I came across the term “cathedrals of consumption”, coined by George Ritzer in reference to shopping malls, as I researched for CS. It is a phrase that immediately resonated with me – the suggestion that it is shopping that has replaced religion in our secular times, giving us meaning, purpose and something to believe in is a powerful image:
“Consumption sites such as theme parks, cruise ships, casinos, tourist resorts, hotels, restaurants and, above all, shopping malls, are referred to as ‘cathedrals of consumption’ by George Ritzer to indicate their quasi-religious, enchanted qualities. Ritzer (1999) views them as the core institutions of late modernity, which have redefined the nature of society. The great sociologists of modernity, including Weber and Durkheim, emphasized its rationalizing qualities that dissolve traditional elements, such as superstition, myth and folklore. Ritzer argues that where modernity led to a Weberian ‘disenchantment of the world’, a stripping away of myth, folklore and fantasy, late modernity reintroduced these into social life through ‘hyper-consumption’, mass festivals of consumption taking place in its spiritual homes, the modern cathedrals. Ritzer’s central thesis is that contemporary management sets its eyes firmly not on the toiling worker, but on the fantasizing consumer. What management does is to furnish, in a highly rationalized manner, an endless stream of consumable fantasies inviting consumers to pick and choose, thus creating the possibility of re-enchanting a disenchanted world through mass festivals in the new cathedrals of consumption.” (Gabriel and Lang, 2015: 76-7)”
The Metro Centre in Gateshead, formerly the largest shopping mall in Europe, fits this description as a ‘cathedral of consumption’ perfectly. Visiting the centre however, I was struck by the number of shops that were closed and wondered of Ritzer’s analysis was still true. I photographed some of the empty spaces and was quickly challenged by one of the centre’s security team who advised me to contact the centre management to seek permission to photograph. I duly did this and my request was declined, as the centre was in a “period of transition” they felt the current state was not an accurate representation. I was not surprised by this and the lack of permission reinforced my view that the centre is in serious decline and the last thing the management would to allow is anything that could damage perception. (Interestingly since I took the images here, many of the spaces have been covered with graphics to draw attention away from them being empty.)
Researching artists who have explored consumerism, I came across the work of Seph Lawless, particularly his ‘Abandoned Malls’ project. Lawless documents derelict sites of commerce and leisure across the US, mainly situated in “poor, broken parts of the country” with the goal of showing the “vulnerable side of the country and raise awareness” through his work. He recalls with nostalgic fondness going to the mall as a youth: “These grand places that served as pinnacles of the community were not only institutions or places of commerce. They were communal spaces where a lot of people went and shared good memories.” (Morona, 2016)
Uberti (2014) notes that death of the American shopping mall is linked to socioeconomic shifts in the areas they are located, a shift back to urban centres and the impact of online shopping. Rather than being the “self-contained ecosystem” of the past, malls now seem dated and conformist. Many of the large department stores that used to ‘anchor’ malls have either moved out or gone out of business, and most importantly, customers no longer have enough disposable income to shop there.
Geography is a significant difference between the decline of the American mall and the changing nature of UK shopping centres. Whether places like the Metro Centre go the same way of the malls documented by Lawless remains to be seen. Undeniably the landscape of retail is changing rapidly, and this links to how we spend our leisure time and even our sense of identity. In terms of how, or if, I pursue this as an area of exploration for my BoW I am left with the choice of either trying again to seek permission to photograph from the Metro Centre management or making images ‘undercover’. At this point I am still unsure if this is the direction I want to take.
- Seph Lawless Website
- Seph Lawless: A Haunting Look Inside America’s Creepiest Malls
- Black Friday-The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall (book)
Gabriel, Y. and Lang, T. (2015) The Unmanageable Consumer (3rd Edition). London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Morona, J. (2016) Seph Lawless: Q&A with photographer behind those viral images of abandoned places. Cleveland.com. At: https://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/2016/05/seph_lawless_abandoned_building.html (accessed 1st February 2022)
Uberti, D. (2014) The Death of the American Mall. The Guardian, 19th June 2014. At: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/19/-sp-death-of-the-american-shopping-mall (accessed 1st February 2022)