December 18th, 2006


Madrid generics

One of the things I tend to photograph when I'm out and about are generics, patterns, display systems which categorize things. It's fascinating to see the way people display a lexis or set of objects, a group of repeating yet varying shapes. I especially like it when somewhat bloopy, organic shapes are squeezed into a gridlike structure and displayed face-on, behind glass, framed in the "naive order" of a rectangle, classified for convenience or for sale.

In Madrid this weekend I kept seeing -- and photographing -- simple head-on display, storage and classification systems. Or just patterns, sometimes related to the patterns of Islamic tile design, sometimes not. Shops tended to present their goods simply, in windows and counters, squeezing raw produce up against the flat plane of a glass pane in categorized and labelled squares. A tapas bar specializing in mushroom dishes displayed a poster of species, the outlandish shapes and colours tamed by a grid and Latin genus names. A store blind sported a leaf motif, an arts centre sorted its amenities using simple graphic design, a hardware depository ranked screws and nails rather in the same way a new social housing block ranged the urban poor.

In the Sunday market I discovered a wonderful wagon specialized in plastic tubes and rubber bands -- I've never seen so many rubber bands, or such huge ones -- while a vegetable market hung phallic gourds from hooks. A poster for an MC Escher exhibition was unexpectedly matched by an apartment building decorated with an Escher pattern. Juxtaposed with the polygons of an architectural poster, donuts became architectural too.

The thrill of generics isn't just in the generous presentation of consumer choices these displays present; there's also a delicious tension between the quiddity of the stubbornly unique single object and its capitulation to the order of the group, the grid, the genus. So it isn't too much of a stretch to say that my interest in generics relates to my interest in collectivism, sociology, anthropology and our ability to generalize about groups. The generic grid makes the pathos of individuality very clear. We're all different, but our differences all fit safely into pre-existing classifications, grids of description. That's the beauty -- and the tragedy -- of generics.