Window displays as a case study from the beginnings of photography to the Bauhaus architects; mannequins as an obsession of the Surrealists; mass commodities as the focus of Pop art: The fascination with surface and with the excesses of the world of consumer goods can be traced in art from the turn of the last century to the present. At the same time, critical thought has never ceased its warnings against the seductions of consumerism. The directors of the Schirn Kunsthalle and the Tate Liverpool, Max Hollein and Christoph Grunenberg, respectively, collaborated to pack this conflict into a single exhibition.

Their selections ranged from historical works to contemporary installations. Whether shopping was criticized or celebrated here depended on the individual piece. It started out on the street with Haim Steinbach’s mannequins: forty-one figures, dressed in the latest Strenesse AG designs, with jarring naked figures wearing Jedi-knight masks between them. The view into the entrance of the Schirn Kunsthalle was blocked by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset with their “opening soon” announcement for an auction house. In the foyer, Sylvie Fleury’s golden shopping cart turned, and in the stairwell Surasi Kusolwong had built 1 Euro Market (Shop till you fly), 2002, with loads of cheap plastic items that were sold out in short time. Probably the most spectacular contribution was from Guillaume Bijl, who commissioned a supermarket chain to build an authentic franchise that would also include the regular rotation of fresh groceries and all the usual amenities. But nothing could be purchased, which lent the complete and orderly selection of goods an unexpected museum-like quality. Stunned fascination collided with the wish for the aesthetic optimization of display—a wish that made way for a playful acquisitiveness in the exhibited reconstruction of the “American Supermarket” at the Bianchini Gallery, New York (1964), where Pop art heroes like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol touted the beauty of mass-produced grocery items.

And herein lay the second emphasis of this exhibition: the fascination commanded by masses of cheap goods on the one hand and by refined, ultra-selective choices on the other, as in Fleury’s shoe-fetish installation Pleasures, 1996. More than anyone else, Andreas Gursky brings both aspects together: Here his “Prada” series, 1996–98, was juxtaposed with 99 Cent II, 2001, a photograph of an overloaded supermarket, from which just a few small consumer heads poke out. Aesthetically speaking, both are equally delightful. Other works provided a stocktaking—sometimes an ideologically loaded one, as in Joseph Beuys’s Wirtschaftswerte (Economic values), 1980, or Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy, 1992. Many presented the world of commodities as sheerly aesthetic, like Jeff Koons’s vacuum cleaners, while others showed critical intent, like Julien Michel’s image Les Policiers (The police), 2000, in which heavily armed police officers stand guard in front of Niketown. Zwelethu Mthethwa photographs very plain living rooms that are decorated with wallpaper made of product packaging and supermarket flyers. Critical voices could also be found in Olaf Nicolai’s contribution, a collection of quotes on shopping, from Karl Marx to Marilyn Monroe. “Lock up a department store today, open the door after a hundred years and you will have a Museum of Modern Art,” as Warhol said in 1985. And Rem Koolhaas wrote in 2001 in his book on the New York Prada store: “In a world where everything is shopping . . . And shopping is everything . . . What is luxury? True luxury is NOT shopping.” If so, the museum is the luxury version of the consumer world.

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.