Shop Talk

Visiting Prada and Moss with Haim Steinbach

Amanda Sharp     When and why did you start working with objects?

Haim Steinbach     I began considering an art which consists solely of already existing objects in the 1970s, when I was teaching at Middlebury College and Cornell University. I was following the ideas and practice of the Conceptual artists, which raised consciousness of the anthropological and ontological condition of art in culture and society. I became interested in exploring how objects are selected, arranged and displayed. The basic issue coming out of the revolutions of the 1960s was whether the museum has become a static monument, a grave site, a temple where objects were worshipped; was it a tool of the rich and powerful? This brought me to question objects themselves and the conventional hierarchies of their divisions and disseminations. Objects as words, sentences, stories and, above all, what they really are: powerful and rich icons. By the end of the 1970s I began to make installations with objects in my studio which I titled 'Display'.

AS     And this led to your interest in store display?

HS     I became interested in the way that we ritualize our relationships with objects and wanted to look for the connections between the way that objects are exhibited at home, in stores and in museums. So, at first my installations consisted of second-hand objects given to me by friends or things which I bought at flea markets and yard sales. Hence, the early 'Displays' were mostly centred on the idea of the home interior and the manner of presenting objects, their particularities as well as the care of their placement.

In my work Display #7, which was shown in 1979 at Artists' Space, New York, I borrowed objects from friends and placed them on pre-cut lumberyard boards which were mounted against sections of wallpaper with patterns of diverse cultural themes ('Chinese' bamboo, 'English' pastoral, 'Minimal' black ...). If Robert Smithson brought into question the condition of the work of art in terms of its location ('site', 'non-site'), or Joseph Kosuth questioned the object in terms of its linguistic definition ('art as idea as idea'), my intention was to foreground the object in terms of its typological character and cultural resonance.

It was only around 1984, when I began to make the 'wedge' shelves, that I became involved with brand new objects from retail and department stores as well as supermarkets. What's on my mind when looking at stores, where a special attention is given to the choice and display of products, is the collectivity of the 'artistic' play that goes into highlighting the desirability of objects.

AS     What changes have you seen take place in retailing?

HS     In the past 20 years it has become more and more evident that retail, especially the chain retail store, has been looking towards redefining its identity image. As shopping malls for an upper-class clientele are becoming more pervasive, specialized retail establishments are competing for visibility. This is evident with Brookstone, Crate and Barrel, The Pottery Barn and Niketown as well as design stores like Moss, or high fashion establishments like Comme des Garçons and Prada. Ironically at both Prada's and Moss' new Soho stores, the bottom line of the marketing strategy is the assertion of the originality of the products offered, even though each item is one of many of the same kind. In other words, they would like us to believe that when we purchase one of their products we get to possess a work of art. In order to achieve this goal they use presentation strategies, in terms of form and space, that are inspired by works of contemporary artists. What is apparent at Prada and Moss may have something to do with the fact that Prada sits on what used to be the Guggenheim Museum store and Moss occupies the space which from the mid-1980s until the end of the 1990s belonged to one of the most important end of the century galleries: Metro Pictures. 'Appropriation Art' has been associated with many Metro artists.

Rem Koolhaas' Prada store aspires to a sort of art experience. It correlates the objects with an architectural space; your connection with them is through the orchestration of space, it's a space trip to get to the object. Koolhaas plays on the concept of the empty and the full, something and nothing, coming out of theories and applications of Minimalism. Similarly, at Moss large vitrines with white frames completely fill up one space like gridded units of a Sol LeWitt sculpture. An adjacent and much larger open space consists of furniture, which is placed on large flat platforms, raised from the floor.

AS     You can't touch anything you want to buy.

