Mall Art: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Public Art at the Mall
The display of public art in the context of commercial enterprises such as malls and open markets has a long history in western civilization. One remembers Trajan’s Forum by Apollodorus in 106 AD with its’ extensive displays that includes the extant column.
Also brought to mind is the famous outdoor areas in Italy during the Renaissance such as the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence where the statue of David by Michelangelo was placed. Today, we have the shopping mall, whether enclosed or in an open format.
The most consistent characteristic of art at the mall is that it is modern. Rarely, regardless of where in the world, are the sculptures, mosaics, or 2d artworks of a different genre. Predominately, the works are abstractions or near abstractions. Just as rare are works of diminutive size.
Malls contain centers of commercial exchange, and besides promoting consumerism, are designed to provide an entertaining experience. The last thing mall operators want is any offense or controversy. Non-narrative, abstract art does not tell a story or advocate any notions of a political, religious or ideological nature. This sort of art, in spite of the objections of some in the art community, is mainly decorative, especially when the yarn is not included with the objects. At any rate, only inoffensive art sits on the mall floor.
The mall, much like a cathedral, usually contains large, open spaces. In proportion to the surroundings, mall art must be of substantial size. Some malls do have areas outside or nooks and crannies where the scale is more suitable for smaller works of art such as gardens and restaurants, but vast open areas are the general norm.
The art in these large spaces are meant to give the feeling of opulence and grandeur, to impress and infect the consumer with the feeling that a bit of this exuberance can be had for only money, that these grand spaces are readily available even to those of modest means and without high standing in society, that the fruits of the world are ripe for the plucking.
What influence filters into society from impressive displays of human imagination? The answer to this question comes with great difficulty and dissension. Academics argue about the societal effects of art all the time. As for mall art, in this day of mass consumerism and its’ familiarity, mall art is taken for granted as part of the entire mall experience. Do you remember a work of art in a mall setting? Can you describe in detail a particular work from a mall? Although it is possible that some do remember, more than likely, most do not and certainly even fewer can describe one in detail.
Certainly, this is not a derisive picture of the state of mall art, but an acknowledgement of its’ success. After all, the art is meant to contribute to the atmosphere and not intrude on the consumer’s total commercial experience. The mall itself is an architectural work of art and the art contained inside, or outside for that matter, is in the context of the architecture or landscape, enhancing the scale or environment.
The Złote Tarasy Mall in Warsaw, Poland
Of course, not all mall art is easily forgotten. Some feature so prominently, for instance, that they are objects that symbolize a particular commercial center.
Istanbul Cevahir (Istanbul, Turkey)
As is seen in the Istanbul Cevahir, this large central feature dominates the space so immensely, that it is rather unforgettable.
The mall itself is usually the art and its’ sculptures, mosaics, and frescos embellish the mall. All media is available, including high-tech displays utilizing TV screens and projections, for example. Many malls lack much architectural interest and shun exorbitant features. They look much like many others. These malls are essentially large, nondescript open spaces with a food court and a long walk-through, with only a few potted plants here and there, a couple of bends to break up the view, sparse seating in open areas and very little in terms of public art. Nevertheless, a considerable number of malls excite the imagination in terms of individuality and creativity. Yet because it is not a Getty museum or an arts center, the mall gets an undeserved slight.
K11 in Hong Kong
Even though modern technology and construction techniques allow for spanning what seems like unlimited spaces and building to incredible heights, many malls take traditional forms to new heights. The Toronto Eaton Centre in Canada, rises to great height with a post and lintel system that culminates in an arched glass roof that stretches the length of the building reminding one of the basilicas of Christian Rome. Walk-ways cross the length like the transept of a gothic cathedral.
The Toronto Eaton Centre
Although the post and lintel form is the staple of most malls, every conceivable classical or modern form of architecture is represented among the world’s malls, whether parabolic structures, domes or barrel vaults with coffered ceilings.
1 Utama in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
SM City North EDSA in Quezon City, Philippines
Abasto de Buenos Aires in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Canal Walk in Cape Town, South Africa
Galerías Pacífico in Buenos Aires, Argentina
West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada
Iguatemi Fortaleza Shopping in Fortaleza, Brazil
Sunway Pyramid in Subang Jaya, Malaysia
Siam Paragon in Bangkok, Thailand
Malls are failing all across America. Quite a few sad, abandoned malls occupy many acres of land. The scope of this series does not include an examination of why this trend is occurring. However, many shopping malls are beautiful examples of human creativity and imagination. Their massive scale speaks to grandeur and the power of enterprise. The art associated with malls complement this capitalist achievement.
Due to the length of this series and the desire to keep the information in palatable chunks, a concentration on art in malls constructs Part 2 and will conclude in Part 3 with the style and design of the mid-century when the modern American style shopping mall came into being and spread all over the country. Other countries will be also considered. Furthermore, the art of the mall will feature prominently.
Chris Town Shopping Mall, Phoenix, AZ in the 1960s
Self-Portrait in Yellow Chair