It's What's On the Outside that Counts

Exhibition Catalogue Essay

Shopping, fat, London, 1999

The plastic carrier bag. A humble item in our society, and perhaps not the sort of thing that springs to mind when we think of contemporary art. Which is a good reason to use it for precisely this purpose. In fact, the sheer ubiquity of the carrier bag makes it an almost perfect home for contemporary art - slipping into the broader culture, an image half-glimpsed and quarter-noticed. These images fleetingly occupy a murky subliminal space, alongside the great flood of visual trash that urban dwellers are washed through with everyday. This is the space that contemporary art (contemporary everything, in fact) is obsessed with. That is: the layered and fragmentary space of postmodern consciousness.

So we agree that the side of plastic carrier bags is a perfect place for artworks. It's quite obvious really, in fact one thing about 'Shopping' is the fact that everyone has thought of it before, but nobody ever got round to doing it. So it's a good idea, but what exactly does it mean to put artworks on the side of carrier bags or, rather, to make carrier bags into artworks? How is this different to the usual gallery context? When working with unusual materials it's always a good idea to shut up and listen first. First of all we have to look at plastic carrier bags and ask ourselves: what do they say before people try to get them to say something else?

The first thing to note about plastic bags is their sheer ubiquity - there is one within 10 metres of you right now. What's more extraordinary is the fact that they are not just abundant in high streets and homes, but also in fields, on railway cuttings, playgrounds, parks, lakes... They get caught on fences, lamposts, car aerials and hedgerows. On windy days it's plastic carrier bags that outnumber the birds in the sky. They are everywhere. Yet this abundance doesn't simply depend upon the numbers we produce - although we do produce them at a frightening rate - it's also a result of the fact that, once here, plastic bags are reluctant to go away: they don't breakdown naturally, they don't biodegrade.

This is the second thing to note about carrier bags. Like some comic book supervillain we cannot kill them by ordinary means. Ever tried to crumple one up and put it in the bin? It slowly unscrunches itself and catches the next passing breeze, escaping to enjoy decades of tangling up pigeons' feet until their toes drop off. Ever tried burning one? They give off toxic fumes, melt and stick to you like Napalm. They are almost indestructible, and nasty with it - which is the third thing to note.

Plastic is a fallen material: utopian when first invented, now tarnished by its reliance on diminishing fossil fuels and stubborn refusal to degrade. We could recycle the bags but we prefer to stuff them in the cupboard under the sink. No, Nature doesn't love plastic, and perhaps nor should we. (Is this the ambiguous point of John Isaac's mournful 'I miss you'?) How many everyday products warn us that, given the chance, they will kill babies and small children? Only cigarettes and cars have such image problems, but plastic bags get away with it because they don't get up people's noses in the way that the others do. They're seen as an evil that is, if not entirely necessary, then at least damned handy. But an evil nonetheless.


These are some of the connotations that plastic carrier bags have, some of the (rather negative) associations we recognise in the material itself. But what kind of messages do the actual bags bring, what do they denote about the people who carry them?

Of course at the most basic level they declare just one thing: that we have something worth carrying. This may seem like stating the blindingly obvious, and that's because it is. But it's also true that sometimes we are blind to the obvious. Often it is these simplicities that inflect the meaning of artworks.

This idea of proclaiming possession is one aspect that Tim Head's contribution plays upon. A plastic bag may not be much, but it is something. Ask someone whose worldly possessions are gathered up in one... Ever wondered why homeless women are called bag ladies? Ever been to a less absurdly affluent country than this one and seen how they treat plastic bags there? Most countries are yet to get into the habit of giving away unwanted bags with every single purchase, hence plastic bags are treated as valued possessions: reused until split, and then mended with knots and reused again. Nearer home, try going to Kwik Save where we have to buy plastic bags for your shopping. It's interesting how our feelings change when put in this situation: unwilling to pay even 5p for something so abundant and usually free, yet realising that we really could do with one to get our groceries home.

Our consumer economy encourages us to see plastic bags as disposable, insignificant. But now consumers seem to be cottoning onto the fact that nothing is insignificant - no matter how small - when it's repeated a billion times.

So first of all carrier bags say 'I have something'. But we can refine that; they suggest an activity in time, too: they say 'I have just bought something'. The person carrying a plastic bag has just acted out their role as a consumer. In general most people only carry plastic bags when returning from the shop with their purchase. Plastic bags are too unpleasant to carry all the time; we have other bags for that. Plastic bags are a hasty, interim measure, and hence they mark us - like red hands - as those who have consumed.

