There are city councils who, long before the financial crisis, Brexit or Covid, gave the appearance of worshiping at the altar of retail as if shopping were the be-all and end-all of humanity.
Not to mention the unique individual character of our diverse cities, which attracted visitors and locals alike. Build bigger, fancier malls, was the logic, and the people and the pounds will flow.
It doesn’t matter if the same centers are run by global corporations who are holding the city hostage on civic planning issues and selling their tinned giants as “targets” that are more important than the city itself, shall we say.
The demise of the high street is a drawn-out affair, for there is shopping and shopping, and for those who enjoy the glitz and convenience of large malls, there are those – and sometimes the same people – who love the independent bookstores and useful old hardware stores or the local shop where the owner knows your kids and asks them what they’re cooking if you send them mango chutney or half a dozen eggs in an emergency.
It’s the person who has been lost many times over the past few decades and large retail chains repetitive themselves on the main streets of the UK so at the street level you would never know if you were in Bath or Barry, Derry or, well, say, for that Purposes of this article, Dundee.
And so we come over the injustices of global capitalism and a chutney just before a curry to the new exhibition by McManus, which gives an insight into the not too distant past and the lost and won in the city high street development.
The Street is an immersive, in-gallery replica of an old Dundee shopping street on a set designed and built by Dundee Rep and the Scottish Dance Theater, with which McManus’ curatorial staff worked closely.
and filled with shop fronts and bar interiors that were saved from the urge to modernize in the 1960s
that have been in storage for a long time.
These types of treasures are always found in local museums and galleries tasked with recording and paying tribute to the legacy of their widely spaced rule.
The Shop and Bar were once popular installations at McManus, featured on the 1980 Ale and ‘a Thing show and now recreated. Some may remember those days, others may wonder if we can learn something from them to make our own shopping experience more sustainable.
Here are shops whose exhibits are 150 years old, with very little plastic, where the goods are lined up in boxes on the shelves, where nothing used to arrive shrink-wrapped on a trolley, where returnable bottles were recycled, where you had to ask the shopkeeper for anything what you wanted instead of just serving yourself – ideal in times of Covid, you could say.
The grocery store – itself a construction modeled after a traditional grocery store that some will still remember – has its shelves stacked with products from the past. Other stores along the street, from the toy store to the pawn shop, the shoe store to the furniture store, are all filled with new acquisitions from the past 40 years, representing the varied course of Scottish and wider design history.
The good and bad of high street history can be found here, as perhaps evidenced by the lovely bar, a mix of furniture from two Dundonian establishments that were destroyed in the 1960s and 70s – John O’Groats (of Cowgate) and The Old Toll Bar (corner of Gray’s Lane and Lochee High Street) – whose dark Victorian wood is so incredibly atmospheric and yet housed a place where women (let alone children) were largely undesirable or denied entry.
And then the pawn shop with its strange selection of items, as is the nature of the place. You can imagine things here mortgaged and never resumed when the economic fortunes of Dundee, which was chartered in 1191, in part to promote trade, rose and fell along with its residents.
There are names on this cobbled main street that will be familiar from old Dundee, just as there are names on our modern main streets that we only knew a year ago and are now gone.
So here’s a pleasant stroll through the history of Dundee’s High Streets, the competing constraints, and beyond that, a thought of the dangerous situation our High Streets are in now after Brexit and the ongoing pandemic. Where we spend our money matters.
The Street, The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, Albert Square, Meadowside, Dundee, 01382 307200 www.mcmanus.co.uk Through October 23, 2022, Mon to Sat 10 am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-4.40pm
Choice of critics
Last chance this weekend to see the Glasgow leg of the Chamber of Wonder, an international curatorial peer-led project showcasing the work of former students who graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2020 amid the pandemic. The project runs concurrently in London and will have exhibitions in Thailand and South Korea before returning to Glasgow in January 2022.
The project is the brainchild of Aeji Seo, one such 2020 graduate who developed this international program from her bedroom in Korea, to teach her similarly scattered colleagues, all of whom were unable to follow the process of a “normal” Completion due to Covid measures.
“Open Cut” is the Glasgow exhibition with 14 graduates, co-curated by Robert McCormack of Transmission Gallery, a gallery that was the first to join the project and offer exhibition space.
The focus of the Glasgow exhibition is the idea of the body “as a place of cultural, aesthetic and ethical importance”. The gallery itself becomes a “body”, so to speak, in which the different approaches of each artist to the topic take place and suggests the “painful threshold” between the inner and outer body. Participating artists are Chao-Ying Rao (Betty), Sean Robertson, Antonina Kulmasova, Gaia Tretmanis, Ash MacDonal, Emma Clark, Greta Martyniuk, Hannah Kate Absalom, Isla West, Louise Reynolds, Ramona Lindsay, Rowan Ormiston, Sophie Booth and Tabitha Hall . Everyone must enjoy this chance to exhibit their work in the “real world” after the exams of the last academic year that were so brutally interrupted by the pandemic.
Open Cut, Transmission Gallery, 28, King Street, Glasgow, 0141 552 4813 www.transmissiongallery.org Until November 28, daily 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Do not miss
Howardena Pindell is a hugely influential figure in American art whose six decades of artistic career and activism have helped a subsequent generation of African American women – African Americans and women at the top – make a name for themselves in the art world. Pindell found her early artistic drive, which she painstakingly developed in the 1970s, an abstraction of dots and grids before she started doing more and more political work. This is the first solo exhibition of Pindell’s art in a UK institution.
Howardena Pindell: A New Language, Fruimarket Gallery, Market Street, Edinburgh, 0131 225 2383, www.fruitmarket.co.uk Until May 2, 2022, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily
Subscribe to The Herald and don’t miss a word from your favorite authors by clicking here