The opening last Wednesday of a ghostly art installation held in an empty retail store in downtown Seattle, made from materials bought at liquidation sales of other stores in downtown Seattle, started at 6:00 p.m., and not a minute before—because until then, the four blocks surrounding the Rainier Square shopping center, where the art is located, were blocked off by police. Somebody had robbed a bank. Helicopters swarmed.
It felt like the whole city was a Depression-era installation that day. The February 4, 2009, police blotter will go down as a feverish list of desperate crimes: two bank heists (one in Wedgwood); a pet-food store robbed at gunpoint in Capitol Hill; a soldier (the third that week) arrested for armed mugging; a man caught prowling a parked car who, fleeing, jumped onto I-5 and was struck by another car.
On the way to the opening, everything seemed another sign: The welcome into downtown was a billboard whose lights had gone dark, the Macy's letters cast shadows that were ominous considering that the chain announced 7,000 layoffs two days before. How could perceptions of the art installation Retail/Commercial not be swallowed up by this ridiculous surfeit of seemingly related current events? Would the art survive the night?
Then came one of those new-economy moments: Inside, behind doors whose windows had been papered over months ago (the artists retained this touch), champagne was served and all else was forgotten. Retail/Commercial—by Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, the Stranger Genius winners who go by the name Lead Pencil Studio—felt like an open-ended series of proposals based as much in abstraction as in the implications of its found materials.
The 4,300-square-foot former Italian men's clothier has been divided into three architectural sections (with some overlap). Down the center runs a strip of discount store: bare metal shelving units, rickety frames for price signs, a false ceiling containing fluorescent lights and one of those black surveillance spheres. No blatant security devices mar the upscale section, with its wooden built-in display cases and glass shelves. The back section suggests a shop that intends to survive on charm—jewelry cases painted hot pink dotted and piled, ponderously, with black stones, the checkout desk blindingly chrome. Trying for bling and Zen, it lands in the middlebrow of this loose socio-economic triptych.
The management of the Rainier Square shopping center had hired a doorman for the event; his name was Wade Newell. He casually discussed the art. "Everything is familiar," he concluded, "but the textures are off."