Wearing the mantle of the 21st century flâneur I spent a few months this year strolling around London’s streets at night with my camera, observing the transience of the urban world we live in. The flâneur is a French word meaning “stroller”. It is someone who walks the city in order to reflect on what he sees. In the 19th century the poet Charles Baudelaire called the flâneur a ‘passionate spectator’. However it was the philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who turned the flâneur into a symbol of academic interest in the 20th century, in his monumental unfinished opus
‘The Arcades Project.’ Based on the decline of the 19th century shopping arcades in Paris, it was a huge collection of texts on city life.
Although the concept of the flâneur was gendered traditionally as masculine, in this century the female flâneuse has finally been acknowledged.
Women writers like Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and Anais Nin are known to have walked the streets of the metropolis turning their experiences into literary texts. In her 1930 essay Street Haunting, Virginia Woolf wrote,
‘How beautiful a London street is in winter with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness. High among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light — windows; their lamps are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars. Here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women.’
The flâneur can be seen as an author in search of intrigue, a painter of urban life, a detective of street life. Everything is mysterious until a meaning has been invented.
In my case, as I walked the streets certain themes started to emerge – above all - the fleeting transience of life and the hollowness of consumerism, which define existence in the city.
I wanted to present the shop window display as a seductive façade, to show that just as shop assistants are trapped in their glass cages we are trapped in our dreams of material goods, so we are missing out on the ephemeral ‘now’ which disappears as soon as it is born.
‘Every ‘now’ melts away and disappears. No ‘now’ can be expected to last. It crumbles once you touch it. It blurs the closer you look.’
Zygmunt Bauman 1994
To illustrate the city as a phantasmagoria, I created a dream-like mood to show that consumerism has put people to sleep.
Our waking existence is a land which leads down into the underworld - a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise. All day long, suspecting nothing, we pass them by, but no sooner has sleep come than we are groping our way back to lose ourselves in the dark corridors.’
Walter Benjamin A Berlin Childhood
A woman dreams in her bath and a predator symbolising capitalism watches her. Walter Benjamin, whose ideology was based on Marxism, believed that people would only wake up from their seduction by consumerism by becoming aware of what was going on around them. Karl Marx said, ‘the reform of consciousness consists solely in the awakening of the world from its dream about itself’.
124 years after Marx’s death we are far from awakening from this dream. In modern culture human beings have grown even more relentlessly obsessed with commodities. Over the past 40 years we have more than doubled the amount of time we devote to shopping. Instead of religion being the opiate of the people, shopping is the religion of our time.
Taking inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, I explored the exclusive 19th century shopping arcades of Mayfair and the multi-billion pound development area springing up around King’s Cross. When I wandered around the Mayfair arcades there were very few people so the arcades seemed to me to be relics of the past, threatened by the new outer London shopping malls.
To show them as haunted by the ghosts of their modernist past I photographed reflections in the windows.
A boutique manager trapped in his glass cage in the Burlington Arcade sits surrounded by glittering commodities. As ghosts from the underworld slip by his window and disappear, he is engrossed unaware of the nocturnal phantoms.
Is he carrying out commercial negotiations on his computer, or is he engaged in 21st century flânerie? The evolution of the internet has given rise to a new type of flâneur. No longer do you need to walk the streets when you can walk the vast streets of virtual space. The principal is the same: to observe life. After all to engage in flânerie is to have nothing too definite in mind and surfing the internet is aligned to the detachment and disengagement associated with the flâneur.
How many hours do we spend strolling around the depths of the internet? Is the internet the new opiate, the new religion of the people?
Dominating the window of an exclusive footwear shop in the Piccadilly Arcade a
Gothic wolf is a symbol of the predator who haunts our dreams.
By day, the labyrinth of urban dwelling resembles consciousness; the
arcades... issue unremarked on to the streets. At night, however, under
the tenebrous mass of the houses, their denser darkness protrudes like
a threat, and the nocturnal pedestrian hurries past - unless, that is, we
have emboldened him to turn into a narrow lane.
Walter Benjamin A Berlin Childhood
‘But here we must stop. We are in danger of digging deeper than the eye approves. At any moment, the sleeping army may stir and wake in us a thousand violins and trumpets in response; the army of human beings may rouse itself and assert all its oddities, sufferings and sordidities. Let us dally a little longer, but be content with surfaces only.’
Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting
In the gallery window above, in the middle of the multi-billion pound construction work at Kings Cross, a headless predator in a dazzling, illuminated ball-gown tries to break free to prowl after a building-sight worker who has just finished his shift. She
is aware of him but he doesn’t see her. When I wander the streets as a flâneuse I
see everyone around me, but like the headless woman I am invisible.
As I stroll through the streets I see my world disappearing. With age the transience of life starts to stare you in the face, so you close your eyes and hope it will go away.
I called the project ‘The Disappearing Now’ because with the click of the camera every now vanishes. You close your eyes and it is gone before you can say heypresto. But then you open your eyes and a new now is born.
The flâneuse lives her life as a series of beginnings.
© All photographs and Words Anne Clements