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Erik van Lieshout at the Hayward Gallery

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‘The devil is in the retail’: Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout documented his quest to connect with the Rotterdam South neighbourhood via a shopping centre retail unit, writes James Pallister

How Can I Help You? by Erik van Lieshout is at the Hayward Gallery, London, from 12 January – 27 February

The subject of Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout’s new film, currently on show at London’s Hayward gallery, is a small shopping centre in Zuidplein, a suburb in the south of Rotterdam.

Van Lieshout featured in SuperDutch (2000), the book which brought the work of MVRDV, Erick van Egeraat, UN Studio and others to the architectural mainstream. A prankster and a provocateur, he’s consistently made fun of these same super slick Dutch design and architecture worlds.

The 40-minute documentary that results from his two months in the mall is both a portrait of the centre and of the way in which retail can both provide spaces for socialising and cheer as well as alienation and struggle.

With 63 CCTV cameras, judicious security guards breaking up groups of teenagers and van Lieshout repeatedly moved along for filming, it’s clear the shopping centre is a highly regulated and programmed environment. Despite this, it’s still host to moments of generosity, humour and deviancy – as when van Lieshout breaks the escalator.

Van Lieshout records banter between old guys hanging around the centre about their various health problems. One man shows off his prosthetic leg, another observes he is too fat, to which his gaunt friend quips, ‘Try having cancer like me. You’ll lose lots of weight!’

Throughout Lieshout’s Tigger-like energy bounces the viewer along through jerky jump cuts, oblique camera angles and the sometimes funny, sometimes sad vignettes. While one lady explains the difficulty of taking her rubbish to the tip, a mouse skitters around the centre’s floor.

The film is neither mawkish nor heavy-handed and the ‘victims’ he presents are often unexpected. The wisecracking old blokes – together in their lack of health and money – contrast with a harassed shopkeeper: ‘Why should I care about your film? It’s nothing to do with me. Here everyone has to look out for themselves.’

It’s shot in Dutch with English subtitles, but occasional English words stick out, none of them the finest linguistic exports. ‘Point-of-sale display’ is something that one of the window dressers tells van Lieshout used to be called posters. As the shop attendant puts together an arrangement advertising perfumes according to a picture from a company style guide, he cheerily remarks that ‘in the past we had to think of everything ourselves – not now it’s all globalised!’

Van Lieshout decides to set up his own shop, kitted out with €150 of junk. As well as some dried Brussels sprouts, sets of trolley wheels, brackets and nuts and bolts scattered round his retail unit, one of van Lieshout’s talking points is an enormous poster of (assassinated) far-right politician Pim Fortuyn. Lots of the locals aren’t too keen on immigrants.

Soon Rotterdam native Rem Koolhaas joins the wall, an enormous print of him on the face of a magazine cover. One visitor to van Lieshout’s shop darkly nods at the poster, lancing the OMA star’s business model. ‘His office is down the street from me. There he exploits foreign young architects. They’re all ex-pats, nothing to do with Rotterdam. They get a one-year contract to work on a job, then another. So he can make his fancy things all over the world. Then their career is sorted and they leave’. All the while the camera tracks an elderly gent peering round the shop, fascinated with what he sees.

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