“At art school,” says Chris Macfarlane, descending, for a breather, from the stepladder in his dining room, “I don’t remember being taught how to create a twelve-foot window display of a giant whale, while telling two kids to stop stabbing themselves with safety scissors, and trying to make avocado-on-toast at the same time.”
Such expert-level multi-tasking is required when participating in Strathbungo Window Wanderland, in which locals use paper cut-outs and light to transform the windows of their Glasgow neighbourhood into a glorious psychedelic playground. The idea is to use creativity as a means of social cohesion, getting neighbours out into the street, out from behind their windows, getting to know one another. Voyeurism meets bonhomie.
“It’s beautiful, unplanned, chaotic,” says Sarah Reid, who started this Scottish leg of the UK-wide event. “Such a simple idea, but when people come together it creates something beautiful and powerful.”
Window Wanderland was founded, in Bristol, in 2015, by Lucy Reeves Khan, a set designer who had developed mobility problems, chronic pain and feelings of isolation following a car accident. As part of her rehabilitation, she took short walks in the streets around her home – at night so few would see her struggling. Lonely, she glanced in lit windows at the people inside. One evening, an idea struck: darkness, light and a desire for human connection were the ingredients for something magical. “I was trying to find a community,” she says.
Khan set about trying to articulate her concept to her neighbours. That wasn’t easy. “Nobody could understand what I was on about,” she recalls. Window Wanderland is an easy sell once there are photographs to look at, but all Khan had were the pictures in her head. No, she’d explain, it wasn’t quite like Hallowe’en, or Christmas, it would be something new. She created a number of displays in the windows and garden in her own home, as examples of what could be done, and it took off from there. The light has spread, beacon-like, to twenty or so UK locations, and even into France.
Strathbungo Window Wanderland is now in its third year. This tiny district on the southside of Glasgow is affluent, liberal, hipster-ish. As a result of its obscurity and wonderfully odd name, it has an air of mystical realm: Xanadu, Avalon, Strathbungo. You might live in the city and never know quite where it is. You might see it on a map and think, “Dare I?”
To walk these narrow thronging streets on Wanderland night is to be confronted by a retina-shredding explosion of pop culture: Mary Poppins and The Moomins; Peter Pan, Paddington, Pac-Man. The tone is glitzy, ritzy, but there are elegiac moments. One home, windows bright with painted flame, is an angry lament for the Glasgow School of Art. On Queen Square, Bernie Hunter, who is 24 and has cerebral palsy, has created a fond tribute to her favourite TV show – Still Game, the beloved Scottish sitcom – on the eve of its farewell series.
Some displays are extraordinarily sophisticated. One house is given over to a contemporary version of Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross, the iconic painting which, since 1952, has drawn visitors to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. At the foot of this crucifixion, behind her privet, Mara Roelofse hands out free tomato soup to anyone in need of warmth and communion.
There had been talk of a huge anti-Brexit display right across a terrace on Moray Place, but, as one resident sighs, “Folk were too scunnered” – sick of the issue – “to bother.” The politics of the event tend, instead, toward the environmental. On Regent Park Square, Emily Munro has decorated an upstairs window with the hourglass logo of direct-action campaigners Extinction Rebellion. The other windows are busy with cut-outs of insects which Munro removes as the night wears on, symbolising their catastrophic decline. She leaves just one – a bee – for hope.
Faith, love, hope – it is moving to see private passions expressed in art and light. The vision of Lucy Reeves Khan, kindled in loneliness, still burns bright. “The point of Window Wanderland is to make people who are invisible visible,” she says. “It’s a chance to start a conversation.”
In Strathbungo, a conversation is taking place. One home has been tricked out like a giant jukebox, a seven-piece band playing through open windows on the upper floor. “Any requests?” the singer, Karina Smillie shouts down to the crowd.
“Babooshka!” someone shouts. “Baby Shark!”
“Geez a minute,” Smillie says, turning to consult the band.
They play Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, a suitable anthem for a night of fantasy and imagination.