Friday, May 11, 2012

Highway Art Tourism: Elmgreen and Dragset in Texas and Callum Morton in Melbourne

Today I am daydreaming about the town of Valentine in Texas.

Prada Marfa Valentine

If you're interested in contemporary art, you have probably seen pictures of Elmgreen and Dragset's 'Prada Marfa', a fake Prada store set up on the side of a highway in West Texas. Prada supplied the shoes and bags on display, but the store isn't intended to sparkle as one expects a luxury store might. The doors don't open, welcoming potential shoppers. Instead, Prada Marfa is to be left untouched, deteriorating and gradually becoming part of the desert landscape.


Prada Marfa is built on the site of the Oasis Gas Station, a beautiful building that appeared as if the ideal forgotten relic from the 1950s. In actuality, it was a set constructed for a film in the 1990s, torn down in 2005. Prada Marfa is a much more contemporary ruin, and — while the location is often credited just as 'in the middle of nowhere' — a play on this particular area's history of attractive ruins, feeding into fantasies of the 'Wild West,' which are, in fact, remnants of film sets. Marfa, the town for which the store is named, is most famous as the spot where Giant was filmed in 1955. Prada Marfa isn't really a ruin yet, simply a lonely display case for accessories a few seasons old.

Marfa is also not at all the middle of nowhere to its intended audience of artists and curators, but is home to the Donald Judd Foundation.

Prada Marfa Valentine

I decided to try to visit Prada Marfa on Google Maps, and actually found the installation more exciting seen through the automated map technology than in professional photographs. It comes up, on Highway 90, if you type 'Prada Marfa' into the map search bar.

The closest town is not Marfa but Valentine, which receives a lot of postcards on February 14th. There are no people along the side of Highway 90 as seen on Google Maps. That's not unusual, given the cars with cameras come early in the morning. But the grass is yellow and the sky is blue and the buildings look sunburnt, with bleached walls and rusting roofs. There's a cafe that's crumbling, with words above the door reading 'Highway Cafe'.

Valentine Highway Cafe
Google Map screenshot photography is my new favourite hobby.

The streets have names like 'Fourth Street' and 'Fifth Street' and 'Montana Avenue'. There's a railway that runs through Valentine, between North Main Street and South Main Street, though it doesn't look like there's a station. Google Maps doesn't cover any of the streets save Highway 90, so I can't even really look around the town via the internet.

Town of Valentine Texas

I get carsick easily, particularly when it's hot, so I imagine I'd have trouble visiting. Valentine seems quite remote to me, though I'm sure to those who live there it's France that's far away... though there is, famously, a Paris in Texas. (If you're looking for the Texas in Paris, there's a plaque in the first arrondissement marking the place where the Texan embassy stood during the period when the state was independent from the USA.)

Callum Morton's 'Hotel', in Australia, is not that different in idea to 'Prada Marfa'. It's a piece that's intended to be glimpsed as one passes, a false rendering of a destination that startles with its incongruity. 'Hotel' is located in a paddock beside Eastlink in Melbourne's outer suburbs, 31kms from the city centre, in Bangholme, a semi-rural area that wouldn't carry associations to many highway users.

Callum Morton Hotel Eastlink
Texas is more Google Maps photogenic than Victoria.

The main difference between 'Hotel' and 'Prada Marfa' lies in their audiences. I don't expect the stretch of Highway 90 that Elmgreen and Dragset chose is crowded, while Eastlink is a major artery for commuters in Melbourne, which has the largest urban sprawl of any city on earth. Callum Morton's piece was commissioned, along with a few other pieces, to make the journey into the city more pleasant. The difference in visitor numbers is clear even on Google Maps, where images are taken early in the morning.

'Hotel' is designed to be seen by many, out the window rather than in a book, but not to be accessed. Most people see 'Hotel' while moving quickly toward it. There are only moments between wondering what the structure is, realising it's a hotel, feeling confused about the strange size, realising it can't be a hotel and turning as it recedes behind the moving vehicle. Callum Morton's structure has enough windows to suggest a ten-storey height and yet is only twenty meters high. 'Hotel' is at once close and far away, rendered inaccessible by the flight along the road, the norms of highway driving divorcing people from the places they pass. 

