My recent scouting expedition inside the 1.3 million square feet of Alderwood Mall yielded precisely two objects intended to be original art. They are color photographs in black frames, in the hallway leading to the women's bathroom at Macy's.
One features a woman's pedicured feet propped on the dashboard of a convertible facing the beach. The rearview mirror grabs a streak of cloud from the blue sky. The other is a woman and a man dancing in front of the fireplace in a sedate living room. He's got her lifted into the air in a windmill pose, legs and arms akimbo. She wears a jazz-hands expression and red knee-high stiletto boots.
"That's art," the maintenance man stops to tell me. I look at him, invite him to say more. "It's protected." I hold his eyes. "You're not supposed to take pictures."
Of the 124 pictures I took at Alderwood that day—all the illuminated billboards and the holiday storefront windows and the pyramids of stacked merchandise and the decked-out mannequins and the outdoor sculptures—these godforsaken photographs by the toilets are the only subjects forbidden to my phone camera. Nails in the wall next to them suggest a third photograph has gone missing. This is the only art show I find in these million feet of spectacle.
This is all fine with me. A mall is not made for art. Alderwood Mall does not have galleries. The days of Thomas Kinkade are over, and not even a high-priced photographer of whales or wolves is here. In a scan of the names of the nearly 200 stores and restaurants, only the Picture People and Love Culture sound tangentially art-related, and the fact that they aren't is not disappointing. The art value of a mall is the mall itself, as an overall installation. Every mall, Alderwood included, has a potent governing aesthetic: the aesthetic of nearly infinite variation on the same thing, over and over. Synonymity.
Nothing can be seen to be running out; rather, things multiply. The eye slides along rainbow after rainbow of categories within categories. iPhone cases are fanned out in color-coded rows. White gold and yellow gold and rose gold bracelets circle on eternal repeat. Tidy geometrical arrangements like these are capable of taming vast menageries of stuffed animals, or making manageable the prospect of every known flavor of lollipop and type of sweater. Unimaginable quantity expressed in closed mathematical sets provides rhythm, reassurance, plain optical attraction. As an art critic, I certainly do not dislike a mall. There is much to do here.
The great masterpiece at Alderwood Mall is inarguably the Lego store. It's a small planet of pure entertainment. Shelves are lined to the ceiling with boxes of Lego kits, and these stacks are punctuated by dioramas roughly at the eye level of a fourth-grader. The dioramas are worlds made in Legos. Disney is represented, but so is, like, new-wave cinema. Inside one case, Heidi steadies her bucket to milk the cows on a placid morning in the Swiss mountains. Another case: Two men lie prone in a public park. It's late afternoon. One of them holds a bouquet of pink flowers. Were they killed? There's a sumo match, a swarm of honeybees busy at a comb, VIPs and bodyguards at a white limo in front of the Hollywood sign.
As you leave the Lego store, a sign with a picture of a Lego Christmas tree says "Build a happy season." Now there's a holiday slogan that won't make an unhappy person feel worse. There is no automatic happy season; even the holidays are built, it says, can get razed, can rise up again.
Alderwood advertises itself as a place for "affluent" suburbanites. People who like nature at a close distance. So goes Alderwood's official art and design scheme, with its natural rocks—tenant agreements forbid fake rocks—and indoor canopies printed with leaves. Outdoors is littered with basalt sculpture. In front of Williams-Sonoma, the single craggy column of basalt surrounded by a circle of basalt stubs is supposed to look like a formation seismically thrust up from the deeps. Basalt has a cloudy gray appearance when it's not polished; polished, it's shiny dead-black. Sculptors like to contrast its personalities. Here they do it so you know where to sit. The polished basins in the basalt benches demarcate tuchus space. All this basalt, according to plaques, is by "John Hoge, sculptor," and "Cully Ewing, assistant."
More art outdoors: the pale warrior horse outside P.F. Chang's, a rippling-muscled 11-foot mascot who appears at many of the chain's locations, and bits and bobs of vaguely Japanese basalt abstraction. In the context of so much enforced soothing, the little utilitarian objects in the landscape become friendly aliens. There are many mysterious green plastic contraptions crouching next to shrubs like miniature spaceships. My favorite outdoor creatures are lights ringing the food-court entrance that look like sleepy-lidded Cyclopes, and seen from the back, like perfect gravestones.
My favorite indoor moment happens just beyond the Body Shop. A red pipe rises more than a foot out of the floor with a hydrant spigot at its top, and you'd walk right into it if it weren't for a pair of twin succulents positioned at either side. There's a certain readymade formalism to this red bit of plumbing and its green sentinels. They're alive—I checked.