Shattered Illusion

A Prada "store" comes to West Texas, only to be vandalized

It was an unexpected sight, to say the least. Right in the middle of the high Chihuahuan Desert of far West Texas, along a blank stretch of road dominated by barbed wire and cedar posts, a small adobe storefront glowed. Like a mirage, sleek thousand-dollar handbags and luxurious heels sat in illuminated display, peeking out between the Interstate 10 truck stop known as Van Horn and the railroad ruins of Valentine, Texas. The awning was marked with the logo of one of the world's premier fashion houses: Prada.

Drivers were shocked by the sight. New Marfa gallery owner Tom Jacobs was passing through Valentine when the logo flashed by his window. He grabbed his phone and dialed his life partner, who was following behind him in another car. "What the fuck was that?" he screamed. "Did you see that?" Jacobs felt confused but strangely excited. On the one hand, it seemed crazy that such a high-dollar label would choose Valentine, a crumbling town filled mostly with retired railroad workers and old ranching families, as its sole Texas outpost. On the other hand, just 30 miles away lay Marfa, the art town routinely hailed in the national and international press as an über-chic destination, a little SoHo in the desert. Perhaps the store was being assembled in Valentine to be trucked into Marfa, a weekend destination for moneyed Houston jet-setters. Jacobs thought that could explain Prada's move into the area.

Actually, the store sat right where it was intended to sit. But it didn't last long in its unlikely environs. Just two days after the opening, someone broke in. The front door was smashed, and all the shoes and handbags inside vanished. In their place, two spray-painted messages appeared on the store's exterior: "Dum Dum" and "Dumb." The day after the crime, police began an investigation. Security stickers were tacked to nearby fence posts. An alarm system was installed, and sheriff's deputies were brought in to protect the store at night. The building was repaired, and a new shipment of luxury goods was on the way.

Repairs are under way at the burglarized Prada "store" 
outside Valentine.
AC Conrad
Repairs are under way at the burglarized Prada "store" outside Valentine.
A cowboy hat interrupts the fantasy of luxury as the 
installation is restocked.
AC Conrad
A cowboy hat interrupts the fantasy of luxury as the installation is restocked.

In all the hubbub, it was easy to forget an important fact: The Prada store wasn't a store at all. It was a $100,000 permanent art installation by Berlin-based artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, meant to comment upon Western affluence and gentrification. The door was never intended to be opened. Viewers were meant to stare through the windows at the goods inside but never handle them. The artists had asked Miuccia Prada to donate goods for display, and she had hand-picked six purses and 14 right shoes for the project.

The show's funders knew the facade wouldn't last. They were even quoted in The New York Times saying they expected vandals. "If someone spray-paints graffiti or a cowboy decides to use it for target practice or maybe a mouse or a muskrat makes a home in it, 50 years from now it will be a ruin that is a reflection of the time it was made," said Yvonne Force Villareal, president of the Art Production Fund in New York. But they had hoped it would decay with time -- not, apparently, overnight.

Down the road, vandalism might not have been such a big deal. "The fact for us is it happened quickly, too quickly, without any time for the art to exist," said Art Production Fund co-founder/director Doreen Remen. Which is why the decision was made to clean up the mess, bring in new shoes and bags, and get security.

E-mailing from Berlin, the artists insisted they hadn't expected vandals or an alarm system. And they didn't expect the level of animosity the project generated.

The break-in brought a lot of attention to the installation. Gallery-hoppers in Marfa started scanning eBay daily, awaiting the re-emergence of the stolen goods, while Jeff Davis County Sheriff Tom Roberts told the local press he was on the lookout for a one-legged woman with a taste for high fashion.

Fairfax Dorn, co-founder of Ballroom Marfa, which helped the artists install Prada Marfa, said she believed the job was done by someone in town. A jealous artist, perhaps. "That hurts," she said, "but we're bigger than that."

Inevitably, rumors started to circulate around Big Bend that the crime had been an inside job committed by the artists themselves, who would have driven by the store on their way back to the airport the morning of the robbery. "It's funny how some people believe that artists would be so keen on press coverage and fame that they would be even willing to destroy their own art work in order to get some attention," the pair wrote. They went on to say that two years of preparation was "a bit too long" for only a "brief rush."

In some not-so-comfortable ways, Prada Marfa tickled a sore nerve in both Valentine and Marfa. Residents of Valentine wonder why the installation was called Prada Marfa, considering that Valentine sits 30 miles away from Marfa and so far has seen very little of its arts tourism trickle down. Robert Murry, who helps run his family's Valentine grocery, one of the few operating businesses on this blip of highway, said, "I don't know why they put it out here. I'd think they'd want it closer to town where all the hoity-toity people can see it." To many, it seems insensitive to put the installation so close to Presidio County, where unemployment only recently approached 30 percent. Valentine artist Boyd Elder, the project's on-site rep, said organizers wanted a blank landscape to showcase the work. And here land was available.

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