HS     It's not like going to the furniture store and thinking 'OK, let's sit on the sofa and see what it feels like', you can't do that. It's more like going to the design section of the Museum of Modern Art. But what's important is the distribution of space in a way that emphasizes the form and detail of the objects presented. This is most evident at Prada, where not only objects but also people are put on stage. The huge street-level space is like an arena for some kind of performance. Partly Greek amphitheatre, partly a skateboarding slope and partly a spacious installation of Judd-like mesh boxes, each sculptural structure becomes an element of the overall architectural device which orients the viewer towards specific objects. The planning of the space is analogous to the layout of an 18th-century garden, designed for a promenade, where the movement of people appears to have been choreographed in advance. This is both interesting and startling, because this high-priced piece of real estate has been turned into a vast display case, which may make no sense from an economic point of view.

AS     In some ways it seems like a very decadent choice.

HS     For sure, it is an excessive use of space, but is it indulgent or will it inspire the imagination of the patrons by initiating them to become 'aristocrats' at Prada's court? What is interesting to me is how complex art ideas about space and objecthood are now applied in the form of interior design à la 'installation' by artists, architects and designers. In order for retail to succeed both the product and the space in which it is presented must be 'designed', and now the same is true for food (e.g., Martha Stewart), restaurants and hotels (Philippe Starck, André Puttman, Damien Hirst), and even art galleries and museums (Richard Gluckman, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry et al). As art and design come together, they must become both streamlined and seamless. For instance, check out some of the galleries in Chelsea. What do these new spaces tell us about retail? Take a walk down 22nd Street from 10th Avenue towards 11th Avenue. At the beginning of the block, on the left side you come across Comme des Garçons. You enter through a high-tech tunnel into what seems like a tightly partitioned series of closets, and come out at the store's back to a big open space. The tunnel and sectioned area evoke at times a sculptural space as in a Richard Serra maze. Exit Comme des Garçons and walk down to the end of the street, you come upon the Dia Center for the Arts. You enter the building through a bookstore, which is pretty dense with shelving units holding the books. Inside, the store is separated by a big glass wall from an adjacent large squarish hall which is essentially empty. The two spaces, designed by the artist Jorge Pardo, are covered with colourful tiles from floor to ceiling. In the centre of the 'empty' space stands a large rectilinear glass-panelled sculpture by Gerhard Richter. Two large Richter mirrors hang on the back wall. Another wall holds a large grey Richter painting that looks like a blown-up grid. The effect is very pleasing, even beautiful, and surprising in that no longer are the highly reductive, sensuous Richters shown in the traditional 'white cube'. Here the boundaries between applied art and art appear to blur, as differences of genres are understated.

AS     Is retail becoming art and vice versa?

HS     Retail is a term of commerce; art and commerce going hand in hand is common. The production of limited editions of 'artist' photographs, which are in fact processed mechanically and may be produced in large quantities, is a contradiction. This practice is a part of ritual and ideology; hence marketing strategies exploited by the art system subscribe to the specialized art market. The example of the Prada and Moss stores is an inversion of this as retail is structured to create a perception of originality via an added 'art' value to the marketed goods. This is a programming of a ritual of art. In essence, retailing, shopping, curating shows etc. subscribe to a collective cultural phenomenon, which is 'rituals in exhibition'. At the marketing end of this state of affairs, the goal is acquiring, collecting and possessing, while at the artistic end a reflexive process which takes into consideration linguistics and communication is the main force. What's at issue is whether the two directives are now converging, with each one subsuming the other.

Presently, especially since the 1990s, the growing awareness of globalization and the collusion of cultures and societies seem to have brought a dialectical spin into the evolving artistic practices. With this development, what used to be considered an artistic investigative process seems to be evolving into a new phenomenon of ritualization, which among other terms has been characterized as 'lifestyle' and 'total living'. It is yet to be seen if this evolution of art and life suggests a shift in the critically interrogative aspect of art practice or is some kind of new process of assimilation of cultural genres. Today it seems that, above all, everything needs to be designed, poeticized and narrativized in order to create an effect of understanding, happiness and well-being. The investigative art processes of
the 1960s and 1970s, whether in terms of materials or context, seem, at least on the surface, to have been turned into 'infotainment'.

Amanda Sharp is co-founder of frieze.

Issue 74

First published in Issue 74

April 2003

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