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//The Prada Marfa Project// – Bartosz Haduch and Michał Haduch

The Prada Marfa Project – Bartosz Haduch and Michał Haduch

The Prada Marfa Project

The empty flatlands of western Texas near the Mexican border, close to the towns of Marfa and Valentine. Temperatures reach several dozen degrees Celsius... No matter which way you look, there are no signs of any civilisation, maybe apart from the U.S. Route 90, crossed each day by only a handful of lorries, which send a cloud of dust up in the air. The last thing you would expect to see here is a Prada boutique.


At the first glance, this is a place where the devil says goodnight, not where he wears clothes. But these are just appearances. Marfa was for 23 years the home of one of the most outstanding American minimal artists, Donald Judd. This is why the media and art institutions became interested in this small town. To this very day, the local Chinati Foundation takes care of the artist’s legacy. The vicinity is also well known to those interested in the paranormal  – all because of the stunning light effects called Marfa Lights. Similar to ball lightning, they are considered by some to be unidentified cosmic objects. Some could probably quip that a Prada boutique in the Chihuahua desert is a proof that extraterrestrial civilisations do exist.

Prada Marfa is a project that landed in the middle of this Texan wilderness like a UFO. It is the work of two artists: Michael Elmgreen from Denmark and Ingar Dragset from Norway (with the co-operation of Ballroom Marfa and the Art Production Fund). Both of them live and work in London and Berlin. Their beginnings were very harsh, as they had no art education and for the first six years could not earn a single penny. Although they produce performances, art installations and environmental works, it is not easy to classify their work under any specific ‘ism’ or ‘art’. They often touch upon the issue of manipulating viewers and users, even through such simple details as the layout of walls, ceilings or floors in exhibition halls. They also reinterpret the notion of space, deconstructing the current and constructing new meanings for old places. The replica of a 1980s underground stations (with no entrance or exit) presented in the basement of the Bohen Foundation in New York serves as a good example. Some viewers actually believed the hype that suggested that the artists rediscovered a forgotten station! There was also the controversial exhibition in the prestigious Tate Modern in London. The 2004 installation, a sparrow kept prisoner in a glass, hermetically sealed cage, was dying in agony as a symbol of the fallen working class in the United Kingdom. The Collectors project, presented at the 53rd Biennale in Venice is the most famous work created by the Elmgreen and Dragset. It can be interpreted as a drastic criticism of all snobbisms and phobias cherished by our contemporary society and also of the mechanisms that reign in the art world. In 2012, they caused a huge sensation with the Han statue (erected in the Danish town of Helsingør), a male counterpart of the famous mermaid in Copenhagen. The young man looking towards the majestic walls of Hamlet’s castle, Kronborg, refers to history and questions the state and identity of gender in our contemporary world.

Similar motifs can also be found in Elmgreen and Dragset’s American realisations. The installation / performance / sculpture / statue / boutique Prada Marfa was officially ‘opened’ on 1 October 2005, but the origins of the project go back to 2001, when a New York gallery put up a special notice on its bulletin board. Instead of advertising the latest exhibition, the note said ‘Prada – Opening Soon’. In this way, they highlighted the progressing gentrification of districts such as SoHo in New York, Notting Hill in London, Kreuzberg in Berlin and even Kazimierz in Krakow or Praga in Warsaw. The cheap, alternative artistic quarters are subject to a slow commercialisation, with galleries replaced by shopping malls, deluxe boutiques, lofts, restaurants... The area of Marfa is going through a similar process, with its farms replaced by tourist resorts (the town has recently started advertising ‘art tourism’). This is why the artists decided to juxtapose the Wild West wilderness with a statue of a Prada miniboutique. The glass windows enclose the 2005 Fall/Winter collection of shoes and handbags and the door of the boutique never opens. It is closed in the literal sense of the word (as the place will never serve any commercial purposes) but also metaphorically. As artists explain, in the era of the image culture and its voyeuristic society, only a handful of chosen people may actually afford buying luxury, although many can watch it. The statue-shop is a sort of a time capsule, which, intended never to be repaired, will change over time with no interference on the part of its authors. One can already imagine the dust-covered display and shoes caked with spider web. The work was left exposed to external aggressions, without any monitoring or protection, which was ruthlessly abused just a couple of days after the grand ‘opening’. The entire original stock, donated by the Prada company, was stolen, and the walls were graffitied with slogans such as ‘To hell with...’. There were even rumours that the artists themselves were responsible for this provocation. It was actually the only time that Prada Marfa, a sculpture, an object of art, entered the public space as architecture, as a utilitarian object, at risk of vandalism and burglary as any other, ordinary building. Several days later, the windows were replaced, the artists installed a security system and decided that the new exhibits should be non-functional (for instance the handbags have no bottoms). So far, no further acts of vandalism have occurred, while amateurs of art and random tourists started a new tradition of leaving their business cards at the doorstep of the boutique...

The Prada Marfa project may serve as an example of the new idea of land art, one which is no longer romantic and environmental but rather social and psychological (in the past, several other important land art projects were realised in this area, e.g. Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, once again visible now that the water level of the Great Salt Like in Utah subsided). This installation can be interpreted (not only in terms of its location) as a sort of a dialogue through art, a commentary of Elmgreen and Dragset to the works of their predecessors.

Prada Marfa is one of the many proofs that contemporary art cannot be easily classified (hence the diversity of terms used to describe the project – from a sculpture to an installation or even a building). It is often situated somewhere between politics, sociology and economics, sometimes, just as in this case, becoming an element of marketing and a way to boost the cult of a luxury brand. In the late 1990s, Prada started refreshing its image, not only through the surprising and radical experiments in its prêt à porter and haute couture collections (for which it has been known more than 20 years now) but also through a whole series of far-reaching changes in organisation or advertising. The famous Milanese fashion company stepped up to the ambitious challenge of ‘modernising, improving and redefining the experience of wearing and buying’, as Miuccia Prada said about the (r)evolution of her eponymous brand. An important part of this new image-building strategy is taken by avant-garde architectural projects (created by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA/AMO and studios such as Herzog & de Meuron and SANA /Kazuyo Sejima + Ruye Nishizawa) as an alternative to the standard, uniform ‘green’ Prada shops found throughout the world. Ironically, even this standard ‘green boutique’, in its origin a non-commercial, art-based intervention into the Texan desert landscape, became the core of numerous publications and yet another element of the advertising machinery used by Prada. A phenomenon that we reluctantly support.

Bartosz Haduch (b. 1978) – architect, university teacher, feature writer, winner of several dozen architecture competitions, co-operates with international and domestic architecture, art and design magazines. In 2007, he founded the NArchitekTURA group, which in 2010 was listed by the ‘Wallpaper’ magazine as one of the 30 most promising young studios in the world.

Michał Haduch (b. 1983) – economist, political science expert, journalist, photographer and traveller. At NArchitekTURA, he runs the research and publication department. Co-operates with international and domestic magazines, such as ‘MARK Magazine’, ‘Wallpaper’, ‘World Architecture’ and ‘Architektura & Biznes’.