Critical art or illegal advertising

A trial may, for reasons of principle, be the only solution, says Michael Elmgreen after the artwork Prada Marfa has come into conflict with state laws in Texas.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Prada Marfa, 2005. 460 x 760 cm. Public project outside of Marfa, Texas.
Elmgreen & Dragset, Prada Marfa, 2005. 460 x 760 cm. Public project outside of Marfa, Texas.

For eight years Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s installation Prada Marfa has led a quite peaceful existence in a field bordering the U.S. Route 90 highway outside Marfa, Texas. The small, locked-up shop featuring an exquisite assortment of Prada products (six bags with their bottoms removed and twenty right-foot shoes in order to discourage theft) has attracted thousands of tourists, but like so much other Land Art in Southwest USA it has largely kept itself to itself while the cars have sped past. Those days are now over. For not far away, along the same road, a new installation has been erected, comprising a black Dodge Charger (a classic car from 1972) on top of a concrete box and a neon sign designed by the artist Richard Phillips. The sign is shaped like the famous Playboy bunny. And it was commissioned and paid by Playboy Enterprises. This is where the controversy begins.

For according to Texan law no advertising is allowed in this area, which is part of the Chihuahuan Desert; advertising contravenes The Highway Beautification Act signed by president Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. The attention generated by Playboy’s intervention has taken Elmgreen & Dragset’s installation with it in its downfall; now, the Texas Department of Transportation also classifies the Elmgreen & Dragset installation as “illegal outdoor advertising”. Even though the two artists got permission to use the Prada logo from Miuccia Prada, who is head of the fashion company, there are no direct business relations between them.  The installation was commissioned and paid for by the non-profit foundation Art Production Fond in New York and a local exhibition venue. As has been repeatedly stated by the two artists Prada Marfa is intended as a critique of the luxury goods industry, drawing on art history’s long-standing tradition for appropriating logos. Nevertheless the controversy may force Prada Marfa to relocate.

Kunstkritikk has spoken with Michael Elmgreen about the tense situation and the possibilities of taking legal action on the issue.

What about the relationship with the local community? What has that been like in the eight years the shop has been there so far?

When we built Prada Marfa we made sure that we had a good relationship with the local community. In that part of the world you cannot get anything going if you don’t. If the rangers in that area hadn’t been on board with the project it would quite simply never have happened. So at our small-scale official opening eight years ago there were a lot of cowboy hats and pick-up trucks.

Richard Phillips Playboy Marfa, 2013.
Richard Phillips Playboy Marfa, 2013.

Given that you play with signs in the public space the way you do, isn’t it simply an occupational hazard when situations like this arise, and your work is seen as advertising?

If you cannot distinguish between advertising and art it is usually because your powers of judgment are at fault or because the rules are very unwieldy and based on erroneous definitions, as is the case here. Advertising means that a company tries to promote its product, either directly or through others.  That is in no way the case with Prada Marfa. Prada has paid us nothing and never asked us to create the work, quite unlike the bunny sculpture that Playboy commissioned from the artist Richard Phillips, and which has caused all this commotion after Prada Marfa has been in place for eight years. It is a little late for the authorities to find out that the work is illegal. If I were in charge at the public office I would bloody well fire my staff for having snoozed on the job for eight years.

What do you think about the Save Prada Marfa appeal that has been launched on Facebook?

It is really touching to see how many people support the work and show that they care. In just over a week the Facebook page has attracted 4,400 likes, and many have sent personal greetings and photographs of their experiences with Prada Marfa.

Are you going to take legal action?

Yes, if it comes to the point where a trial is the only solution we will, for reasons of principle, be willing to enter into such a trial. Artists, art historians, and locals against bureaucracy. But we are almost tempted to simply tear down the building and build a similar structure in Nevada, which would then become “Prada Nevada”. But if we did that the area outside of Marfa would lose a source of income and a symbol that is important to their tourism today, and that would be a shame.