Desert, cows and designer shoes
The adobe building could easily fit in with the grazing cattle and mountainous desert Southwest landscape outside. But the leather bags and footwear on display inside aren’t saddlebags and cowboy boots. The brand isn’t Wrangler or Stetson. And the simple 15-by-25-foot cube structure is like nothing else around these parts.
Here in remote West Texas, where rodeo means bulls and broncos, is a tiny store adorned with canvas awnings carrying the logo of the Italian fashion house Prada. On view inside are 20 women’s shoes and half a dozen handbags -- some in the four-figure price range.
But the “store” is not a store. It’s a work of art called “Prada Marfa.” And the place turns motorists’ heads as they speed along this wide-open, desolate stretch of U.S. 90.
A pair of Berlin-based artists, Danish-born Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset of Norway, designed the art as a “snapshot” in time meant to succumb naturally to the elements over the years.
“It’s quite stunning,” said Fairfax Dorn, co-founder of Ballroom Marfa. The nonprofit contemporary art gallery was one of the partners in the $100,000 “Prada Marfa” project that was more than a year in the planning with the New York City-based Art Production Fund.
“It’s not necessarily a sore out on the landscape. It actually helps you see the landscape more,” Dorn said. “I think it makes people think. What is art? What does it mean? What is commercialism?”
But while some love the minimalist structure, others hate it. Within a couple days of its completion in October, somebody hooked one end of a chain to the front door and the other end to a vehicle, and ripped the door open. The vandals fled with shoes -- all right-foot shoes from the three shelves -- and six bags. They also spray-painted their art criticism on the outside walls: “Dumb” and “Dum Dum.”
The stolen items haven’t surfaced, but there hasn’t been any more vandalism. The store damage was quickly mended and the items donated by Prada were replaced in the air-conditioned, carpeted and softly lighted structure, protected by a security system and signs that warn potential thieves or vandals that they’re on camera.
Although the exhibition is closer to Valentine, Texas, Dorn said the artists wanted their work to carry the name of Marfa, a burgeoning art town of about 2,100 people that’s roughly 30 miles away.
“It’s great for the community, great for art,” said Boyd Elder, who settled in Valentine after gaining fame in California as the artist for several album covers by the Eagles. He served as site coordinator for the “Prada Marfa” project and secured the tiny piece of land from a rancher.
It’s the Prada name that intrigues travelers surprised by this speck of haute couture amid a vast shrub desert.
Helen Boyer, 41, was en route from Tucson, Ariz., to her home in Port Isabel in South Texas when she spotted the store just off the highway. She urged her driving companion to turn around.
“A Prada store in the middle of nowhere?” she asked incredulously. “This is awesome. I’m a little disappointed I can’t buy anything.”
But that’s the whole idea: Look. Don’t touch. Can’t buy.
“Isn’t it fantastic that there are still a few things left that you can’t buy with your money?” artists Elmgreen and Dragset said in an e-mail from Berlin.
Nevada was the artists’ first choice for the work, but “casino owners and the porn industry ... didn’t seem so hooked on contemporary art,” they wrote. After a visit to the Marfa area, the Texas location made sense, they said.
“The Texan nature, of course, also has an iconographic place in most people’s memory.... That makes a great contradiction to an urban, consumer-based icon such as Prada.”
Milan-based Prada SpA has supported contemporary art for years. Miuccia Prada, the fashion house’s chief designer and granddaughter of company founder Mario Prada, selected the items displayed at the Marfa project. She says the work illustrates “a deep-seated anxiety, as well as an extricable link, between art and fashion.
“It is an intelligent work, and rather than shy away from it, we recognize the strength of its statement,” she said. “Seen from a distance, the structure seems more like a simple cube set in the desert than it does a boutique. While ‘Prada Marfa’ may overtly comment on fashion, it also refers to the influence of minimalist art, as well as to vernacular architecture.”
Art Review magazine described the project as causing “aesthetic friction in an iconic wilderness.”
A typical local view comes from Maria Carrasco, who manages the Valentine post office, the only operating store in the town of fewer than 200 people.
“I’ve looked at the shoes, I’ve looked at the purses,” she said. “I’ll never have a Prada purse. I didn’t know Prada even existed until now.”