New York City, June 2015: I remember despising the revamped, restyled strip malls that proliferated in the late 1990s, replacing dilapidated 1960s-era kitsch elegance with chunky stucco postmodern monotony in various shades of taupe, terracotta, and teal. These non-places had names conjured from corporate boardrooms—“The Shoppes at Villa Terraces,” “Sycamore Plaza Town Centre” and the like—a nomenclature almost offensive in its disavowal of history and specificity in favor of a generic, anesthetic appeal. Years later, as these shopping centers have fallen into an inevitable state of decline or mere shabbiness (there’s a pattern here), they look like the relics and ruins of the recent past, a testament to the cycles of economy, fashion, and taste. It doesn’t matter that I’m speaking specifically of the Southern California landscape, this is happening everywhere.
For Wyoming-born, Birmingham, Alabama-raised, and New York-based artist Rachel Higgins, the vernacular of the shopping mall, the corporate lobby, and the retail space becomes a territory for sculptural objects, installation, and social practice. Styrofoam, stucco, and synthetic spraystone are some of the materials she uses, simulating the aesthetics of the shipping, shopping, and storage industries. Form and function become confused when pedestal becomes receptacle becomes sculpture becomes furniture.
Rachel Higgins, Installation view of Logistics, 2015. Courtesy Kristen Lorello, New York
In one project she opened up shop, with a cohort of other artists, in an abandoned shopping mall in Alabama, positing the uncanny space as “a post-apocalyptic playground in the ruins of late-capitalism.” Her MFA thesis exhibition in 2010 at Hunter College—an exacting, hyperreal, immersive installation featuring a water fountain, skylight, trash cans, and scuffed tiles—transported viewers to the kind of liminal spaces that exist at the edges of commercial or recreational architecture, and her installation at Socrates Sculpture Park formed a playground out of vague architectural elements. She’s constructed homemade Jacuzzis, polystyrene Papasan chairs, and enlisted passersby to help carry her Styro-stone sculptures through the streets of New York. Higgins’ works are deceiving—both generic and specific, highly synthetic but lacquered with the gloss of the natural—revealing the paradox in our society’s collective desire for comfort, convenience, efficiency, and bargain-basement prices.
Her work is currently the subject of a solo exhibition, Logistics, at Kristen Lorello in New York, on view until July 17. In the following exchange, we discuss dream projects, salvage yards, and the aesthetics of the suburban shopping mall and all that it signifies.
Natalie Hegert: How would you define the “aesthetics of logistics”?
Rachel Higgins: I think the “aesthetics of logistics” runs deep in my work, but it’s something I’ve just begun to name in this way, and I think my new show just barely scratches the surface of this. I’ve been thinking about my own attraction to logistics and this drive for systems of movement and efficiency. I often work as an art handler, so this is something that I think about all the time with regard to art objects: packing, moving, securing, storing. But I am also thinking about logistical fetishization in mass production and militarism. I encounter this kind of aesthetic experience browsing U-line and McMaster catalogs, going to the Container Store, or in the mapping of larger, more complicated systems and bodies. There is a beauty in it I think, but also an absurdity, a violence. Our culture loves seeking efficiency to an excess. The logistical drive to organize goods is one that begins to supersede the goods themselves. I’m interested in the material reality of what that looks like.
Rachel Higgins, Don't Worry about Buildings and Food, 2011, Wood and salvaged construction materials, polystyrene, EIFS synthetic stucco, concrete and paint. Installation at Socrates Sculpture Park. © 2011. Photo: Bilyana Dimitrova
NH: Can you tell me a bit about your residency at Build-it-Green and how that experience impacted the work you’re showing now? What’s it like to be an artist-in-residence at a salvage yard?
RH: I have always been attracted to re-sale shops and salvage yards, and Build-it-Green is an exceptional such place. What America discards is a fascinating and terrifying material reflection of our culture, as well as an incredible wealth of resources. The residency was organized through my fellowship at Socrates Sculpture Park, and B.I.G. supported my project there by basically giving me free pick of their warehouse and a little lofted workspace above their lumber rack. My process was a call-and-response to the objects I found there, so it totally shaped my installation at Socrates. And I am still re-using some of the giant hunks of Styrofoam I got from them almost five years ago.
NH: The sculptures you made at the Sculpture Park in 2011 are constructed from some very unique materials like stucco, synthetic stone, and a material known as EIFS that’s used in re-facading building exteriors. These materials resurface again in the work you’re showing now. How did you come to work with these kinds of materials?
RH: When I was working at Socrates, I was creating a sort of postmodern architectural ruin-scape and finding a lot of shapes and forms I wanted to use, but I had to re-build them in such a way that they would be safe for kids and withstand the weather for 9 months. At the time I was also watching this crew of workers re-facade a store and apartment building in my neighborhood, just carving this Styrofoam into stone-like shapes. It was snowing Styrofoam everywhere for a week and then they coated it all with this painted stucco and voila. It was kind of incredible; so many buildings are facaded like this now–Styrofoam and synthetic stone or stucco. So I became fascinated with this material and process that has become a basis for a lot of my recent sculptural work.
