Tuesday, September 24, 2013

TxDOT's Messing With Prada Marfa

If the devil wears Prada, he must be one-legged.

Right-legged, in fact, if he wants to shop at Prada's elite shop in Marfa, Texas.

Which isn't, actually, open for business.

Confused yet?  Good, because that's kinda what the Prada family, along with pop culture artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, want you to be.  Elmgreen and Dragset are European purveyors of the ironic and socially-conscious, and they talked the Prada family, purveyors of extravagantly-priced leather goods, into letting them make a point about the transitory nature of conspicuous consumption.

Complicating matters further is that Prada Marfa isn't in Marfa, Texas, but the even smaller, dustier two-bit outpost of Valentine, a half-hour's drive northwest of Marfa.

If you're really into the arts scene, you may have heard of Marfa, a small town which, compared to Valentine, may nevertheless seem like a metropolis.  Built as a railroad stop on the high desert, Marfa, with less than two thousand full-time residents, rivals some of New Mexico's quaint, remote Postmodern artist colonies in terms of its non-classical cultural expressionism.  Eclectic, with a decidedly left-wing bias, Marfa has experienced a resurgence since the 1970's as an outpost of avant-garde East Coast minimalism, replete with surprisingly high real estate prices, and a snobbery liberals like to pretend only Republicans display.

But still:  shopping for Prada?  Who'd go so far out of their way to spend that kind of money at such a store, you might ask?  Do they build any sort of outlet mall that far removed from civilization?  Even at their prices, how can Prada manage the customer volume to stay profitable?

At the Prada Marfa, there is no handle on the door.  In fact, the door is part of the art.  From the street, which actually is a plain ol' country highway, with two lanes of blacktop running straight and flat, the Prada Marfa sits off to the side, by itself.  A small, square box in the middle of scrubland, with a life-sized and lifelike facade, complete with awnings and four Prada logos.  Two plate-glass windows frame the non-existent glass "door," revealing a monotone showroom with chic purses and racks of shoes on display, lit by custom lighting in the evening.  Except all of the products on display are from Prada's fall/winter 2005 collection, like a time capsule from when the store "opened" in October of that year.

And it's not as if the products are even sellable.  The purses have had their bottoms removed, and all of the shoes are rights, with none of their matching lefts languishing in some stockroom in the back.  In fact, there is no stockroom; that's why the devil who'd wear these Pradas is right-footed.

Not only is there no stockroom, but there's no back door.  There's no cash register, no sales people, and no customers, either.  But there is plenty of advertising, and almost all of it is free.  Like the free advertising the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is giving Prada Marfa this week with its decision rendering the so-called art installation as unlicensed advertising, akin to a billboard for the famous Prada brand.

And TxDOT (say: "tex-dot") is scrambling to corral unlicensed billboards across the Lone Star State.  Pesky varmints.

For its part, Prada Marfa is situated on private, unzoned land with the consent of its landowner, so what's the big deal?  The reason it's unlicensed is because it's neither an advertisement nor a commercial establishment; it is, in the words of Marfa's culturally sophisticated denizens, "art."  It's sculpture made of glass, concrete, leather, all-weather awning material, and electronic illumination that happens to include elements that look suspiciously like a floor and a roof.

"So," demands TxDOT, "what about the 'Prada' name and logo in four places on the awnings, hmm?"

Well, for one thing, the signs are parallel with the roadway, which means they're not exactly legible to passing motorists traveling at 80 mph.  Their lettering is also relatively small, at approximately one foot in height for the largest logo.  Granted, the - ahem! - "sculpture" sits pretty close to the road, but that doesn't make the word "Prada" any easier to read.  And since the products in the artwork are now eight years old - a lifetime in fashion retailing - it's not like they're advertising anything, either.

Several months ago, a similar complaint from TxDOT was raised not far away from Prada Marfa, on the same desolate stretch of roadway, only it involved a towering neon Playboy bunny.  Playboy erected its logo atop a 40-foot pole by the side of the road, next to a concrete pedestal upon which a battered 1972 Dodge Charger had been mounted.  Maybe the iconic smut purveyor was hoping to conjure images of Cadillac Ranch, yet another roadside oddity in west Texas, to dispel the far more overt advertising aspects of its sculpture.  Hey, Postmodern art can be interpreted so many different ways!  But no, TxDOT isn't buying it, and is making Playboy remove their logo, even if they're letting the vintage Charger remain.

Elmgreen and Dragset built Prada Marfa out of conventional construction materials, but aside from some petty vandalism over the years, they've pretty much left it to decompose on its own.  Their theme, remember, involves a mixture of status, conspicuousness, superfluousness, and decay, but since they chose the arid climes of Marfa for their project, like the planes our aviation industry stores in the desert, Prada Marfa will take a while to disintegrate.  If TxDOT wanted to complain about it being an unsafe structure, like any number of far older buildings which have been left to disintegrate along plenty of Texas highways with their vintage Texaco and Champion signs still affixed to them - which might make a more compelling argument against Prada Marfa on their part - then they're going to have to wait.  By no practical interpretation can Prada Marfa be considered advertisement, so their current objection towards it is a bit silly.

Of course, since it wasn't cheap to build Prada Marfa, perhaps the same art connoisseurs who paid for the original sculpture should fork over some extra bucks to secure whatever permits TxDOT wants it to have just to get the bureaucracy off of its back.

But then again, maybe TxDOT is unwittingly playing into Elmgreen and Dragset's hands.  By badgering the project with governmental rules and regulations, TxDOT could be adding yet another angle to the artwork - that of the struggles private enterprise encounters as it deals with tax-collecting, fee-taking, and red-tape-creating authorities.

Leave it to Texas, and the bare-bones, supposedly business-oriented state government over which Governor Rick Perry so proudly rules, to be making such a case against privately-funded art.

Ironically, a number of years ago, TxDOT created the marketing slogan, "Don't Mess With Texas," for its anti-littering campaign.  Recently, as the slogan has become more widely known, the state has been quietly ramping up its efforts at protecting it as a licensed brand, wresting monetary legal settlements from the mostly innocent parties who try to use it without authorization.  TxDOT likes to claim that the phrase is popularly known as an anti-littering message, and should stay that way, but whether the general population knows that is debatable.

Prada Marfa may not have sought to mess with Texas and its deceptively aggressive TxDOT, and after eight years, it's a little ignominious for it to take a neon bunny for officials to discover the clever bit of sculptural social commentary out in the middle of nowhere.

So, maybe an "Open from 9am until 9pm" sign should get included on the window.

That way, Governor Perry could use Prada Marfa as a prop for his "open for business" bragging rights.

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