Publication for EMPTY SHOP / MODERN MONUMENT Huntly, Scotland, 2003

by Claudia Zeiske, Director, Deveron Arts


"We were too small to be big, and too big to be small and beautiful.
Otto Kjaergaard

It is now almost 18 months since the Huntly Express first reported on the increasing number of empty shops in the town. This decline was exacerbated by the rumour of Tesco setting up shop in Huntly, and led to the idea of Deveron Arts looking at this situation as an artistic challenge. Eva Merz, in her response to the brief, wrote that ”empty shops may be a sign of decline for the local economy, but they are a gift for me as an artist to respond to” - which led to an invitation for Eva to explore the demise of rural commerce from an artistic point of view.

Huntly lies in the heart of Aberdeenshire in the North East corner of Scotland. It is quite an ordinary sort of place. So is Hjerting on the Jutland Coast of Denmark. In 1980 both towns had around 4000 inhabitants. While Huntly’s demography and population stayed largely the same Hjerting doubled in size and became a chic suburb for the city of Esbjerg.

Eva Merz is from Denmark and, as such, is an outsider to Huntly. It is not accidental that we have chosen an outsider to undertake this project. To understand new perspectives we need outsiders whose view is not restricted by the blinkers of our existing cultural perceptions. She comes from a business family in Hjerting, where her great-grandfather set up a grocery shop, the Købmandsgården in 1916. The shop grew from a grocery into a local department store and specialised in smoked fish. The success of this department led to a fish smokery that now employs some 50 people. A large supermarket opened in Hjerting in 1986 and Købmandsgården finally closed its doors in 1999.

While Eva was in Huntly the Hjerting Post reported the store’s final demolition in February 2003. So, being here was both an artistic assignment, as well as something very personal, something ‘very close to home’. Of course, empty shops are not unique to Huntly or Hjerting, but the core to understanding these problems lie in wider economic and political trends, and Eva rightly changed the rural commerce theme we had given her to ’Local Commerce’, giving it a much more universal application.

Eva counted fifteen empty shops when she arrived in Huntly. Some of them have closed recently, due perhaps to the arrival of a large supermarket 20 miles down the road in Inverurie; others have been empty for many years, others again have been occupied between Eva’s appointment and the installation of her work. It is not only the shops that are in decline. The empty shops are a symptom of change in our area’s prime economies - oil, farming and fishing - and in global trends of retailing and consumption. In Britain ‘there has been a general concentration in retail over the last three decades with a mere thirty-nine retailers accounting for over half of all retail sales’. In the grocery trade this situation is even more dramatic. 

Thanks to Tesco, we in Huntly do now not even have to go to Inverurie: we can order from some 20,000 items from the internet and for a small fee all the ordered goods will be delivered straight into our kitchens the next morning.

Eva adopted an ethnographic approach to her artwork, adapting herself to the situation and developing a relationship with the people she is learning from. The first thing she did was to hire an empty shop, which served as a studio and a kind of ideas shop, where people could come for a cup of coffee and talk about things. A former wool shop, it served as both meeting place and physical focus point for the issue of commercial decline. In this way Eva became a temporary ‘local’, positioning herself as an anthropologist and taking seriously what the ‘natives’ think and say. Through talking to people, in pubs, while shopping or in her own shop, as well as through formal interviews with numerous people, she researched people’s relationship to and feelings about the local commercial situation. 

Her initial response started with a series of project ideas that related to a number of the empty shops in the town. But her final project focuses on a single image of a single shop: Gauld & Sons, a fruit and confectionery business from the 1920’s which has been empty since the mid-eighties. A shop not dissimilar from her grandfather’s shop, locked in time, almost beautiful with its old-fashioned black glass windows and the golden lettering. A shop that has become, while hardly noticed, very familiar to people in Huntly. If it were to go, people would miss it. Eva decided to preserve it by declaring it a ‘Modern Monument’, which was expressed through a performance whereby she climbed up to the roof of the shop, swinging a flag with the words Empty Shop. Her photographic portrait of the shop is like an outpost marking history as it stands against time.

Both the colour contrast as well the composition serves this tension, and when we look at the picture we may find our gaze moving to the lettering. The ‘Modern Monument’ icon brought together issues of heritage, history and culture and questions the rush to tourism as a solution to the economic decline of a place.  Ancient monuments are promoted as a driver for tourism in this country and across Europe, and tourism is promoted as the solution for economic decline. We preserve buildings by making monuments of them and giving them the opportunity of revival through tourism. But the building itself often gets little more than a quick look around:  to satisfy our need for souvenirs, the images of the most beautiful art works, the most precious monuments, are turned into fridge magnets, pencil sharpeners or mugs. All in the name of economic regeneration and revival. Modern monument tries to mimic this situation. The goods range from kitsch to stylishness, they are objects that mean memory. Should it crumble, or maybe even go, we will at least have some touchable, portable objects that ‘mean memory, that move history temporarily into our private time’.

This project was dependent on the generous investment of two grant giving bodies. First of all, on a micro-level, they provided the seed for Eva’s personal and artistic development, which could lead to setting up (a maybe nomadic) ‘business’ or practice in Huntly, Hjerting or elsewhere.    

But more importantly – more on a macro-level, Eva has given not only the shop but in a way the town a fresh value.  A value that is not easily quantifiable in the monetary or quantitative terms that tourism as an economic development script tends to promise.  She has given it a new (aesthetic?) value through such often-unquantifiable benefits as the instigation of talk.

We don’t know what her many conversations - the many visits by local people in the shop, the talk at the local Rotary club, the conversations with local shopkeepers, or the panel discussion - may instigate. But it is clear, that they nurtured the aesthetic  - and therefore what Klamer would argue the economic - development of conversations and discussions she has had with people in the town. Such as one member of the audience during the round table discussion so pertinently said ‘the artist brought the different departmentalised languages (business, tourism, economic development and art) together’.

Whether, therefore the subsidies have some effect only the future can show. The truth is the ’Local Commerce’ project would not have happened without them. But the pending question is whether the subsidies - as is often in other economic sectors the case – are stifling development and growth, or whether they can work as investments for future development and expansion.