The protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables, Hepzibah Pyncheon, is an elderly aristocrat recluse who has come down in the world, so far down that, to survive, she is forced to open a sundries shop in her own home, the house of the title. With that act, she loses the protective mantle of noble idleness:
Let us behold, in poor Hepzibah, the immemorial lady … born in the Pyncheon House, where she has spent all her days, reduced now, in that very house, to be the huckstress of a cent shop.
This is the occasion of much terror and shame. Upon opening the door of her shop to the public for the first time, Hepzibah breaks down:
Then — as if the only barrier betwixt herself and the world had been throwndown, and a flood of evil consequences would come tumbling through the gap — she fled into the inner parlor, threw herself in the ancestral elbowchair, and wept.
But once the horror of the first days is over, with its nosy stares, difficult neighbors, and opportunistic urchins, once the shop is up and running, selling gingerbread cookies, needles, soap, marbles, and Indian meal, Hepzibah undergoes a transformation: her shuddering embrace of lowly commerce actually opens her up to the world, to new energies, and, eventually, to a whole new lease on life.
In charting this transformation, Hawthorne does nothing to conceal his New England Protestant work-ethic agenda:
So wholesome is effort! So miraculous the strength that we do not know of! The healthiest glow that Hepzibah had known for years had come now in the dreaded crisis, when, for the first time, she had put forth her hand to help herself.
But more than just Hepzibah’s life has been turned upside down. In the figure of Hepzibah Pyncheon, a massive societal, and particularly American, shift is signaled, one in which not only the very notion of aristocracy — of a natural hierarchy among humans — is exposed as a hideous relic on its way to the dust-heap of history, but also the idea that commerce bears any kind of taint will be resoundingly swept aside.
I had just finished reading The House of the Seven Gables when I encountered Berlin-based American artist Christine Hill’s artist-shop “Small Business,” the current iteration of her ongoing project Volksboutique, which has taken the form of a number of shops, “organizational ventures,” and interventions with commerce since 1993. In Volksboutique, as its name suggests, Hill marries a can-do American optimism in the tradition of the New England Transcendentalists to the aesthetics of East German labor politics. In fact, one can easily imagine Hawthorne’s “So wholesome is effort! So miraculous the strength that we do not know of!” splashed across one of the “motivational” posters Hill often hangs in her installations, with sayings like “Make the most of what you’ve got!” hand printed in cheerful blue and red ink.
With Small Business, Hill has, like Hepzibah Pyncheon, opened up a shop in her private realm — her studio. I was intrigued by the parallels and discontinuities between Hepzibah Pyncheon’s shop and Christine Hill’s shop, by the mirror images of a woman disdaining commerce within a system that embraces it and a woman embracing commerce within the ruins of a system that disdained it. But unlike Hepzibah, Hill assumed the mantle of “huckstress” with alacrity, and, instead of Indian meal and marbles, offers a canny set of assumptions — about structures of consumerism, value, commercial interaction, women as independent proprietors of their own financial fates — to be fingered by the mind like bolts of Egyptian cotton in department stores of yore.
Just as the mode of Hepzibah Pyncheon’s in-home cent shop has fallen away with time, so have many other models of commerce along the way. A history of shopping in the West would parallel a history of ever-increasing anonymity. (According to the OED, “shop” as a verb entered the English language in 1764, in this sentence: “Ladies are said to go Shopping, when, in the Forenoon, they order the Coach, and go from Shop to Shop.”) Let’s follow an imaginary woman through the centuries as she buys a pair of gloves: from the familiarity of dealing with tradesmen (who came near or even into her home); to the “general store” model, in which she would interact with a shopkeeper (whom she probably knew personally) behind a counter who would fetch the gloves for her; to examining the gloves herself in a department store, where her interaction has shrunk to handing over her money; to self-check-out, in which she can leave the store with the gloves without ever having interacted with another human being at all. (Dare I even mention internet “shopping,” where she doesn’t even have to set foot in a shop or lay eyes on another human being to acquire the gloves?) This evolution has much to do with speed and ease, of course, but it also reveals a deep lingering uneasiness with commerce for buyer and seller alike.
Hill rewinds this newsreel of modes to the Hepzibah-Pyncheon-style shopping experience, in which interaction with the sales clerk is part and parcel of the purchase. When one enters Small Business, Hill is standing behind a magnificent oak vitrine in which the most ordinary of everyday objects — a white plastic Presto letter opener, a metal tea ball in the shape of a house, a notepad from a long-gone stationery store crowned with a jaunty obsolete letterhead, GDR paper bags with beautifully faded prints of fruit on them — are displayed, and take on the status and presence of valuable art objets. But one can’t just select the Presto letter opener and walk furtively out of Small Business with it; for sale is something much more intangible, historicized, and ritualistic. A conversation between Hill and the customer occurs, during which a selection of objects is made that will all go into a Whitman’s sampler–like cardboard box, sealed with Hill’s trademark green Volksboutique sticker (all for a flat price — far less than purchasing one of Hill’s works from her gallery, which is part of the point). The interaction, as it were, also goes into the box. Anonymity is not on offer, because Hill is aiming at the awkward sweet spot of commerce, in which the consumer is confronted with her relationship to her own desires and assignations of worth. Like a highly condensed course in object therapy, Hill asks the customer to consider her role in the object world — as desirer, acquirer, selector, rejecter.
