Monaco is photographer Dafy Hagai’s ode to the rites of passage and self-discovery in the Tel Aviv malls of her teenage years
Malls are strangely uncanny spaces – eerily perfect miniature city centres, simultaneously dystopian and utopian. Browsing is not the same as flâneuring and there’s little room for straying from the beaten path in such an overdetermined space. Our senses are bombarded by branding and consumer artefacts and all the associations and meanings they carry.
Yet, despite the analgesic sensation of parading past endless shopfronts and sifting through rails of hangers beneath fluorescent light, shopping centres can also function as seminal destinations, especially as we’re growing up. They are the places we meet friends and while away the whole weekend; they’re places to see and be seen and where we can find material objects to reinforce our growing sense of who we are (or who we’d like to become), purchase by purchase.
Photographer Dafy Hagai’s latest book Monaco [published by Art Paper Editions] is a celebration of the “provincial glam and fantasy” of the ubiquitous local shopping mall. “I guess there are a few different reasons I’m attracted to this topic,” she tells Dazed in a conversation over Zoom. “First of all, I think it’s a bit nostalgic.” Apart from a few years in which she lived in suburban Philidelphia, Hagai spent her youth in a suburb of Tel Aviv. “In both countries, the main place I liked to go for fun was the shopping mall. I guess it’s kind of like a time capsule of amazing memories, or something from that time. My family really liked going to shopping malls at the weekend as a family thing. So I guess I have fond memories of that too.”
Though working in the luxury fashion industry, Hagai was drawn to the more idiosyncratic, local shops and designers she encountered in malls around Tel Aviv. Many of the props featured in the portraits are by makers she discovered who use the shopping centre as a kind of exhibition space. “There was a guy who makes these kinds of mannequins, and there were things made with paper maché. The butterflies in one picture are actually garden decorations. I was also really inspired by a designer called Silvian Imberg. He’s more of a swimwear designer but he also makes quite a few of the garments featured, including the red dress.”
Along with her unique repurposed mall finds, Hagai took garments designed by friends of hers and approached the shoots as she would for a high-profile, high-end client. “I wanted to shoot designs that might not usually be shot in this way because they’re not expensive clothes,” she explains. “I wanted to give them the stage and use them to create beautiful shots.
Thinking about the importance of malls for young people, Hagai says, “Speaking from my own experience, the mall is, let’s say, where I developed an individual style, going through the shops and getting excited by spontaneous finds. Growing up, it was the first place I saw stuff that I really wanted to buy for myself.”
Having experienced the atmosphere and mall culture of Tel Aviv and Philadelphia, Hagai reflects on the differences and similarities of each. “Obviously, it looks different and some of the shops are different, but big brands have shops everywhere and I think there is something global to [malls]... the way they’re built with the food court surrounded by the shops. And meeting your peers at the mall. You know, these are the things I think are kind of global.”
Monaco really evokes the flimsy fantasies that are such an integral part of the mall experience. Aside from consumables, the book captures some of the experiential possibilities on offer in a shopping centre. One image depicts a glittering recreation of the Eiffel Tower – on a much smaller scale than the original but impressive nonetheless – erected in the atrium of a mall. Not only does it function as an interesting spectacle but also is also presumably there to invoke all the richly symbolic ideas that cluster around our ideas of Paris.
Hagai recalls: “Outside of Tel Aviv, I found this shopping mall that had this Eiffel Tower and I thought it was so funny, like a knock-off of Paris. And there was a shop called ‘Monaco’ which I thought was also funny because it sounds so luxurious. This was the inspiration for the name of the book.” This motif is then echoed in another image which shows a portrait wearing Eiffel Tower earrings – further evidence of the souvenirs we can purchase in malls that somehow acts as substitute for a lived experience; signifiers of the real thing. “The idea of souvenirs was really close to my heart,” she says. “I’m making a t-shirt for the launch and I wanted that to feel like a souvenir.”
The launch of Monaco by Dafi Hagai is at Duende (47 Martello Street, Studio 4, London E8 3PE) on March 16 2023, 6.30pm to 9.30pm. Tickets are available here.