Callum Morton Hotel Eastlink

I'll probably never be within easy reach of Prada Marfa, but I lived in Melbourne when Hotel (and Eastlink itself) was erected. I can't drive, but I do have friends who can, and so I've seen Hotel twice. The first time was as Morton intended: I was coming back from adjudicating a debating competition in Frankston and saw the structure in the distance less than a minute before it receded behind us.

I love Callum Morton, but Eastlink was very new at this point and so I hadn't read anything about Hotel before I saw it. I decided, after my first glimpse, that I had to pinpoint precisely where the building was so that I could go there and view it from a stationary position. I wanted more than the ungraspable seconds streaming by on the highway. 

Callum Morton Hotel Eastlink

I roped somebody into driving me, and we drove the two hours to Bangholme, and then along every street where there was a chance of seeing Hotel from a different perspective. I realised, in the end, that you couldn't see Hotel without being on the highway, so we drove along that stretch of the highway a couple of times and stopped (perhaps illegally) on the side so that I could memorise every detail and take pictures.

This was a fun adventure (and an opportunity to visit McLelland Sculpture Gallery, which is also inaccessible without a car), but it didn't provide me with a deeper experience of Morton's work. Hotel was attractive initially because it was intriguing, and so incongruous, and it piqued my curiosity when I first saw it. Seeing the piece a second time from a stationary position wasn't really seeing it (and it did make me carsick, and subsequently late to my own going away party).

Bangholme Mosque

In the end, I was most interested in the area in which 'Hotel' was placed. While ostensibly a suburb of Melbourne, Bangholme had fields that were almost swamps, riding clubs and country roads. There was a large mosque with nothing around it, serving a community who weren't there. The sewerage treatment plant occupied much of the land. 

'Prada Marfa' was placed in West Texas partially due to the associations of the area, but also for all those people who see this area as 'the middle of nowhere' simply because their lives are located in a different place, who won't see it. In choosing locations, artists can control who sees their work and how they see it.

I wonder what the residents of Valentine think of the Prada store, and I also wonder what the residents of Bangholme think of 'Hotel'. These are the people living with the installations (though neither is intrusive), but neither work is designed for a local audience. In Bangholme's case, the installation literally has its back turned to the suburb. Both have been vandalised, though the reaction to that is perhaps more indicative of sentiment than the act itself.

Bangholme was known first to me as Hotel's backdrop, but I found the suburb's specifics interesting. Similarly, looking up 'what do the residents of Valentine think of Prada Marfa' on Google didn't secure me any answers (though I do think it would be a good article for any journalist in the area to write), but it did suggest some more reasons to be interested in West Texas. There's a bouncing light phenomenon that's supposedly been occurring, sans explanation, since 1883.

For those who don't live in or near Valentine or Bangholme, Hotel and Prada Marfa act as introduction to places. Because of them, I know the names of these locales, have read about them and imagined what it's like to live there.

Eastlink really dominated Bangholme, this new, shiny highway with a stream of people en-route to the metropolis cutting the suburb in two, and it's for Eastlink that Hotel was built; Morton's piece doesn't look at the world it's in, but at the world that is, like it, an in-between place that can't be fully grasped because it's always in motion and isn't itself when the motion stops.

Hotel sort of says something more broadly about what it is to travel these days. One's always going past places rather than through them. And sometimes, when one tries to go through them, they don't exist or aren't what one expects, just as Prada Marfa appears as a store but doesn't operate as one. One doesn't expect to pass a Prada store in the desert, but when there is a shop one expects the door to open and the products to be for sale. 

Callum Morton's Hotel isn't what you expect when you do finally stop beside it. It's not a hotel, firstly, but secondly -having conducted an extensive reconnaissance mission- it's a reminder that some things are just as good experienced fleetingly as exhaustively catalogued. That said, I haven't seen it with the (solar powered) lights on at night, so perhaps I need to talk somebody into driving me back to Bangholme next time I'm in Melbourne.

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