Nestled away in a smaller gallery away from the bustle of the Royal Academy’s main space, a visitor to this year’s Summer Exhibiton would be able to see Patrick Dalton’s SELLFRIDGES, provided that they are able to spot it, given that it is surrounded by a number of larger, more colourful and louder (quite literally in the case of Michael Landy’s Closing Down Sale) works.
The image itself is unremarkable. Dalton’s photograph has captured two men, framed by their bold red and blue tops, stood in front of a row of fridges, themselves in front of a grimy, grey/brown brick wall. It does not sound particularly captivating and indeed for the more casual viewers of the exhibition, it was one of the pieces that was moved past rather quickly.
The hook, if you will, of the image is not to be found in its aesthetics but rather in a pun that Dalton is relying on the viewer to pick up on and be amused by. The fridges are topped by a beige sign, titled SELLFRIDGES. The pun itself does not require much explanation, referencing the luxury department store whilst stating that this site does, as the name states, indeed sell fridges. Yet Dalton’s work is noticeably more complex than just playing a pun (not his) for laughs. He is incredibly aware of the person who will be viewing his work, and of the context in which it will be viewed.
The Royal Academy of Art is only a short walk from Selfridges and faces out onto Picadilly, right across the road from Fortnum’s. Dalton’s humour is created through a stark contrast of two social extremes and the Royal Academy is firmly located in one such extreme. As such, the work becomes more disconcerting. Rather than a wholesome, harmless joke, it risks becoming a photograph that is used to mock the working classes by the upper-middle classes.
Dalton is sly in his approach to the working classes. In its own right, the photograph does not do anything to mock the figures it portrays. The vivid flashes of colour in the figures’ jumpers could give their wearers a humanity, setting them out as individuals next to the mass-produced appliances they are stood in front of. The photograph could be seen as part of a long tradition of photography representing the poor, through to Dorothea Lange and further back.
Dalton’s work could be this — it contains all the necessary components — but somehow, it does not have this effect. The photographer was making a clear decision in submitting the work to the Summer Exhibition. A central London art gallery is unlikely to attract the class of person captured within SELLFRIDGES. Geographically and economically, the working classes are far less likely to have access to the Royal Academy. This choice of Dalton’s means that he was not choosing to use his photograph to merely make a gentle pun as he knew that those depicted in the photograph would not be present in its viewership. SELLFRIDGES therefore takes on the same expolitative exoticisation that has run through the history of art, this time applied to a group of people not distinguished from the viewership by ethnicity or geography, but by wealth.
Appropriated from its working class culture, the people and objects within SELLFRIDGES do not immediately trigger anything for the viewer. Instead, the image is viewed in relation to the viewer’s experiences, which is more likely to include the department store Selfridges than anything resembling the fridge store within the image. As such, the fridge store is unable to have any meaning of its own to the viewer, only making sense when making a comparative reference to the Oxford Street store. In this comparison, the fridge store will always fall short. The figures in the photo will too. How could it be otherwise?
This photo therefore pushes its viewer to look down upon the class of people it is depicting. Their world is shown to be a laughably simple imitation of the perceived high culture of the upper middle classes. The gaze of both the men in the image would further evoke the viewer’s mirth. Heads turned ever so slightly upwards, eyes directed at the sign in what may be seen as an aspirational gaze. Yet their aspiration is not something the bourgeious viewer can share in, for their yearning for luxury, embodied in the sign, is something that they themselves would never have felt, having most likely been raised un that luxury themselves.
It may be tempting to accuse Dalton of exploitation, of appropriating the lives of the working classes to amuse the middle classes but this would be to not acknowledge the complicity of the viewer. The fact that the lives of those in the photograph appear as alien to a typical Summer Exhibition attendee as Gaugin’s Tahiti would have to fin-de-siecle Parisian exposes the closed nature of the art world. Despite living in the same country as the fridge-sellers, it is unlikely that the typical viewer would be at all familiar with their lives. Despite their geographical proximity, it is not possible for the viewer to see themselves represented in the two men of SELLFRIDGES, leading them to instead mock them.
Does Dalton himself find this image amusing? It may well be. It may also be possible that he selected the image with the clear intent of using it to expose the prejudices and insularity present within the art world. Regardless of intent, it is clear to see that his portrayal of the working class reveals the lack of diversity in its viewership and may, possibly, encourage a desire for wider participation in art.