I live near two of what must be the saddest malls in Canada, and I say that with full knowledge that competition in this field is intense. I am sure you live near one of these too. These are the malls with the papered-up space where a big-box store once lived, and maybe one of those discount grocers where everything is yellow. These are the malls with one hot-dog stand, the kind that still has the rolling oily rods. They all bear “sign scar” – the outlines of absent logos. And yet the size of these things – the sprawling flat footprint, the windowless walls along a half kilometre of sidewalk, the lunar parking lot – is inalterable. It is hard to destroy a mall; it’s just too expensive. So the dying malls of North America live on as giant unpickable scabs on cities. As ruins, unlike abandoned factories or houses, they have no romance, no majesty; they tell no stories of craftsmanship or community spirit, and their architecture is lacking even the most distant of human touches.
It’s no surprise that their ugliness – and their symbolism – fascinates artists. I am spellbound by the photos of U.S. photographer Brian Ulrich, particular his 2008-2010 series Dark Stores, a picture set of abandoned, decayed or merely empty malls. (These are all viewable in lush definition at his website, notifbutwhen.com.) Ulrich composes his shots, both interior and exterior, as if he is framing an architectural masterpiece: He accords his blank walls and parking lots a great solemnity. He conveys the massive scale of the American consumerist enterprise and suggests, with his relentless emptiness, a massive failure.
But he also succeeds in illuminating the architectural interest of such featureless behemoths: He loves the symmetry of the giant awnings that project over shuttered entrances in perfect triangles; he loves to point out how the escalators were designed to echo the origami angles of the atriums. Without people in them, these grey caverns begin to look like abstract geometric art.
Mostly, of course, he is a moralist; these photos are part of a larger series he has been working on for years, called Copia, about consumerism in America. He started by presenting photos of people shopping – middle-class people in his series Retail, then the poor in his series Thrift – and there was a distinctly mournful tone about his images of people in thrall to material lust. Then the economic crisis of 2008 occurred, and he turned his gaze to the same spaces in a different light – void of shoppers. Ulrich wrote on his website that some of the “ghost boxes” he documented in this series were the very same he photographed (as temples of excess) at the beginning of his project.
Another site, Deadmalls.com, meticulously documents the history of dead and dying malls across the United States (and a few in Canada). The work of a few self-declared “retail historians,” it lists dozens of malls that are either ghostly or moribund. Their tone is neutral; it’s hard to tell whether they are depressed or gleeful about the failure of these vast beige monuments to banality. What’s unmistakeable is a genuine interest in the subject, a fascination that I share. There is always something apocalyptic about empty bunkers. It’s no accident that zombies in movies return to the malls and destroy them; they lived in these spaces and loved and hated them when they were alive too.
Is this subject matter just another manifestation of “ruin porn,” the photographic trend that has been so energetically debated in U.S. media for the past couple of years? In case you missed those debates, ruin porn was the contemptuous label given to the practice of artfully photographing urban blight – all those photos of destroyed Detroit factories. Objectors to the craze said it was disrespectful of the workers who suffered the collapse of those industries, “aestheticizing poverty.” There’s no doubt there is a certain clichéd romance to silent turbine halls and churches, great architectural spaces full of the echoes of labour and prayer, and a certain sanctimony in adoring them.
But malls have no such grandeur. There’s no mistaking them for remnants of a golden age. Images of rusted industry have become clichés; the new artistic cliché will be the ruins of the service economy, the post-industrial non-ruin, the place not where weeds sprout through the cracked machinery but where the lights are still on and the muzak is still playing and everything is priced to clear.