Once we have made our purchase we become unwilling advertisements. Why unwilling? Because plastic carrier bags do not advertise prestigious brands; the real status-enhancing brands don't deal with that kind of plastic. So the common-or-garden carrier actually says 'I have something to carry, and I've just bought it, but it's not terribly exciting'. The bag hurts your hand, is in danger of splitting and falls over when you put it down. When it starts to tear, it goes quickly, shattering bottles on the pavement. It's cheap and nasty; a poor-man's flyposter. Compare this to the kind of bags that luxury products come in. These bags are big: too big for what they hold, the bag equivalent of billboards. Ever wondered why they are so big? This is their main function; they are not made to carry things, but to proclaim things. Why are they made from paper? Not only because it feels friendlier but, more importantly, because it takes printed images better. These are not really bags but pure signs - valueless in themselves but nevertheless packed with expensive, euphoric values. bump understood this when contemplating their contribution to the project: a plastic bag lamenting 'My other bag's a Louis Vuitton'.

These are some of the meanings plastic carrier bags will always have. All of the artists here have disrupted these and other readings in some way. In some cases these meanings have simply been made explicit, in others they have been made ironic to the point of inversion. But whatever is done to a plastic carrier bag, it will always have these references.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of plastic carrier bags is the fact that they are an unsustainable short term solution with disastrous long-term consequences. And what's that you say? They really represent commodity capitalism you say? Well, that's just perfect, isn't it? Whatever else they're doing, plastic bags are definitely alongside David Shrigley's pig, rooting in the dirt.


This is exactly the kind of terrain that art has had to negotiate with a delicate ambivalence over the last decade or two. Art's curiously love/hate relationship with consumerism is perfectly highlighted by the entire logic of this project; how do you get the works? Buy yourself a product from the participating stores. To receive the artwork you have to make a consumer choice, which indelibly marks the beginning of your relationship with your new artwork.

So what does it mean to put an artwork onto the side of a bag or, rather, to make a plastic bag into an artwork? This is not just a mobile gallery, not just a chance to show artworks to a wider public. This is a total shift in context, utterly divorced from the idealised white cube gallery space - not just because of the move onto the high street, but because the plastic bag has been incorporated into the work itself. Gilbert & George's Lavatory means something quite different when it is transformed from a large-scale photo-work into a cheap plastic carrier bag. And you don't need me to tell you why.

One question to arise from this project is: how easily are these artworks absorbed by consumer culture? Do they sneak into the mainstream and critique it? Or are they all-too seamlessly appropriated by consumer capitalism and its supportive industries of advertising and design? It's inevitably a fine line; what is a sly critique for some is celebratory for others. In some cases the artworks act as peculiar little jolts to the continuous stream of consumer imagery. Take Jane & Louise Wilson's work, for instance. It sort of fits in with our idea of what a sports shop might have on its bag - leaping bare feet and retro tracksuits - but not quite. The image is close enough to be convincing, but not close enough to go unnoticed. Why might Stasi City - the GDR's Secret Police headquarters - be reproduced on the side of JD Sports bag? Not that we would know the location of the image, but it's enough to pierce the unquestioned gloss and get us thinking...

Of course the chance of art going unnoticed in the fashion world is more than likely at the minute, due to the current peak in art and fashion's eternal crossover. Fashion mags are filled with art, and art mags are filled with fashion. But perhaps this is because a single idea is equally intriguing to both disciplines: that of being able to choose a look and, by implication, choose an identity. It's an idea that Martin Maloney's work touches on and Anya Gallaccio's makes explicit. Perhaps this idea began in 1978, when Glam had huge swathes of people losing themselves entirely.

Another curious aspect of the project is that the artworks have company logotypes on, branding the work. But again, how does this work? Does the shop gain cachet from the work, or is it critiqued by it? What happens to a shop - on Carnaby Street of all places! - when its logo is swamped by a huge Union Jack emblazoned with the words British Rubbish? And who's to say whether this is a positive or a negative value? Or what happens to a company logo when it is usurped by Sarah Morris' own logo-like branding?

It's an odd relationship, but whenever we get into branding, we get into commodity logic. Which is what? It's the fact that products are made on production lines, avoiding skilled labour, so removing any kind of inherent craft values from the object. This cuts it free , making it weightless so that it can hold only symbolic value: the commodity becomes a pure sign, its value set by cultural factors only (remember the paper bags?). This is obviously something that the piece by Morris takes on: the idea of the artist-as-brand. But Julian Opie takes it further. For Opie, everyone is their own commodity now, meaningful only in relation to all other commodities: meaningful only when consumed. Even schoolgirls.

So here we are. Ending up with schoolgirls as commodities. No doubt Rebecca Cameron could have foreseen it all along, her slobbering wolf hungrily eyeing up the little beauties: it's dinner time for predators on Carnaby Street.

All in all, it's just another wonderful day in the city.

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