Posts Tagged “shopping”
National Thrift Shop Day (August 17) exists alongside other quirky holidays like Play Your Ukulele Day (February 2) and Rice Crispy Treat Day (September 18). Though intended as a lighthearted celebration of an acceptable commercial habit, the process of making thrift stores hip involved unusual advocates.
As I describe in my recent book “From Goodwill to Grunge,” thrift stores emerged in the late 19th century when Christian-run organizations adopted new models of philanthropy (and helped rehab the image of secondhand stores by dubbing their junk shops “thrift stores”).
Today, there are more than 25,000 resale stores in America. Celebrities often boast of their secondhand scores, while musicians have praised used goods in songs like Fanny Brice’s 1923 hit “Second-Hand Rose” and Macklemore and Ryan’s 2013 chart-topper “Thrift Shop.”
Yet over the past 100 years, visual artists probably deserve the most credit for thrift shopping’s place in the cultural milieu.
From sculptor Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 ready-made urinal to “pope of trash” film director John Waters‘ popularization of a trash aesthetic, visual artists have long sought out secondhand goods for creative inspiration, while also using them to critique capitalist ideas.
Glory in the discarded
During World War I, avant-garde artists started using discarded objects – stolen or gleaned, or purchased at flea markets and thrift stores – to push back against the growing commercialization of art. André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst were among the first to transform cast-aside objects directly into works of art know as “readymades” or “found objects,” or to channel inspiration from such goods into their paintings and writings.
Coinciding with (and emerging from) the anti-art art movement Dada, which fiercely rejected the logic and aestheticism of capitalism, the movement surrounding that elevation of pre-owned items would soon have a name: Surrealism.
In his 1928 semi-autobiographical work “Nadja,” Breton, the “father of Surrealism,” describes secondhand shopping as a transcendent experience. Discarded objects, he wrote, were capable of revealing “flashes of light that would make you see, really see.” Exiled by the France’s Vichy government in the 1940s, Breton settled in New York City, where he sought to inspire other artists and writers by taking them to Lower Manhattan thrift stores and flea markets.
While Duchamp’s “Fountain” is perhaps the most well-known piece of sculptural art derived from a found object, his ready-made “Bicycle Wheel” (1913) appears even earlier. Man Ray’s “Gift” (1921) featured an everyday flatiron with a row of brass tacks secured to its surface. While men did seem to dominate Surrealism, recent sources highlight the importance of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, whom scholars suggest may have gifted Duchamp his famed urinal, making the “Fountain” collaboration. The eccentric and talented baroness created “God” (1917), a cast-iron metal plumbing trap turned upside down, the same year Duchamp displayed “Fountain.”
An aesthetic of imperfection
Surrealism enjoyed its greatest renown throughout the 1920s and 1930s, with its precepts covering everything from poetry to fashion.
Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, New York City witnessed the rise of an avant-garde trash aesthetic, which included discarded goods and the resurrection of bygone themes and characters from from the “golden age” of Hollywood film. The style became known as “camp.”
In the early 1960s, the Theatre of the Ridiculous, an underground, avant-garde genre of theater production, flourished in New York. Largely inspired by Surrealism, Ridiculous broke with dominant trends of naturalistic acting and realistic settings. Prominent elements included gender-bending parodies of classic themes and proudly gaudy stylization.
The genre notably relied on secondhand materials for costumes and sets. Actor, artist, photographer and underground filmmaker Jack Smith is seen as the “father of the style.” His work created and typified the Ridiculous sensibility, and he had a near-obsessive reliance on secondhand materials. As Smith once said, “Art is one big thrift shop.”
He’s probably best known for his sexually graphic 1963 film “Flaming Creatures.” Shocking censors with close-ups of flaccid penises and jiggling breasts, the film became ground zero in the anti-porn battles. Its surrealist displays of odd sexual interactions between men, women, transvestites and a hermaphrodite culminated in a drug-fueled orgy.
According to Smith, “Flaming Creatures” was met with disapproval not because of its sex acts, but because of its aesthetic of imperfection, including the use of old clothes. To Smith, the choice of torn, outdated clothing was a greater form of subversion than the absence of clothing.
