The ‘Prada Marfa’ Debacle: Art History or Sculptural Commercial?

"Praises due to the most high, Allah. Praises due to the most fly, Prada."

—Kanye West, “So Appalled.”
 
Ah, art and commerce, what a tangled, tortured web you weave. When Scandinavian art duo Elmgreen & Dragset plopped a full-sized (but locked, and non-functioning) Prada store into a barren Texas landscape in 2005, they intended “a critique of the luxury goods industry,” according to one member of the pair. But recently, local government has been rumbling against the artistic installation. “From the state’s perspective, the logo is defined by state and federal law as a sign,” explains the Times. “And because the ‘sign’ sits on unlicensed land bordering federal highway U.S. 90 and lacks a permit, it violates the 1965 Highway Beautification Act signed by president Lyndon B. Johnson and championed by his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.”
 
In the words of Ballroom Marfa’s co-founder and executive director Fairfax Dorn, Prada Marfa is “a living sculpture” that has “entered into international art history discourse.” So is Elmgreen & Dragset’s best known piece a savvy conceptual jab at an overpriced fashion brand, or an inadvertent promotion for that same brand–or both, simultaneously? It’s enough to make a make a regular reader of Adbusters doubt the very ground he stands on, and it certainly doesn’t help that the art world in the 21st century is principally fueled by the sort of people who can afford $6,390 ostrich totes.    
 
In the meantime, the non-profits who helped erect Prada Marfa (Art Production Fund and Ballroom Marfa) are email blasting helpful FAQs about the project. There’s a Facebook page. Below, Elmgreen & Dragset’s personal statement on the issue (which also touches on another sticky project, no pun intended, involving Richard Phillips and Playboy.)  
 
Prada Marfa is an artwork initiated by ourselves and realized in a collaboration with the not-for-profit cultural organizations Art Production Fund and Ballroom Marfa in 2005. It was not a work commissioned by the fashion brand Prada nor had the fashion brand any involvement in the creation of this work. They kindly gave us the permission to use their logo after we asked them, due to the founder Muccia Prada’s personal interest in contemporary art, and she donated shoes and bags, which have never been renewed but stay the same – as a historic display – inside the sculpture. The right definition of advertisement must be based on criteria more accurate than just including any sign which contains a logo. It is advertisement only when a company either commissions someone to make such a sign, pays for its execution or makes a sign themselves in order to promote the company’s products. And this is not the case here since Prada Marfa never had any commercial link to the fashion brand Prada, unlike the Playboy bunny which went up this summer initiated by Playboy itself. 
 
Prada Marfa is firmly positioned within a contemporary understanding of site specific art, but also draws strongly on pop art and land art – two art forms which were conceived and thrived especially in the USA from the 1960s and onwards. Many artists, from Andy Warhol with his famous Campbell soup cans to Andreas Gursky with his grand photographic documentation of retail spaces have appropriated and dealt with the visual language of commercial brands. In an increasingly commercialized world, we see the independent artistic treatment of all visual signs and signifiers as crucial to a better and wider understanding of our day-to-day surroundings, including the influence of corporations. 
 
It comes as a big surprise for us that the Texas Department of Transportation now after eight years may declare this well-known artwork to be illegal and we think it would be a shame for the local community if it disappeared after being there for so long since the work clearly is one of the strong points for the cultural tourism, which is such an important financial factor in this region. However, we are very happy to experience the fantastic support from both art professionals internationally, locals and others, who have even created a Facebook page named “Save Prada Marfa” that after just a short while has received almost 4,000 likes and daily receives plenty of new posts, stories and images from people who once visited this site.”
 
Meanwhile, today sees the opening of “Tomorrow,” Elmgreen & Dragset’s much-anticipated exhibition at the V&A in London, which does not promote Prada goods in any way, shape, or form. 
 
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