Stealing the Show

Adam E. Mendelsohn on Prada Marfa


Left: Prada Marfa at night. Right: Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen. (Photos: Lucas Michael)

Marfa, Texas, home of the Chinati Foundation, Donald Judd’s sprawling museum, sits squarely next to nothing at all, a town of 2,500 residents that is accessible by rather spectacular desert highways and, more directly, by Lear jet. Recently, the town itself has proven to be almost as much of a tourist attraction as Chinati, enjoying a burgeoning reputation as an austerely chic, exclusive little contemporary art mecca. Craig Rember, the Judd Foundation registrar, put it well when he told me that Marfa is now a town where you can find Goethe at the local bookshop, drop $50,000 on some art, and spend $300 on supper but where it’s difficult to get a haircut or batteries. It’s also something of a surprise to discover a real estate feeding frenzy, where modest land parcels are being snapped up—sight unseen—for immodest money.

My wife and I rolled into town at about eight on Saturday evening, just in time for the opening reception we were scheduled to attend forty miles up the road—a walk to the deli by West Texas standards. After checking into our hotel, we floored it through pitch-black night to Valentine (estimated population: 160). We arrived to find an incongruous glowing box perched on the side of the road—a small structure about the size of a taco stand. Behind its shatterproof, plate-glass windows were posh-looking high heels and handbags. There amidst the tumbleweeds, in the very landscape where Giant was shot, was a boutique displaying accessories from Miuccia Prada’s fall 2005 collection. Was this the inevitable apotheosis of Judd-effect gentrification? Not exactly—it was Prada Marfa, Elmgreen & Dragset’s new, permanent sculpture, produced by local nonprofit Ballroom Marfa and New York-based Art Production Fund (co-founded by Doreen Remen and art maven/fashion enthusiast Yvonne Force Villareal). It’s more or less a perfect, if small, replica of a typical Prada emporium—except it will always be closed.

About fifty people were kicking up some dust under a crystal-clear canopy of stars. Orbiting Villareal, who warmly welcomed us, was a varied collection of confused locals and New York artists poncing about, Chelsea style. A couple of bejeweled, well-heeled ladies, trumped up in safari gear, were overheard declaring their disappointment that some of the sexy stilettos were out of stock back in Manhattan. At the bar, Ronald Rael (who designed the structure along with Viriginia San Fratelli) pointed to a floodlight that had attracted a swarm of moths and exclaimed, “Look, Prada Mothda!” San Fratelli mentioned that the structure, though consistent with Prada’s sleek image, was made from adobe. Somehow, this humble material (which Elmgreen told me is used in sixty percent of the world’s dwellings) failed to give the structure a common touch. The Berlin-based artists have a knack for stashing things where you wouldn’t expect to find them—they recently installed an ‘80s-era subway station in the basement of the Bohen Foundation in New York’s meatpacking district. One can only wonder what undocumented immigrants, who regularly cross the border nearby, will think when they stumble across Prada Marfa dehydrated and frightened. It’s a kind of perversely weird welcome mat.

Cruising out of town the following afternoon, we decided to have a second look at the thing in daylight. Another informal reception seemed to be in full swing. Out of the back of a pick-up truck, cocktails were being served to some fancy-looking cowboys and a few people we’d seen at a charming party hosted by Ballroom Marfa’s, Fairfax Dorn the night before. Someone was passing around a bottle of absinthe as I chatted with Boyd Elder (the sometime rancher who used to supply The Eagles with “inspiration” and generously donated his land for this project). “Everything was running smoothly until the Texas Railroad Commission told me that the awnings were trespassing on their land,” Boyd told me. “But we figured it out eventually.” Elmgreen and Dragset looked mischievous hanging out by a local’s customized shit-kicker wagon/hearse adorned with an impressive set of bullhorns. It was a less-than-subtle reminder of where I was—a desolate patch of land in a state whose motto seems to make belligerence a point of pride. Someone, at any rate, apparently felt that Elmgreen & Dragset had messed with Texas. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the sculpture was vandalized: The words “Dumb” and “DumDum” were spray-painted on two of its outside walls, and six purses and fourteen right-foot pumps were stolen.

Left: Martin Klosterfelde and Leo Villareal. Right: Craig Rember of the Judd Foundation. (Photos: Lucas Michael)

Left: A view of Prada Marfa. (Photo: L. Kapre) Right: The vandalized wall. (Photo: Alberto Halpern)