As Susan Sontag points out in her famous assessment of camp, the genre isn’t merely a light, mocking sensibility. Rather, it’s a critique of what’s accepted and what isn’t. Smith’s work rebutted the reflexive habit of artists to strive for newness and novelty, and helped popularize a queer aesthetic that continued in bands like The New York Dolls and Nirvana. A long list of artists cite Smith as an inspiration, from Andy Warhol and Patti Smith to Lou Reed and David Lynch.
Beglittered and begowned
In 1969, items from Smith’s enormous cache of secondhand items, including gowns from the 1920s and piles of boas, found their ways into the wardrobes of a San Francisco psychedelic drag troupe, the Cockettes. The group enjoyed a year of wild popularity – even scoring a much-anticipated New York City showing – as much for their thrifted costuming as for their quirky satirical productions. The term “genderfuck” came to signify the group’s aesthetic of bearded men, beglittered and begowned, a style encapsulated by the Cockettes’ storied leader, Hibiscus.
The Cockettes split the next year over a dispute about charging admission, but members continued to influence American culture and style. Former Cockettes member Sylvester would become a disco star, and one of the first openly gay top-billing musicians. A later Cockettes member, Divine, became John Waters’ acclaimed muse, starring in a string of “trash films” – including “Hairspray,” which grossed US$8 million domestically – that very nearly took Ridiculous theater mainstream. By then, a queer, trash aesthetic that relied on secondhand goods became a symbol of rebellion and an expression of creativity for countless middle-class kids.
For many today, thrift shopping is a hobby. For some, it’s a vehicle to disrupt oppressive ideas about gender and sexuality. And for others, thrifting is a way to reuse and recycle, a way to subtly subvert mainstream capitalism (though some mammoth thrift chains with controversial labor practices tend to reap the greatest monetary benefits).
Leading the charge, artists have connected secondhand wares with individual creativity and commercial disdain. What started with the surrealists continues today with the hipsters, vintage lovers and grad students who celebrate the outré options and cost-saving potential of discarded goods.
The ever-changing landscape of modern retail therapy is explained.
Today thousands of empty suburban malls dot the American landscape. Describing decaying buildings and cracked asphalt parking lots, eulogy after eulogy arrives at the same conclusion: The mall is “dead.” (There’s even a website – DeadMalls.com – documenting the decline.)
But 8,000 miles away, another vision of the mall has taken hold – one that could well spell its future.
Hong Kong has more than 300 shopping centers, but most of the city’s malls don’t sit on asphalt parking lots; rather, they’re above subway stations or underneath skyscrapers. In my book “Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption,” I describe how some are connected to so many towers that they form megastructures – cities in and of themselves that can accommodate tens of thousands of people who live, work and play without ever going outside. Hong Kong also has the world’s tallest vertical malls – “mall skyscrapers” that rise up to 26 levels, with crisscrossing “expresators” that shoot shoppers high up into soaring atriums.
Now developers in mainland China and around the world are beginning to closely copy Hong Kong’s projects. But will they improve upon the suburban shopping mall’s faults – or simply exacerbate them?
The mall’s unfulfilled vision
In Hong Kong, these urban malls took off after 1975, when the local government created the Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTRC). In addition to building metro lines, the MTRC developed land. (In most cities, transit corporations are separate entities from developers.) The unique arrangement allowed the city to seamlessly integrate subway stops with office and shopping complexes.
Hong Kong’s urban mega malls quickly became the most visited malls in the world.
Unlike their counterparts in suburban American, Hong Kong’s urban malls lie closer to the original intentions of mall visionary Victor Gruen. In 1956, Gruen designed the first mall, Minnesota’s Southdale Center, with many of the features we associate with malls today: It was fully enclosed and climate controlled, with anchor stores, escalators and a glass-roofed atrium.
But the Southdale Center didn’t exactly fulfill his vision. The Austrian immigrant, who had changed his name from Grünbaum to Gruen (German for “green”), wanted malls to be more than a shopping center. He saw the mall as a new town center – a hub of apartments, offices, a park and schools that would offer a lively alternative to America’s lackluster, bland, suburban sprawl.
