October 19, 2021

Madrid: Economic Collapse, Ikea and the Perfect Teaspoon

When you move to a foreign country you have to start all over again: buy back your life, reconstruct your existence. Plates. Bedding. Pens. Cutlery. I knew I could just go to Ikea, but I wanted to try shopping for these items in small, local stores, contributing to the community, shaking off the mantle of the tourist, mixing with the Madrilenos…

Then I remembered the state of my Spanish. I decided to just go to Ikea.

Yes, Spain has its big box stores – annexed, as everywhere, on the end of a tube line as if they might infect the rest of the city. I emerged from the Metro and blinked. Someone had made the city disappear. Brownfields scarred by piled garbage and half-built houses, a deserted six-lane motorway. The crowd who’d emerged with me were already moving off across the parched earth, drawn by some common purpose towards a cloud-high sign screaming CENTRO COMMERCIAL. I followed them as if they were pilgrims broaching the Promised Land. As we neared the breezeblock Mecca of the shopping mall itself – more a collection of malls, a city of malls – an armed guard stood above silently watching our approach, like a sentry lining the castle ramparts. I half expected him to let off a couple of warning shots into the air.

Inside was the usual nouveau kitsch of every single mall I’ve ever been in – Paul Smith jackets and Zara miniskirts set to a muddled hum of muzak, mobile phone bleeps, iPod burbles. I navigated my way through an Esperanto of brandnames until I reached the Ikea at the back.

Now, the first thing you have to realize about Ikea is that it’s not a shop. It’s so much more than that. Ikea is a work of retail art, and here’s how it works.

Visitors were made to ascend immediately into an upper floor showroom tellingly labeled ´Exhibition’. Skeletal scenes from modern life snaked their way through a gallery space: rooms with no walls, cutaway suggestions of a lounge, a kitchen, a bedroom. A snapshot of life in the early twenty first century, covered in a skin of price-stickers. The only thing missing was human beings. Every installation was eerily deserted, as if it had happened moments after some global catastrophe: the dinner plates freshly laid, the wine uncorked, the cat flap still swinging. The end of the world as designer furniture.

And it worked. The place was artier than MOMA. Everything felt stylish and desirable; here, a plastic salt-shaker seemed an indispensible recipe for happiness. In fact the whole place made me want to move right in. Against the soothing soundtrack of hundreds of shuffling strangers, I realized why there were no shop dummies, no mannequins: we were the mannequins, dumbly dreaming our way through the showrooms. Ikea’s inspiration is to make you a part of the TV commercial itself. ‘Here’s paradise,’ it says. ‘And look, it’s only 8.99 Euros.’ The teaspoon I plucked from one of the drawers wasn’t a teaspoon: it was somehow generic, unblemished. A Platonic idea of a teaspoon. I realized, grasping its handle (POKAL, 7cm, 1.53E, Des. Johanna Jelinek) that I was forging a personal connection to that teaspoon.

Eventually, dry-mouthed and beaten, I heaved a blue sack large enough to house a family packed with duvets, bowls, cutlery, plugs, bowls, desk lamps and Platonic teaspoons, and emerged blinking in the desert haze. The sun was low in the sky, an oily grimace haunting the horizon. The heat of the day was over and the landscape was eerily noiseless. If Ikea had been a frozen still life with no people, then here was more of the same. Concrete shells lay empty like the excesses of a Soviet quota. This was a construction boom deconstructed, a Mayan ruin left to bake beside a silent freeway. A guy with scary eyes tried to sell me weed as he passed on the pavement. There was nobody else around.

Shielding my eyes, I glanced down at the receipt in my hand. Seventy three Euros, it said, in flaky till-print. Seventy three Euros to buy back your life. Not bad, when you thought about it… I heaved the sack back onto my shoulder as I neared the Metro. Somewhere, down in the depths of the enormous holdall, I could sense the shape of a teaspoon.

Then I got the hell out of there and staggered back to civilization.

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