But that was then. Malls aren't what they used to be. In 2006, only one mall was built in the United States. Last year there was not a single one. For whatever reason, the traditional enclosed indoor mall is dying. Birmingham's Eastwood Mall - one of the first in the Southeast - shut its doors in 2004. Its neighbor, the 750,000- sq. ft. Century Plaza, is still in business but many storefronts lay vacant, and after the departure of Rich's in 2004 and Belk two years later, Sears is its only "anchor store" (the large department store at the end of a mall). So what do you do with a dead mall - or even one on life support? Eastwood Mall was bulldozed and replaced with a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford proposed in October that the city and county purchase Century Plaza and turn it into a recreation center.
Rachel Higgins has a better idea, and she's calling it EVERYTHING MUST GO.
Higgins, a New York-based artist and Alabama School of Fine Arts alumnus, has rented a storefront in Century Plaza and, for the next couple of weeks, she's going to use it as an exhibition space. The pseudo-art gallery will feature works from about 20 of Higgins' colleagues and friends. The aim of the exhibit is to accentuate the emptiness of her storefront and the American mall in general. The artists' work will rotate, one or two collections a day, every day from Dec. 20 to Jan. 3. EVERYTHING MUST GO will look like an uncluttered art gallery but it's not a gallery, exactly. It's a fantasy.
"My initial vision of the project was to claim the entire mall, and take it over and turn it into this apocalyptic playground for progressives, artists and disaffected youth," Higgins says. "It's like your parents are out of town, everybody's a zombie and you can do whatever you want in this mall. That was kind of my fantasy."
She has scaled down her initial vision, but only so much. There's less post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland and more sterile emptiness, more direct critique of an American culture of consumption.
"My plans for the exhibition have been really not to fill the space with decorative artwork but to show where it's a little bit more pathetic and embraces the sort of emptiness of the space.
"I started developing this project around that sort of idea, and making this proposition to both critique the community development but also offer something that wasn't necessarily a replacement," Higgins says. "Something that kind of preserved that feeling of isolation and that fantasy of the apocalypse."
Century Plaza is a perfect setting for this idea. The large glass ceiling lets in lots of natural light, but there's very little life (plant or otherwise) in the mall. Voices of the few shoppers reverberate through the corridors. The mall's tenants (there are about 30, and about 60 vacant storefronts) are spread throughout the mall so it doesn't look nearly as empty as it feels. One storefront, a corner property, consists of several Pepsi vending machines recessed into a façade that was once a mall entrance. The 33-year old mall's many fountains are dry. The brick exterior of the mall is nearly windowless, and the building is surrounded by a massive and mostly empty expanse of asphalt. But the limited landscaping is well maintained, and in fact the inside of the mall is very clean and well kept - there just aren't very many people there.
Malls in memoriam
Deadmalls.com is home to an Internet community where people fascinated with sick and dying malls post their childhood mall memories and track the decline of the traditional American mall. The site hosts an entry for Century Plaza. One contributor wrote in 2004,
"Century Plaza is presently on the verge of death. For the moment, it is a second-tier mall [a reference to the site's mall deathwatch ratings system, second class corresponds to 'high vacancy, or non-traditional store occupancy']. Once the premier shopping center for the eastern Birmingham area ... it is now swiftly down spiraling toward certain death." That entry was written just after Rich's closed, and before Belk and J.C. Penney moved on to greener pastures.
News of Century Plaza's death has been exaggerated, but not all that greatly. If the mall was suffering in 2004 (at least by that contributor's standards), the current economic recession will likely inflict further damage. But as the economy sinks, artists suffer as well.
"It's interesting to watch how much this market crash has affected the art world," Higgins says. "Everybody's pretty scared. They're getting laid off at galleries, and this bubble, the housing bubble, the art world bubble, it's completely falling apart. Artists are going to have to be looking for more alternative spaces to show work, and not relying on these big institutions."
While EVERYTHING MUST GO has transformed part of Century Plaza into an alternative exhibition space, the show serves another purpose for Higgins and the artists whose work will be featured. The long, narrow void of Higgin's white-walled mall space is a sort of canvas on which she can paint the conflict between being an artist who creates material consumable goods while critiquing American consumer culture.
"I've always struggled with my work, feeling kind of guilty about being an artist, and feeling kind of guilty about making artwork and objects, and objects of consumption," Higgins says. "The guilt that I feel as artist-making-objects has been an important tension for me in the past few years - how to balance the need for criticality and social critique, but also feeling like a very materialistic person."
Higgins has confronted that conflict through her own art in recent years by making discarded objects into new consumables. Her recent works have been made by "stretching canvas over objects in people's trash," and then painting and re-objectifying the scavenged objects by "painting these sort of fragmented landscapes on them."
Through EVERYTHING MUST GO, Higgins can explore those tensions on a somewhat larger scale.
"This exhibition is a way for me to directly confront that in a very tongue-in-cheek kind of way," she says. "There's a suspension of disbelief that I feel like a lot of artists have when they walk into a gallery these days. 'It's somehow different than the mall store.' It's always really obvious that it's not. It's just a store like anything else."
Unless, of course, there are zombies.
EVERYTHING MUST GO will remain open through Jan. 3. The storefront for the exhibit is located on the lower level, where it should surprise and confuse holiday shoppers and maybe help re-envision the way one thinks of community development. A complete list of the exhibit's featured artists is available at www.rachelhiggins.com.