Sunday, 28 June 2009
The building looms, it is boxlike, rigid, the structure is reassuring and bland. The supermarket dominates the landscape, not so much with size but by its uniformity. The surrounding urban expanse is submissive in its chaotic uncertainty; the tower blocks nearby talk in a plethora of voices about lives and priorities unknown, indistinct. The tarmac plains of the car park define a place of singular and dedicated thought. A triumphantly illuminated corporate logo makes silent but confident promises about the world within. I am funnelled through taxis and full, swaggering trolleys to the white and obediently swooshing automatic doors.
Everything important happens in that initial explosion of perception; the eyes, nose, ears assaulted, caressed, soothed, enticed. The colours are bold, supernatural, the muted tones of nature misplaced by the fantastical, heightened and artificial. Art-i-ficial. Man Made. Brilliance. Mountains of sale produce compete for my attention, banks of confectionary swoop down and dazzle to my right. The tills buzz and beep encouragingly, translating the digital and mediating the ritual of purchase. The climax. I don’t want to think about the tills just yet. The odour is unreal, by this I mean literally unreal. Fresh bread isn’t really baking; biochemists blend together chemical perfumes to create the illusion that it is, nor is coffee being ground, the real coffee is sealed up in a vacuum beyond corruption. The air is full of delicious fantasy, scents pumped in to cause arousal, a calculated attempt to seduce the senses into steering my desires. Faint strains of music can be heard above the low and oddly reverent murmur of the other consumers; a pleasant voice is singing something between tannoy announcements. I’m not hurried. The rhythm is aquatic, ebbing and flowing. The frenetic movements of young mothers and their children are balanced by the stoicism of the slower and older shopper. There is a homeostasis in effect, a fragile, but perfect harmony of movement.
On the surface everything is clean. Food can’t happen in chaos, even apples are isolated by a bubble of plastic; people contaminate, they touch things and they spoil. The fresh produce aisles are perpetual ripeness, purity, I never have to experience decay, or death, total stasis; the food no longer conforms to the effects of time. Animals are packaged in parts, divorced from the whole in a pleasing abstraction. The canned goods are just words. Logos and pictures replace the offensive reality, ideas and representations of food are incorruptible, the perfect Hegemony. I’m told what is inside each convenient cylinder; I’ve got the brands I like and I know that they know what they are doing. I’m cruising typefaces and illustrations of experience. On mass. They don’t grow. I couldn’t make them happen. I trust them. I’m not alone. Hundreds of us swarm stunned in the aisles, grabbing something for themselves from the rows and rows of repetitious, shining, brazen labels. I am a voyeur, attracted to the contents of the other people’s shopping trolleys; fascinated by the type and quantity of food that is being selected. I am myself enthralled by the allure of the produce, but my neurotic nature reminds me of all the things I perhaps shouldn’t consume. The supersweet, the iced and additive laden, the oily. I live vicariously through those sensual shoppers who give in to the power of such delights. To watch them stack in piles of the forbidden and most instantly gratifying goods; is to witness the actualisation of the most rewarding supermarket experience; consumption as orgiastic indulgence. Never say no. I observe the dangerous ease with which appetites are provoked then quelled; it happens here and few other places in our modern life. Supermarket aspirations are simple and attainable; every facet of the experience and environment is fashioned for human need to be sated. If there is a transcendence it is the revelation of the cake counter, the secret ecstasy of being a happier person because you can buy the things you want, you are finally in control. As I idle past them the chill cabinets whirr ghoulishly into life.
Somebody nudges a bottle from the shelf and it smashes upon the hard tiled floor; ketchup bleeds across the ground in a thick incriminating red puddle. Shop assistants appear from nowhere with yellow caution signs and buckets, it is like watching the body heal itself. I want to pity them, in their matching tunics with their matching expressions of vacant concern, but I can’t. They are perfectly in tune with the environment; I have never had such a clear role in my existence. I want to pity, but instead I feel a fleeting but powerful envy. I understand at that moment that this building is ALL about control, about taking the world and crafting it to our collective will. It is a guilty truth that we crave that disassociation, the process that turns food into commodity and people into employees. This autonomy over our environment makes some of us profoundly uneasy. We’d perhaps prefer to deny responsibility for the creation of our convenient, safe and clean lives. This refusal to accept our new reality pushes us into a schizoid state of self-loathing, a belief that real life goes on somewhere else, because this life is lacking tangible danger or mystery. Here in the supermarket IS the potential for Nirvana just as you’d seek on the mountain top; only it comes with a more obvious price tag. Perception is the key.
With a full basket I edge toward the till. I think about leaving. The syrupy heavy feeling you get when you try to escape in a nightmare; that is the sensation that pervades as I make the purchase. Hands won’t work. The queue coughs and grumbles behind me. I’m wholly intoxicated by the odours, the bleaching light, the bleeps and steady hum of the supermarket. My wallet comes apart in my hand, fumbling, I shower a raffle of receipts. I can’t abandon the detritus of the impulse purchaser, the nostalgic literature of a previous consumer journeys; I have to snatch them all back up. Find plastic. The checkout girl eyes me, beautifully bored in a tight, bright uniform. She has no need to rush me; we are both stupefied, her thoughts happen somewhere beyond that electronic tone. My thoughts are in the white spaces between our stunted dialogue; we are working to our own time frame. I extend the card. She swipes. The conveyor belt stutters the next customers produce along, bottles and packets tumble and are righted. I lift my bags and head toward the exit, the handles cut satisfyingly into my flesh. The pain is atonement.