Rachel Higgins, Jacuzzi, 2013, Inflatable babypools, expandable spray-foam, plywood, fiberglass, cement, cerastone, garden hose,
shop-vac, water. Jet-stream powered by a shop-vac
NH: What kinds of materials do you want to explore in future projects?
RH: Plumbing! This is something that keeps coming up in my personal life—through many recent floods and plumbing disasters in my studio, home, work, with friends; it feels like something I need to learn more about. But it has come up in my work before; I’ve built systems for a fountain, showers, and most recently a Jacuzzi, so I suppose there is a precedent already there. But it is really beautiful—plumbing. It’s this incredible and often invisible infrastructure that our entire society depends on. It literally connects us all, but most of us don’t think about it, until a part of it breaks and suddenly it is a huge and urgent problem. A few years ago I started documenting hand-made signs from bathrooms concerning the rules of the toilet: what not to flush, how to flush, etc. I made a print that compiled this idiosyncratic language and phrases together. I guess I am interested in how bathrooms (and plumbing in general) are places where the bodies confront the institution, and I’m interested in the kind of negotiations that occur as a result.
Rachel Higgins, Installation view of Logistics, 2015. Courtesy Kristen Lorello, New York
NH: What is it that originally drew you to the vernacular of suburban shopping malls, corporate lobbies, and other public/private spaces? The features you might encounter in these spaces, which you’re echoing in some of the sculptures here, have this kind of universal ubiquity, but with some elements of regional variation, so that when you encounter the work there’s this moment of uncanny recognition… What do these kinds of forms signify in your work?
RH: I love this line between specific and generic, how the most mundane of these forms can resonate with so much weirdness and emotional memory. One thing I find really interesting is that very often someone sees my work and says to me, "Oh, this is just like the mall I grew up with in (insert-your-city-here),” and they have a really strong aesthetic memory and relationship to, like, a trashcan or a color palette. They feel it is regionally specific to the architecture they grew up with—like it is a specifically “Southwestern” mall or whatever. Yes, it is like the mall they grew up with, but it's also basically the same mall every suburbanmiddleclass American of my generation grew up with. One of our great myths is that capitalism encourages diversity, but when we look across our landscape, it devours diversity. Now we can't even sustain the imagineddiversity of those malls. But there is some truly weird specificity happening in these repeating forms that denote this kind of generic private/public space. I am interested in the material reality of whatever that is.
NH: Many of your projects have a social element to them—rather than simply making and exhibiting sculptures, you might ask passersby to help you carry them from point A to point B, for instance. How do you see the relationship in your work between sculpture and social practice?
RH: I think I work somewhere in between. I am very much a “maker,” and someone deeply invested in the process and physicality of these objects and materials, and part of that for me is also about how our bodies negotiate and interact with that physicality. But the social element of many of my projects is ultimately what drives me, and that motivation for creating a social exchange is often essential to the content of the work. But at the same time, it is not an immaterial experience. I want viewers to physically and spatially relate. I think this is increasingly important to me as technology and screens dominate our relations—to have a practice that is tangible and limited to a certain kind of physical presence.
Rachel Higgins performing It’s Not That Heavy (12 Sculptures carried with the kindness of strangers), 2014. Performance with sculptures at the South Street Seaport, for Out to See, NYC. She asked passers-by to help her carry sculptures around to various sites in the neighborhood currently under re-development. Inspired by the past, present, and future commercial developments of 3 main real estate magnates active in Lower Manhattan: the Howard Hughes Corporation, General Growth Properties, and Brookfield Properties.
NH: What would be your dream project, if you had no budgetary or space restrictions?
RH: This is a great question—while I’m not sure bigger is better, I do think the impossible is sometimes the best place to start from. Many years ago I asked myself this question and my dream project then was to make an artwork with an entire shopping mall. And incredibly, it slowly happened. I started with a totally satirical proposal to take over a dying mall in my hometown. The proposal included an imagined 10-million-dollar subsidy from the government (a figure equal to what the city gave Wal-mart for redeveloping a neighboring mall). I wanted not to re-develop it, but to preserve the empty mall as it was, a sort of living-dead mall, with no functional stores, as a community space. I put out an open call for project ideas for this empty mall. Obviously I didn’t get any money or permission, but I did end up leasing one store for two weeks in this almost totally abandoned mall. Each day a different artist presented a new site-specific project. This experience and the architecture of that space has driven a lot of my work since. It is definitely time for a new dream project to work towards, but I don’t have a perfect answer yet. But even if I did, I think I wouldn’t tell! I believe in attempting the impossible until it becomes some kind of reality.
ArtSlant would like to thank Rachel Higgins and Kristen Lorello for their assistance in making this interview possible.