat your soup and you’ll get bigger’. Each day you go back and the boy has doubled, trebled in size until he can no longer fit in the window. This performance/installation, La Revolte des Mannequins, will be in Nantes in February 2008.

My own company Whalley Range All Stars created a shop window show in 1997, called The Secret Life of the Shop Dummy. We looked at shop windows as if they were cages in a zoo, and if they were cages then the animals in them would be shop dummies. So we created three different scenes in the life cycle of a mannequin. We made a couple of headless dummies of the sort you see regularly in shops and our collaborator extraordinaire Greville White made a series of mannequin heads each fitted with a different capability. One could flutter its eyelashes, one could move its eyes up and down to read, one could wiggle its ears, one could open its mouth, and one could communicate by spewing till-roll out its mouth. Theses effects were created by using cycle-brake mechanisms.

The dummies would arrive for work (one through the shop and the other on a bike), get in position in the window and the audience could then watch the behaviour of these exotic animals safely behind glass. They would eat kapok and polystyrene chips to keep their shape, they would attempt to find a face that fits, they would indulge in courtship behaviour, they would squabble and finally one would give birth – in a very tasteful manner.

It’s always interesting to have an audience in your face when you perform but unable to touch you. It meant we could create some very delicate props and effects without them running the risk of getting mauled when they were put down.

The best of both worlds really: the proximity of street arts performance but with the fourth (glass) wall in place as protection!

Find out more about Cacahuete in their publication L’Aventure Scandaleuse by Turbo Cacahuete. Les Editions de Rachid ISBN 2-9523717-0-9

For Liverpool City of Culture events see: www.liverpool08.com

For more on Whalley Range All Stars see: www.wras.org.uk

This article in the magazine

Issue 20-1
p. 18 - 19