A visit to the Trafford Centre: Holding Fast to Hyper-realism
That the Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester is a ‘temple of consumerism’ is now somewhat of a cliché. The trouble is that once a cliché is born a mask is adorned. As a critical statement the ‘temple of consumerism’ is happily absorbed as an ironic item of faith by the very object of the criticism. The Trafford centre is a temple with all the delusions, illusions, persuasions, affirmations and convincing rhetoric that any religious cultic institution may hold fast to. But in the realm of the hyper-real even culturally critical terms can float on the dreamboat of surface advertising.
Various mottos could have been carved into the curved frontage of the Orient Zone entrance to the complex. “Abandon all hope you who enter” (from Dante’s Inferno) might have had a more witty irony than the Biblical “Hold fast that which is good” which greets us above the multi-pillared main entrance. The fuller quote from Thessalonians 5:21 is “Test all things; hold fast that which is good.”
A telling postmodern omission. Rather than an injunction to question and to discriminate the good from the bad, the curtailed quote seems to say “what you find here is good, just hold onto it and buy it”. It has become prescriptive rather that educative. Nowhere to be seen is “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves…” Matthew 7:15-20.
The architectural style supporting the quote is grandiose and pseudo-classical/rococo/baroque flecked with deco. The sway of thought is that if someone put this much money, effort and materials in, then of course it must be good. Hold that thought. Hold fast.
“Hyper-real places are characterised by surface appearances that do not respond to or welcome the viewer. The sense of sight is condensed to the most immediate and visible aspects of the scene, such as…the ocean liner environment at Manchester’s Trafford Centre….(Urry,J. (2002) The Tourist Gaze, pg.149).
Interesting that the site was owned by the Manchester Ship Canal Company until 1986, when the company was acquired by John Whittaker of Peel Holdings, who went on to build the Centre. In the Orient food hall we are in the expanded belly of a 1930’s cruise ship with seating for 1600 customers. In place of onboard entertainment is a cinema screen dedicated, not to 1930’s movies (which might have posed a more complex, if still ironic, redeeming factor for pre-hyper-reality), but a constant stream of video adverts. In the blue sky-dome, above the onboard diners, gilded reindeers soar as the necessary early harbinger (we are still in October) of the central ecstasy of the consumer religious calendar – Xmas. I think ‘Xmas’ rather than ‘Christmas’ is the appropriate word. Ex-mas, as in ‘no longer mass’ or ‘Not-mass’. As in ex-communicated. We have been thrown out of Church but before we can grieve the loss of God, we are instantly reassured by familiar tropes: the great glass dome (similar to St.Paul’s in London, yet bigger); angels with blaring trumpets (no longer announcing the ‘good news’ but the new goods); and an overwhelming sense of a benign presence, soothing, all knowing (knowing what you want), all loving (offering all you need). And if you have been ex-communicated from a more pagan context there is still the Egyptian parade of Pharos, the Ankh of life, the Sun God Ra, and the Eye of Horus looking after things. Tucked away, behind a lamp-post and to the side of a rack of daily tabloids is a meditating Buddha. He’s having a laugh.
Just past the Buddha is an impressive glimpse of an eggshell blue 380SL Mercedes. I’m seduced. That’s why the Buddha is having a laugh. My critical eye has glazed over. She’s beautiful. Always a sucker for the divine feminine. Surely this isn’t a case of the ‘hyper-real’. This is real. There is no irony here. This is a modernist car. It’s not a replica. I could drive it away. It could be my escape engine from the hell of the hyper-real. And now my post-modern head is spinning. Can you have a religious fall in a pseudo-temple? Can you have a real epiphany in a hyper-real sanctum? Could I go through a Dante-esque journey within the confines of a mega-mall? Where would Dante place the hyper-real in his circles of purgatory?
‘This car belonged to Mrs Margaret Mary Whittaker the Mother of the Chairman and Founder of Peel Holdings plc and the Trafford Centre. It is installed at the Trafford Centre as a lasting tribute for all her support, inspiration and guidance.’
Christ! It is the sacred feminine – Mary the Mother. Supportive, guiding, inspiring…..I go down one one knee and take a photograph.
I walk past the ejaculating fountain. The droplets peak in a circlet of baubles. Behind, the painted geese are startled, and a woman in an orange robe reveals a voluptuous breast.
I go and buy some trousers in Marks & Spencer’s.
I’m feeling empty and somehow I have to make my way back to the car park. There is a gravitational force field, the glass arches are not windows to the sky but containers for air. I notice the air is heavy. No breezes in the Trafford Centre. Even the endless movement of visitors doesn’t seem to cause a slight current. People don’t rush around the Trafford Centre, they percolate. It’s like walking through melted celluloid. Every shop is a gooey frame from a well known movie. Here the air is invented.
I’m trying to get to the car park but the floor has made me go into New Orleans. Hyper-real feng shui due to close proximity to China Town. How do you make artificial dust? At least there is a toilet nearby. In the toilet is a red-waistcoated man. He is mopping the floor. He has been mopping the floor for ever. With his bent over back and repetitive sweep he has surrendered to the celluloid air.
Why am I buying anti-bacterial hand-wipes in Boots? I’m sure there aren’t any bacteria in the Trafford Centre.
I stopped taking photographs just after the incident with the Holy Mary Mercedes. My camera became very heavy. Anyway, my M&S bag with my new trousers was making it seem like a palava to get the camera out of my back pack. There was probably a subliminal message, just below hearing range, telling me that I didn’t need to look any more closely. Oh, there was. The absence of the first part of the biblical quote on the way in. They got me. Right at the entrance. The religion only works to the degree you don’t ask questions. The Temple is mighty.
I was ex-communicated from the Trafford Centre.
The labyrinth of minor roads out of the Temple Grounds was less complex than on the way in. They didn’t need me any more.
In the car, as I left the Orient Zone, I started sneezing.
I reached for my anti-bacterial wipes.
Slowly I started to notice things like rain, and clouds, and autumn leaves.
And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)