“A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine. Fabulous!”Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film maker
by David Hlynsky
At first glance, Window Shopping through the Iron Curtain is a photo project documenting shops in the Soviet communist sphere. I first saw this portfolio as an ad hoc museum of a great failing utopia. Because these images were made just before the culmination of an ideological Cold War, they can also be read as a review of how Western material values also fueled that debate. A Western viewer will automatically compare these Communist shop windows with the hyper-imagined prosperity of the West, but such superficial comparison lacks both truth and subtlety. It seems that the Eastern cornucopia was always nearly empty but everyone got a share. Western material culture is contrived through a continuing deluge of enticing images, blatantly constructed by the advertising industry. Both utopian fantasies are flawed. Equal opportunity is never really equal. Even as luxury and leisure slip easily through our fingers, the risk of perpetually expanding material consumption is increasingly outweighing its own rewards.
Throughout history and in every corner of the globe, human beings have needed similar things… food, clothing, shelter, education, cultural expression, respect, and pleasure. If we view Western and Eastern consumer products through the filters of these fundamental needs, we find more commonality than difference. Ideological wars between political enemies are waged not to grow the common good but rather to preserve and expand differences within and between segregated populations. Capitalists continue to act as if some huge unguarded treasure waits just over the horizon with rewards equally available to everyone. But that frontier no longer exists. Just over the horizon… any horizon… our distant neighbours have built another airport while many of our closer neighbours are homeless. The Third World is reborn as a cul-de-sac in the Land of Plenty. Utopia isn’t for everyone.We live on a planet with limited resources. Perhaps our most limited resource is space for our collective midden pile. National boundaries sequester resources and war seeks to redistribute them. We are already in political war for our indefensible right to pollute the blowing winds and rolling seas. Just because our stores are filled with disposable goods does not mean that we have achieved increasing personal or national wealth. The store windows in Window Shopping through the Iron Curtain reflect a Marxist experiment in which material production and distribution was controlled by the State, ideally for the common good. A Western viewer will measure the content of these Communist windows against the glutted, never-empty, big-box store and find considerable fault in the shabby naiveté of East Bloc shops. They might be satisfied customers but they are also deluded. Consumer culture is frequently unfair, wasteful and thoughtless and because of this, our collective success remains increasingly precarious. As an additional note on the nature of the photographic image, I offer this thought. The camera has an uncanny talent for recording the most banal details of the world around it. The consumer products in these windows ought to remind us that, regardless of ideological debates, we all share the same fundamental needs, desires and dreams. Window Shopping through the Iron Curtain is also a record of naturally decaying architecture. Just as these walls and window frames have proved to be frail, frivolous dreams of limitless wealth will also fail.