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Prada Marfa: ten years on

To mark its anniversary, the artists behind the iconic sculpture reflect on a decade of visitors, vandalism, and selfies

There’s a paradox sitting in the West Texas desert: a Prada store, with thousands of visitors but no customers. First opened to an audience of a few cowboys in October 2005, the Prada Marfa exists at the intersection of art, architecture, fashion and tourism, a sculpture with a permanent display of six bags and fourteen left shoes, resting on shelves in that precise shade of green that decorates the fashion house’s boutiques across the globe. It looks as if a tornado has precisely lifted it from the streets of a European fashion capital and dropped it abruptly into a sparse, arid wasteland. 

The work of artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the sculpture was intended never to be repaired – instead, the idea was to leave their work to crumble into the landscape like a late-capitalist relic. Plans soon changed as, over the last decade, the work has been robbed, defaced, and even completely trashed, when in 2014 an artist calling himself 9271977 (real name Joseph Magnano) covered the work with TOMS shoes stickers, painted its walls blue and glued posters to its windows. He was promptly arrested, and made to pay $12,000 in fines. Most recently it was threatened with demolition for being an illegal advert, until it was declared a museum (just one with a single exhibit).

Despite the upheaval, the work has stood strong – it’s seen 41 Prada shows, two Presidents, a financial meltdown, and the explosion of social media. It has become an unintentional viral Pinterest hit thanks to a poster on Gossip Girl, and an Instagram hotspot after a visit from Beyoncé. As they arrive in London for the opening of their new exhibition Self-Portraits which spurns more literal self-depiction by blowing up the humble exhibition wall label and using it to reflect their own identities – Elmgreen & Dragset look back on how Prada Marfa become a landmark of fashion and pop culture.

How did Prada come to donate pieces for the project?

Michael Elmgreen:  They didn’t initiate the work at all, we did a project in Chelsea in the gallery district of New York before where we used the Prada logo. We covered the windows of a private commercial gallery there saying ‘Opening soon: Prada’, so everyone thought that the gallery was closed. It was a cool project to do but the gallery didn’t like it so much because it didn’t sell anything for the whole duration of the exhibition! We didn’t ask permission at that time, we thought Prada is interested in art, they’re not going to sue us – and they didn’t sue us. But when we were doing the Prada Marfa we knew that it would be up for quite a while, we thought we’d better check that we were allowed to use their logo.

Ingar Dragset: Also we wanted to get the colour codes and the logo and the specific measurements, so we realised it would be important to the project to get in touch with them.

Michael Elmgreen: The building in itself is quite cheaply made in traditional clay stone that was used in the region originally to build houses, and then it came to the point where we had to fill it with these luxury goods, and that’s not so inexpensive, so we gave them a call and said we’re doing this shop, would you provide the shoes and the bags. And they were very nice, Miuccia herself selected things that were really cleverly chosen in the sandy colours because it’s in the middle of the Texan desert, where everything has these dusty, earthy colour tones. So the bags and the shoes from that AW05 collection had pieces that would correspond to that colour scheme.

She was very generous, she wrote us a letter that said you can use the logo freely and we’re not going to run after you and sue you. It was a different situation than being commissioned by Prada to do something because then it would’ve been a promotional event, for us it was something we came up with because we thought, how would these shops for luxury goods actually look if they were taken out of their normal context, being in Mayfair, or Paris, or Milano. How would they look if you totally isolate them – almost like a U.F.O. dumped down in the middle of nowhere?

Were you kind of anticipating that there would be vandalism?

Ingar Dragset: Well it’s a work in a public space and we are familiar with how things work in public spaces so you know that there are things that might happen. The initial concept was more based on land art projects where you know that nature has a certain effect on the work. We were very quite shocked and saddened by the first news three days after the opening that basically it had been robbed – someone drove a truck up to the door and pulled it out and ran away with the left foot shoes and the bags, luckily they had the right foot shoes to replace the products and Mrs Prada sent more bags.

There’s been different kinds of interactions all the time with Prada Marfa over the years, there’s the way people take photos and post them online, the way people started to build some kind of stone towers or people left their shoes around the building, then it became a dating site for a while where people would leave their details… So some of these things are interesting, but then you have incidents like the TOMS one which is so extreme and then it’s not so fun anymore…

“Miuccia Prada was very generous, she wrote us a letter that said you can use the logo freely and we’re not going to run after you and sue you” – Michael Elmgreen

Michael Elmgreen: To us it was not so fun because we thought it didn’t take into account the people wanted to go to Marfa to see Prada Marfa and they would have a big disappointment when they turned up and saw this mess.