Hepzibah’s shame around offering objects, and in some very real sense herself, for sale, might look quaint to 2013 eyes. This vestigial anxiety, almost expunged, around unbridled capitalism is thrown into relief by Hill’s placement of her shop in former East Berlin. Berlin’s legacy as the divided heart of the Cold War’s opposing economic ideologies reflects Hill’s structural ambivalence: the no-holds-barred consumerism of free-market capitalism sits, not devoid of friction, next to the constraints of Konsum. In Small Business, by elevating the status of the Presto letter opener to art object, she references the scarcity of goods in the former German Democratic Republic: a Presto letter opener is “only” a Presto letter opener, after all, until you want one and can’t get it—then it takes its place in the vitrine of dreams. Small Business exposes the fissure between the object and the object’s value, which fluctuates drastically depending on a complex of social, political, and economic factors. It also asks why exactly an American who grew up among absurd plenty is fetishistically attracted to East German scarcity. Hill wants us to linger over just such questions.
At first, Hepzibah is clumsy with her own wares (which show up magically in the shop; their provenance is never mentioned), drops the marbles, is unsure what to stock in her own store, her failure to know her neighbors (who are “commoners”) translating to a blindness to their needs. Her eventual mastery of selling the items signals her growing mastery of her own fate. Hill’s wares, on the other hand, just as lovingly lingered over, are marked by the collector’s passion: one senses that she would be sorry to see each of the objects she has meticulously gathered go. (Which adds to the sampler box the frisson of absconding with the object of someone else’s desire.) For if the artist presents herself here as collector, then she is allowing the consumer, as collector, to collect a part of her collection. As Hepzibah identifies her wares with herself, so too does a little piece of Hill reside in each object, though the relation is directly inverse: when Hepzibah sells, she decreases her social value; when Hill, an artist, sells, she increases hers. Of course, Hill’s shop is the fantasy of a shop and her objects refer to the fantasy of use; but it’s the enthusiastic adoption of the fantasy of a reality that tortured Hepzibah Pyncheon a century earlier that interests me here. (Small Business reminds me very much of girlhood games, in which my friends and I were mistresses of our own enterprises. This notion of fantasy gets especially interesting in another of Hill’s projects, Shop/Like, in which a toy shop (Kaufladen) is built life-size and gallery visitors are invited to play at shopkeeper themselves.)
Hawthorne lingers long over both the aristocratic accoutrements in Hepzibah’s home — see the “ancestral elbowchair” quoted above — and the items she stocks in her shop:
A curious eye, privileged to take an account of stock and investigate behind the counter, would have discovered a barrel, yea, two or three barrels and half ditto, — one containing flour, another apples, and a third, perhaps, Indian meal. There was likewise a square box of pine-wood, full of soap in bars; also, another of the same size, in which were tallow candles, ten to the pound. A small stock of brown sugar, some white beans and split peas … there was a glass pickle-jar, filled with fragments of Gibraltar rock; not, indeed, splinters of the veritable stone foundation of the famous fortress, but bits of delectable candy, neatly done up in white paper … Another phenomenon, still more strikingly modern, was a package of lucifer matches, which, in old times, would have been thought actually to borrow their instantaneous flame from the nether fires of Tophet.
This near-obsessive description of the items (which goes on much longer than I have space to quote) turns out to be a symptom of the larger material agenda of the novel: it is the changing material circumstances occasioned by the Industrial Revolution that form the underlying dynamic of Hepzibah Pyncheon’s story.
In fact, Hawthorne understood modernity through its objects. Hepzibah’s lodger is a daguerreotypist; the epitome of the healthy, self-made young man, he is transcending his own unfavorable socioeconomic status thanks to this invention. And the novel climaxes in an exhilarating ride on a train — a technology that Hepzibah and her brother experience for the first time. Modernity’s products, Hawthorne argues, help break the spell of a humanity benighted by old orders and values. Hill, a century and a half on, looks back at the flood of objects the Industrial Revolution unleashed upon us and adjusts the lens through which we view the overabundance. Her objects, most made by industrial processes, have lost value in repetition, have become serial objects, copies, as Jean Baudrillard writes in The System of Objects. In isolating one Presto letter opener out of the millions churned out by unseen factories and decontextualizing it, presenting it like a precious artifact, Hill elevates the devalued serial object to the status of a valuable model, thus reversing the process Baudrillard traced and questioning a paradigm in place since at least the Industrial Revolution, dragging along with it systems of class, prestige, and worth. Any old schmoe can own a Presto letter opener, because, thanks to technology, millions of them are available, which has driven the price down. But only someone educated in art (and thus, privileged) can understand — and own — the Presto letter opener as an art object.
The “impersonality” of the industrially made objects is transformed through the personal interaction with Hill and her personal interest in them: suddenly the house-shaped tea ball is interesting in and of itself, not just for its use. Its original, anonymous creator is also paid oblique homage, for Hill respects nothing if not labor, her own and others’. The tea ball from Hill’s oak vitrine is also, of course, invested with something like Benjamin’s aura, and the “collector” is thus entangled in a complex web of values. He will take home a collection of items he probably wouldn’t have looked at twice were they offered in a “real” stationery or sundries store, so he has also (wittingly or unwittingly) played a role in a critique of the art market’s fetishistic hypertrophying of the artist’s aura. In the shrewdly named Small Business, the “lowly” Presto letter opener, the “lowly” shopkeeper turn into “high” art, and the values assigned to commercialism/consumerism are up for reassessment. Artists like Joseph Beuys or even Marcel Duchamp called attention to this phenomenon long ago, of course, but Hill’s unique stamp is to make her ambivalence so alluring, her enthusiasm so seductively fraught with nagging questions.
At the end of Hawthorne’s book, the curse over the house of the seven gables has been broken, and the useless aristocrat has become a useful member of society. And Hepzibah Pyncheon’s embrace of commerce has paved a little bit of the way to Christine Hill’s brilliant critique of it.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!