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Shattered Illusion

Repairs are under way at the burglarized Prada "store" outside Valentine.
AC Conrad

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.


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.

Not everyone disapproved of the installation. Murry's sister was responsible for the sign beside the grocery store's gasless pumps that reads "Welcome Prada." And he had to admit that sales in chips and beer -- as well requests for directions and restroom access -- were up.

Marfa, population 2,100, is home to works by some of the most respected minimalist and pop artists in the world. Prada Marfa opened a week before the Marfa Chinati Foundation's open-house weekend, where wealthy art aficionados from around the world converge each year. This year's open house showed not only how fast Marfa's art scene is expanding -- one new semipermanent work is Warhol's study of da Vinci's Last Supper -- but how rambunctious the crowds have become. Over the weekend, Marfa's streets became an impromptu theater. Men in bunny suits and Santa outfits rioted in the bars at night, and one participant was Saran Wrapped several feet off the ground to a utility pole.

Prada Marfa's destruction stirred a certain level of anxiety among Marfa's gallery owners. It was, after all, only last year that three Houstonians -- one a Chinati intern -- sneaked into one of the artillery sheds housing minimalist artist Donald Judd's famed mill aluminum boxes for a game of hide-and-seek. Scuff marks and scratches on the boxes resulted in two counts of felony criminal mischief against two of the three. Some years earlier, in response to an Icelandic artist's installation labeling President Bush a terrorist, a window of the Marfa Locker Plant was shot out.

While the debate continues about who trashed the Prada exhibit, another discussion is going on among those who call Marfa home: What is Prada Marfa saying about Marfa? The art town of several decades has seen an explosion lately of both new galleries and land values. New blood -- and new money -- have locals debating the positives and negatives of all this growth in a town that has always strived for inclusiveness. The installation appears to be lampooning the new Marfa. "This piece is a haunting image of what could happen in Marfa," said Dorn. "It is almost too close to reality." But considering that Elmgreen and Dragset spent only a brief time there last fall to, as they say, "get a sense of the situation," many in Marfa feel the artists' impression of their town is based more on press reports than on firsthand experience.

Jacobs, for one, was thrilled with the chance to enter the debate. He found it hilarious when he realized that the day he sped past Prada Marfa the joke was on him. He thought the project was a hoot. "I like anything that makes me stop and think," he said. But he also rose to Marfa's defense. "The New Yorkers -- the stereotypes of New Yorkers -- they come here and they are completely disarmed. They get all of the culture with none of the attitude." If there is any attitude in Marfa, it's likely imported -- just like the Italian bags and shoes on the other side of the glass.


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