Ingar Dragset: And it turned out there was more cry for attention from the artist rather than an interesting political statement.

Michael Elmgreen: It was quite easily renovated, and the local community really wanted it to be renovated. It’s a bit like you plan one thing for a work and then it kind of gets its own life. And there are suddenly new situations that are going against your initial plans, and Prada has certainly taken on its own identity that has nothing to do with us.

Are you surprised by how popular it is?

Michael Elmgreen: Absolutely, I mean there was no one there for the opening…

Ingar Dragset: There were just some ranchers that were there and five friends from New York!

Michael Elmgreen: We did the project because we wanted to see it would look if we did it and then just left it, but it is in the middle of nowhere and it was before Marfa really became super super hip, and we never thought it would get so much attention and mean so much for our production as it has. Suddenly the signage with the miles to Prada Marfa was part of Gossip Girl and then Beyoncé took a selfie in front of it and then it went totally out of proportion, and it became so Instagrammed and something people were travelling to...

Ingar Dragset: But this is like pre-Instagram, I’m sure it’s also almost pre-Facebook as well, so there was just not the same mediation around things at that time.

Your new exhibition is about self portraits – what you think the selfie has done to self portraiture?

Michael Elmgreen: If you would’ve come from 20 years ago and been dumped into our current cultural climate in London in 2015, seeing people with selfie-sticks all over... you would not believe your own eyes. Self portraits have a long tradition, but the selfie, despite its own innocence, is also kind of narcissistic and sick. It’s like the world does not exist if your face is not in front of it. No matter how beautiful a natural setting it is or what kind of landmark or big public gathering, your face is there in front of that. It’s like the whole world is just a backdrop for you as a person.

Do you feel a sense of disconnect from Prada Marfa because it has become a backdrop for people’s selfies?

Ingar Dragset: Not disconnected to the work itself, but obviously it’s taken on its own life as well. You know, it’s existed in many different worlds where we might not necessarily be a part of – like in the fashion world, in the pop culture world, which we don’t have any direct contact with. But we don’t mind because we believe that the ideas behind the work survive and hopefully make more people interested in contemporary art and the potential of contemporary art as well.

Michael Elmgreen: It functions on different levels as many works do, and as an artist you have to be willing to let your kids grow in their own way and shape themselves over time, I mean you can’t be a dictator and tell people “You have to think this and this and that when you see my artwork”, it doesn’t function like that, and especially when you put it out in public. That’s the beautiful thing about artworks out in the public, you meet a different kind of audience. If you show in a museum, it’s people who are interested in art who come and look at your works, but when you do something in Trafalgar Square as we did, or when you have public sculptures, it’s whoever comes by. That’s a different situation, and you can’t go into all their brains and say “Think this, think that”.

“It’s taken on its own life. But we don’t mind – the ideas behind the work survive and hopefully make more people interested in contemporary art” – Ingar Dragset

But if others see it as this Prada selfie backdrop, does it still have its original anti-consumerist statement?

Michael Elmgreen: We have said no to having it used for ads. Prada has never asked, they’re far too decent, but there are other brands who have tried to benefit from the artwork’s popularity and we’ve said no way. There are also other artists who have taken photos of the work and actually sell their work at art fairs and I don’t care about that. They have a business that’s not my business – people who would buy an artwork from me would never buy an artwork of my work photographed by another artist, so we don’t really eat from the same cake.

Again, times have changed since we started doing it, and the work changed in different contexts. Many of the Renaissance artists made their works in a certain spirit and it’s completely differently perceived today. Works that were against consumerism in Pop Art actually became part of the commercial market – like an Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons or whatever. You cannot control that as an artist. The work also discusses how we perceive nature today, because everything in our world has become cultivated, everything has become infiltrated by man, and that is quite clear with that store in the middle of the desert.

Ingar Dragset: And hopefully even through the selfies, through the mediation, people still see the absurdity of this kind of luxury world… the comedy.

Elmgreen & Dragset Self-Portraits runs from 13th October - 7th November at Victoria Miro, Mayfair.

Lead article image via Simon Bierwald on Flickr / Creative Commons.