Sue de Beer
Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn
Luis Gispert & Jeffrey Reed
Erik van Lieshout
Stephen G. Rhodes
Ryan Trecartin & Lizzie Fitch
Victor Gruen was the inventor of the shopping mall, the epitome of American suburbanization. A Jewish architect and city planner who emigrated from Vienna to the United States in 1938, he quickly made a name for himself by renovating lavish Fifth Avenue boutiques. His great success, however, began in the early 1950s when he built the first modern shopping center in Detroit. The visitors were no longer merely shoppers; instead, they discovered all the functions of a city center assembled in one place. Since then, shopping malls have increasingly transformed the appearance of American cities (and, with some delay, also those of Europe and the rest of the world). Today, they usually replace the inner cities and have become the center of “social” life. Their architecture, however, simultaneously functions as an instrument of isolation: it separates the mall from the rest of the city and creates something like a city within—or on the outskirts of—a city.
Today, the first generation of American malls are already empty, superseded by newer concepts; the most recent trend in California, for example, is to build malls under the open sky so that people can shop and, at the same time, enjoy the sun. The abandoned building complexes can sometimes be found in the middle of city centers creating pockets of urban ruin. In addition to echoing the displaced inner cities, the places they have taken over or replaced, they also act—by means of the presence that they had in our recent past—as ghosts of the new.
These ghosts or traces, in the Benjaminian sense, are the focus of Walead Beshty’s work Passages in American Metropolis (2001 –). Beshty takes as a model the photographs of the French artist Eugène Atget, who famously preserved the memory of the appearance of early twentieth-century Paris by “cartographically mapping” the whole city with an old camera. The arcades—which functioned as pedestrian zones and could be described as precursors of the shopping mall—were particularly captured in the moment of their disappearance, because programs for the modernization of the city were about to be put into place under the aegis of Napoleon III.
In almost 150 individual photographs, Beshty, like Atget, compiles an archive of abandoned—or “dead”— shopping malls in the United States. Unlike the Parisian arcades, they represent non-auratic architecture and are almost free of poetic and emotional associations. At best they are graveyards, but in reality, they are non-places. Graveyards are still concrete places for the remembrance of real people, and, until the last century, even industrial buildings produced enough of their own auratic and intrinsic value to function today as the bearers of memory for a whole structural genre and its era. The “dead” malls, however, no longer have their own form. Apart from a few exceptions—which cite, in New English style, the columns and gates of European antiquity—they are square, emptied shells consisting of cables hanging out of the walls, of dismantled and flaking letters, of abandoned chairs, barred shop fronts, and broken glass. Lights—resembling the emergency lighting of a deserted space station—no longer suggest any hint of life, but instead merely strengthen the ghostly impression of the dead. The only things that stoically live on are the rubber plants which always show up in the scene.
For over twenty years, Dan Graham used living shopping centers as the sites for social studies in his work Death by Chocolate: West Edmonton Shopping Mall (1986 – 2005) (2005). Beshty, in contrast, does almost exactly the opposite. The signs of exhaustion are symbolically registered in abandoned places, places robbed of their function and life. An architectonic construction developed for no other purpose than capitalistic consumption—and now replaced, as in computer technology, by more recent developments—cannot be given any other use. The best that awaits it is demolition. Because they were once the center of social life, the “dead” malls today carry a double sign of the original loss: as echoes of the inner cities that they once replaced, they still live on as empty shells, but in an extremely distorted form. And because many people are talking about shrinking cities (a discussion within which “dead” malls certainly belongs) without, in the enthusiasm for pragmatic re-use, having properly mourned the trauma of this loss of history and memory, Beshty has created a memorial to them in this series of photographs.
Lives and works in Los Angeles
|2006||The Maker and the Model, Wallspace Gallery,
New York |
Embassy! (a dismal science waiting room),
UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
|2005||Parks, Hotels, and Palaces, China Art Objects Galleries, Los Angeles|
|2004||The Body-Body Problem, Wallspace Gallery, New York |
The Phenomenology of Shopping and Dead Malls, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York
|2007||Hammer Contemporary Collection, UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles|
|2006||The California Biennial, Orange County
Museum of Art, Newport, USA |
Bringing the War Home, (touring) Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York; QED, Los Angeles
|2005||The New City: Sub/Urbia in Recent Photography, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York |
Manufactured Self, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago
David Velasco, “Exhibition Review: Walead Beshty at Wallspace,” in: Artforum, no. 4 (December 2006).
Christopher Balaschak, “Exhibition Review: Walead Beshty at China Art Objects,” in: Frieze. Contemporary Art and Culture, no. 96 (January/February 2006).
Dominic Molon, “Walead Beshty,” in: T. J. Demos et al. Vitamin Ph. New Perspectives in Photography (New York, 2006).
Jennifer Wulffson Goodell, “Place, Process and Passage in Beshtyla,” in: X -TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, no. 2 (Winter 2006).
Roberta Smith, “Art Review: Summertime at P.S.1: Where Opposites Like Hands On /Hands Off Attract,” in: The New York Times (July 16, 2004).