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VM inspiration: Happy humping hippos at Selfridges

Here is a perfect example of visual merchandising as everyday art or rather, in this case, borrowing from art. Selfridges’ side window in London’s Duke Street, adjacent to the head office entrance, currently features a Jake and Dinos Chapman piece belonging to Selfridges’ owners the Weston family. ‘Pygmy hippos’ is made from recast fibreglass, finished to resemble classical bronze.

The rounded surfaces of both hippos make them look like a slightly-overweight couple who have been together long enough to be entirely comfortable with each other’s imperfections.

The side view reveals not a single naughty bit. It is rather unflattering but totally forgivable, like unexpectedly glimpsing too much flesh on a dear friend. All a lot more thought provoking than the Chapman brothers’ earlier work, which seemed to run along the lines of Jeff Koons’ in being deliberately provocative.

The fact that it looks like bronze but is actually fibreglass is a nice decision too. While both materials are replicable, fibre-glass is much easier to display and to relocate, appropriate for our transient times. And, of course, it adds a touch of post-modernity: that something is not as it purports to be.

The piece was installed last Thursday, and a member of Selfridges’ security team observed that everyone stops, smiles, and many take an image on their phones. Exactly the reaction that visual merchandising hopes to inspire. The same space has previously been used for a denim-covered horse coinciding with a denim promotion in the store, and more recently, a giant, high-heeled shoe, both of which veered towards the VM-side of display. The hippos cross that line to the art side.

A close up of the upper hippo reveals a serious but bland expression, perhaps the same one we might really find in this reclusive and nocturnal West African herbivore. The pygmy hippo is semi-aquatic and rarely observed in the wild, yet is often seen in zoos. The Chapmans’ life-sized examples are adding a new location for them.

With its red eye, which seems something of a creative decision, I had wondered if this hippo should have eyelashes. But its very androgyny offers the opportunity for more observers to identify with it, rather than attributing it a given gender.

The Chapman brothers’ careers as Young British Artists has been provocative and interesting to date. Although they have been nominated for the Turner prize, they have not yet won it. Perhaps the hippos are a step in the right direction By combining humour with popular appeal? On the other hand, perhaps the Chapmans are also suggesting new possibilities for visual merchandising.