Beat Streuli

The heroism of modern life is very much apparent in Beat Streuli’s Oxford Street, 1997, a photographic installation commissioned for the Tate Gallery’s project space. This street, which the Swiss-born, Düsseldorf-based artist visited at the beginning of the year, is one of London’s busiest shopping districts, but you would hardly guess this from the images. Streuli’s shoppers appear to be engaged in silent and solitary vigils, rather than orgies of consumerism.

The images are projected onto the walls of the Tate’s longest gallery from three slide projectors. Oxford Street incorporates frequent fades and overlaps, and a series of shots taken in mere seconds might unfold much more slowly. Streuli used a telephoto lens to isolate the heads and shoulders of his subjects, causing the backgrounds in the pictures to blur, and the sun was shining brightly when the photos were taken, creating a dramatic chiaroscuro effect.

These sleepwalkers may be merely basking blissfully in the sunshine, or they may be dead to the world. Streuli is a connoisseur of isolation: his camera rarely captures people who are talking or touching, laughing or smiling. In fact, it is difficult to read the shoppers’ expressions, because those who are not wearing sunglasses often have their eyes nearly closed. One of the most successful sequences depicts a group who have gathered to look at goods displayed on the sidewalk. With their bowed heads, contemplative air, and shaded eyes, they could be standing by the side of a grave. Occasionally, we can also glimpse the side of a bus, wall, or storefront, but these elements tend to reinforce the sense of alienation and unease. The side of a van is emblazoned with the name of a company called “Securicor.” We see a Gap clothing store—but the logo is partially hidden by a blurred vertical element, while additional vertical slashes disrupt the storefront like Barnett Newman “zips.”

As a cultural signifier, Oxford Street bears an uneasy resemblance to Van Dyck’s portraits of King Charles I and his courtiers—elegantly melancholic works that were given a new meaning when the king lost his battle against Parliament and was subsequently beheaded. Suddenly, the paintings’ wistfulness was seen to be astonishingly and tragically prophetic. Oxford Street opened three days before the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and visiting the exhibition shortly after the funeral, it was all too easy to do a double-take, having mistaken these shoppers for mourners. But what, if anything, can we conclude from these melancholy images? That in 1997, people revere merchandise on the street in exactly the same way that they might pay homage to a corpse? Or that in 1997, the vanitas tradition is alive and well, with any and every piece of material culture functioning as a memento mori? Yes—all this and more.

James Hall