by Jen Graves
on Thu, Feb 5, 2009 at 1:52 PM
Last night was the opening of a ghostly art installation held in an empty retail store in downtown Seattle, made mostly from materials bought at the January liquidation sales of other stores in downtown Seattle.
The party started at 6, and not a minute before—because pretty much right up until 6 pm, the four blocks surrounding the Rainier Square Shopping Center, where the art is, were blocked off by police. Somebody had robbed a bank. Five helicopters swarmed over the city.
In some ways it felt like the whole city was a Depression-era installation. The February 5 police blotter will go down as a feverish list of desperate crimes: There were two separate bank heists, downtown and in Wedgwood; someone robbed a pet-food store in Capitol Hill at gunpoint; and a man caught riffling through a car ran from the cops, jumped off an overpass, and was hit by a car after landing on I-5. Up in the University District, a Fort Lewis soldier (the third this week) was arrested for armed mugging.
But maybe the closest real-world parallel to the installation Retail/Commercial by Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo—the Stranger Genius winners who work under the name Lead Pencil Studio—happened back in October. A man who bought a foreclosed-on house in Maple Leaf arrived at his new house to find it stripped—gone were toilets, sinks, piping, cabinets, appliances, marble countertops, furnace, two gas fireplaces, light switches, floorboards, front door, and even the cedar fence. Police believe the robbers were the former owners. They left the place a ghost of itself. That was their architectural response to their displacement.
I'm sure the artists of Residential/Commercial have mixed feelings about the obvious way their installation relates to current events. They probably don't want it to get too pinned down.
That's not much of a risk. Retail/Commercial is not agit-prop; it's an open-ended series of proposals based in abstraction. The 4,300-square-foot former Italian men's clothier has been divided into three distinct segments (with some overlap).
Down the center runs a strip of discount store: bare metal freestanding shelving units, rickety frames for price signs, a false ceiling that runs from the front to the back of the "store." In this ceiling are fluorescent lights and one of those black spheres supposedly containing some surveillance technology. A mirror at the back equally monitors for theft. I didn't notice any such blatant security devices in the upscale section of the installation, with its wooden built-in display cases and glass shelves. In the back area is a shop that clearly intends to survive on charm—jewelry cases painted hot pink, the checkout desk blindingly chrome. Trying for bling and Zen (ponderous piles of black stones)—and landing pretty much in the middlebrow of this loose socioeconomic triptych.
At the opening the place was crowded, which prevented determining whether the installation itself was crowded. I did walk away with the distinct feeling of having negotiated past at least one mannequin and one shopping cart too many.
Retail is a common zone for artists. At last year's Turner Prize exhibition, for instance, Cathy Wilkes presented an indictment of consumerism with her detritus-ridden retail setup. Liz Magor constructed retail-style display tables at the Henry for her sculptures of dead animals and dirty dishes. Retail/Commercial is not devoid of social meanings, but they are approached in various ways over the span of the installation.
A spill of size labels in a back corner (seen above) or a crowd of clear plastic hangers on a lit rack, casting dramatic shadows, can't help but be signs of the lingering aftereffects of excess. Meanwhile, two single hangers set far back on two high glass shelves so you can see only their soft reflections on the wall is a much more abstract moment.
Some of the saddest sights, set off by the artists with a light but moody green paint, are the cuts left in the walls of the luxury store, where shelving used to be. They're scars. Is seeing this akin to feeling sympathy for these dead stores? My first impression is that I feel sorry for the Rite-Aid/99-Cent (someone jokingly called it "an 89-Cent Store") and even a little for the luxury store, as obnoxious as it is, but something about the ambitious middling store, with its harping colors, strikes me as deceptive and calculated and stirs schadenfreude in me. I can't explain this yet.
The management of the Rainier Square Shopping Center had hired a doorman for the event, presumably for security reasons rather than decorum. He did, however, have his hands folded behind his back when he wasn't holding the door, whose windows were still obscured by the same blue paper that was applied to them when the men's clothier closed months ago. His name was Wade Newell. He had never been inside the clothier (it closed before he started working at the center) but he liked the art.
"It has that feeling when you first go in of, oh my god, they're gone," he said. "It has that shock mentality at first. And then everything is familiar but the textures are off. The floor is off."
The floor, indeed, is off. The wood floor feels squishy. Rugs overlap.
He said he felt like he was part of the installation. Like a greeter at Wal-Mart.