His dream was never realized: American malls remained insular, and, like Frankenstein’s monster, only nourished the frantic consumerism Gruen was trying to mitigate.
“I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” Gruen said in 1978. In a speech that same year, titled “The Sad Story of Shopping Centers,” he groused about the mall’s “tragic downgrading of quality.”
According to Gruen, “Promoters and speculators who just wanted to make a fast buck” had perverted his vision by ditching the community-oriented features, like libraries and doctors’ offices, that he’d suggested. And rather than surround the malls with apartments or parks, developers instead created “the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking.” Even worse, as malls attracted hordes of people, they delivered “the death blow to the already suffering city centres by dragging the last remaining activities out of them.”
Gruen eventually returned to Vienna in 1967 – only to find a shopping mall just south of the old town.
Still tainted by consumerism?
But what would Victor Gruen think of Hong Kong’s urban malls? They belong to a high-density, mixed-use community, and they’re surrounded by apartments and pedestrians, rather than a sea of asphalt and cars. In other ways, they exceed Gruen’s vision: They’re integrated into mass transit and have stunningly tall vertical atria.
For instance, Hong Kong’s Union Square is a megastructure above a train station and includes residences, offices and hotels, all built on a podium mall. The whole thing houses approximately 70,000 residents on 35 acres, an area the size of the Pentagon. The monolith represents an entirely new concept of urban living, a self-sufficient “city within a city” – but one without streets, blocks or individual buildings.
As convenient this urban form may be, it does come with strings attached. In the case of Union Square – as in many other podium-tower developments – the mall is deliberately placed at the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between all entry points into the structure and the residential, office and transit areas.
They’re impossible to miss and impossible to avoid.
For millions of residents and pedestrians, then, entering commercialized areas becomes an inevitability, not a choice. It normalizes a culture of consumerism: Everyday life is played out on the terrain of the mall, and the private shopping atrium takes on the role of the public square. Because Hong Kong’s apartments are small – its summer climate hot and humid – the mall becomes a default gathering place. And why not? There’s plenty of space and the air-conditioning is free. And while you’re there, you might as well browse around the shops and spend some cash.
In this respect, Hong Kong’s mall cities achieve the maximum potential of something scholars call the “Gruen Transfer.” This tongue-in-cheek term, coined in “honor” of architect Victor Gruen, refers to the moment when the mall’s undulating corridors lead them to simply shop for shopping’s sake, rather than approaching shopping with a plan to buy a specific product.
The mall’s inventor – who lamented the closing of small individual stores in cities because of “gigantic shopping machines” in suburbs – would have surely turned in his grave had he known this machine had become the city.
Will Hong Kong’s malls go global?
Today the fate of Gruen’s invention will take another turn.
Hong Kong’s urban mall developments have become the envy of other cities – including Shenzhen and Shanghai – that are looking for ways to build compact, transit-oriented, lucrative developments.
The Asian hyper-dense urban mall is also making an appearance in American cities. Miami has Brickell City Centre, a five-story mall in the heart of the city. Covering three city blocks, it’s topped by three high-rises (and was built by a Hong Kong developer). New York City is building a seven-story mall attached to two skyscrapers in Hudson Yards, America’s largest private development. The Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus – the centerpiece of the World Trade Center – has a mall with over 100 stores, with its white-ribbed atrium attracting an army of tourists taking pictures with selfie-sticks. Since the hub connects office buildings with train and subway stations, the stores are also “irrigated” by the 50,000 commuters who pass by each weekday.
In short, the mall isn’t “dead” – it’s just changing.
The development model is so popular in China – a symptom of the country’s rapid rise of domestic consumerism – that developers even coined a term for it: “HOPSCA,” an abbreviation of Hotel, Offices, Parking, Shopping, Convention center and Apartments.
But to do justice to the centrality of the mall in these projects, perhaps the “S” should have been put up front to read “SHOPCA” – short for “Shopapocalypse.”