Call of the Mall

This review appeared in frieze:

imageMatthew Darbyshire IP, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable

You wouldn’t normally expect to find ambitious contemporary art, least of all the kind that critically engages with consumer culture, in a shopping centre. But then, Hoog Catharijne is no ordinary mall. Built around a train station, the Netherlands’ busiest shopping centre (in terms of footfall) includes its own residential complex and office buildings. A late Modernist urban development animated by Utopian ideals, it was once an opulent place fitted with marble floors, chandeliers, exotic plants, aviaries, a bronze fountain and, yes, art works. This shopper’s paradise harked back to the glory days of department stores, whose mechanisms of seduction Émile Zola subjected to scrutiny in his 1883 novel Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Pleasure).

None of this finery remains. These days Hoog Catharijne, hard-hit by the recession, is more drab and depressing than most shopping centres. Unsurprisingly, the history of the mall, its current predicament and future prospects were among the themes the 28 invited artists and collectives addressed in the exhibition ‘Call of the Mall’ – part swan song part siren song – timed to coincide with Hoog Catharijne’s 40th birthday as well as the tercentenary of the Treaty of Utrecht.

In her post-apocalyptic installation Everything Must Go (all works 2013), Amsterdam-based Sanja Medic´ hung an enlarged black and white photograph of an iconic escalator collaged within an overgrown forest as hoarding on the outside of the mall, emulating the trompe l’oeil effect of ‘shopjackets’, increasingly used to mask vacant stores. For Uncertain Future, Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto availed himself of one such disused shop inside the centre, stripped it of all furnishings and left it completely bare save for a large glass ball, like a fortune-teller might use, lying on the ground. A paean to the vanishing art of handwriting, Agnieszka Kurant’s The End of Signature – one of the more arresting light sculptures included in the show – transformed signatures culled from residents of Hoog Catharijne, by means of a specially designed software programme, into a collective or ‘mean signature’ neon sign (that barely resembled a signature at all), which would light up progressively on the façade of a residential tower block, as if its inhabitants were continually signing it.

The projection into the mall’s (bleak) future had its counterpart in works that looked at its past. The line-up of vintage 1970s cars in Maze de Boer’s 1973, hand-painted a pale shade of lilac-grey that blended with the colour scheme of the newly revamped car park (in stark contrast to the dated feel of the rest of the mall), referenced the year of the mall’s unveiling. A fountain with a twist, spouting coloured rope in lieu of water (Persistent Illusions, by the London-based Troika collective) likewise alluded to a bronze fountain that featured in the original opening ceremony. Some much-needed relief came in the shape of Sylvie Fleury’s purposefully slight (one hopes) performance C’est la Vie!, which saw models clad in Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic 1965 Mondrian dresses parading around the mall with pedigree dogs.

Calling for a playful approach from visitors, Rotterdam-based sound artist Melle Smets installed a wooden shed on one of the plazas that acted as a recording studio (Radio Homo Ludens), which broadcast an orchestra playing live Muzak over the PA system on the evening of the show’s well-attended opening. Smets was not alone in engaging with the 1960s ideal of the homo ludens (or ‘Playing Man’, after the title of a 1938 book by the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga). Pilvi Takala’s Vergunningvolle Zone (Permit-full Zone) created a space in which certain rules and regulations were temporarily suspended to allow the homo ludens in us to freely frolic; yet, judging by some reports, few visitors put the bare and uninviting-looking area to very imaginative use.

One of the most critical works on view – so much so, in fact, that it made the others look somewhat naïve in comparison – Matthew Darbyshire’s IP, referring to the corporate jargon for ‘intellectual property’, mocks the idea of the shopping centre as an expanded play zone, embodied by the giant magenta flower pots that are dotted around the mall. The artist co-opted one of these to form the centrepiece in a grid of nine objects, ranging from an ice-cream cone to a terracotta warrior to a McDonalds’ Egg Chair, straddled by droid-like yoga mannequins, which for him epitomize the past, the present and the future of the mall.

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