Prada in the Desert

An alien spaceship? No, but something almost as strange: a Prada store.

NEW YORK — After driving for several hours on U.S. 90 from El Paso toward Valentine, Tex., and seeing nothing but desert, the eye is lulled into submission by the flat, barren landscape. Imagine, then, seeing an otherworldly glowing green light emanating from a large structure in the distance.

An alien spaceship? No, but something almost as strange: a Prada store.

Rather than a real Prada store (there’s little market for stilettos in this rocky terrain), it’s actually a sculpture by Berlin-based artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, called “Prada Marfa.”

“Prada Marfa,” which was unveiled Saturday, will remain in the desert as a permanent installation, where it will be weathered by the elements. “The maintenance will be limited,” said Dragset. “It will be like a little time capsule. It will probably go in and out of fashion. It will decay. Some of the things we cherish now won’t be the same in the future. Here, nature is taking over slowly.”

“Prada Marfa” was produced by the Art Production Fund here, and Ballroom Marfa, a nonprofit space in Marfa, Tex. Despite its name, the installation is located in Valentine, about 26 miles outside of Marfa, a minimalist art epicenter founded by Donald Judd.

Elmgreen and Dragset are known for raising political and socioeconomic issues in their work, which also explores alienation, exclusion and sexuality. “There is a trompe l’oeil effect in their work,” said Eric Sklar, director of the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea. “Often there’s something that’s dysfunctional. How the public interacts with them is a very interesting aspect of the work. The audience is always a very active participant.”

Elmgreen and Dragset have collaborated on a variety of installations and performance pieces since 1995, including a show at the 2003 Venice Biennale that starred a chimp trying to spell “Utopia” with large dice, and an installation at the Tate Modern featuring an animatronic sparrow in the throes of death.

The idea for “Prada Marfa” grew out of an earlier installation. It began in 2001, when Elmgreen and Dragset noticed that art galleries were being priced out of SoHo by designer stores. They built an installation at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery sealing off the storefront and erecting a black-and-white sign on the facade reading, “Coming Soon, Prada.”

This story first appeared in the October 3, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“At the time, Comme des Garçons was already in Chelsea. We were pointing toward something that eventually would happen,” Dragset said, referring to the mass migration of the art world to Chelsea. “Art and the fashion business go hand-in-hand with the gentrification process. The artists often come first and then the designers.”

But of all the luxury brands, why choose Prada? Dragset cited “a moment when every gallerist and important person had to wear Prada. It became a uniform. We were also fascinated by the fact that Prada has some involvement with art through its foundation in Milan.”

The artists even contacted Germano Celant, director of Fondazione Prada, who showed their proposal to Miuccia Prada. “She was very positive from the beginning,” Dragset said. “They’ve been very kind. They gave us color codes and Miuccia selected 20 pairs of shoes herself from the 2005 autumn collection.” The footwear, along with a few handbags, are the only products actually in the fake store.

Yvonne Force Villareal, founder of the Art Production Fund, said, “It’s wonderful that Miuccia Prada could rise above any critical stance this piece can take. It’s not an antifashion piece. It deals with elements of minimalism. It’s using fashion to also talk about art and how culture can be bought in many ways.”

She said Prada comes off well in the piece and gets its name splashed on a piece of art. “They look pretty good because they allowed the artists to use the logo,” Force Villareal said. “It’s very smart of them. They see beyond just the fashion industry. Prada is a company that understands art at a very high level.”