Gen X Goes to the Mall: Store/Fronts at MOCCA


Vikky Alexander, West Edmonton Mall Series, No. 17 (detail) [1992], dye coupler print (Ektacolor). NGC

This winter, the NGC@MOCCA program is complementing the ROM/MOCCA retrospective exhibition of post-2000 work by artist and author Douglass Coupland with a trip to the mall. What visitors will find, however, is far from the usual shopping experience. Organized the NGC Associate Curators of Contemporary Art, Rhiannon Vogl and Jonathan Shaughnessy, Store/Fronts features three important female voices in Canadian and international art today —Vikky Alexander, Josephine Meckseper and Jenny Holzer — whose works in this exhibition place the shopping mall, consumer culture, and the self on critical display.

“It is habitually the case when devising programming in collaboration with MOCCA that we look at what is being organized in the main space of the museum on Queen Street,” says Shaughnessy. “In the case of the Douglas Coupland exhibition,” adds Vogl, "it proved interesting to think about his writing. His now-iconic novel Generation X, for example, was written at a time when a generation of North American youth was hanging out at the mall — when pop culture films such as Reality Bites and Mall Rats captured the zeitgeist of the time.”

In his 1991 novel, Coupland wrote about three people in their late twenties who, disillusioned by the fallout of 1980s excess, attempt to get back to basics by shirking the desire for more. They quit their jobs, move to the California desert, and take low-paying no-future “McJobs” in the service industry, in an attempt to attach some meaning to their lives. While juggling Coupland’s ideas, Vogl and Shaughnessy settled on the theme of the shopping mall as a place where pop culture, consumer desire, and a consumption-oriented society coalesce under one roof.

“There were a couple of key works in the Gallery’s collection that struck us,” says Shaughnessy. “Once we decided that Vikky Alexander’s West Edmonton Mall Series (1992) was something we really wanted to show, it kind of became the linchpin for the exhibition. Alexander has done several series on significant places in the urban and suburban environment, in which retail and consumer fantasy and desires play out within specific architectural formations.”

The NGC purchased one of the 16 photographs in the series, and the artist later donated the remaining 15 to the Gallery so that collection would have the full set. The photographs have never been exhibited in their entirety at the Gallery. The fact that they are going to be on display for a special exhibition featuring ideas associated with the shopping mall’s place in Western culture is fitting, says Shaughnessy.

Josephine Meckseper’s Mall of America (2009) — on loan from the Andrea Rosen Gallery and the New York-based German artist herself — was filmed in 2007 at the onset of the last global recession, at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. The 13-minute single-channel video meanders through the shopping concourse, its images seen through red, white and blue filters, giving the setting a sinister edge.

“One of the key premises for this work was that the mall should be thought of, not as a place fulfilling your every consumer need, but rather as a dangerous place, a place that is threatening, a place where you are under constant surveillance. It depicts a darker side of the mall,” says Shaughnessy. “At one point in the video, the camera enters a military recruitment centre. Here, the work takes a sardonic turn as the mall becomes associated with combat and militarization. It is very powerful.”

The exhibition also includes Jenny Holzer’s Unex Sign No. 2 (selections from “The Survival Series”), produced in 1983–1984 and reconstructed in 2010. The work is essentially an electronic billboard displaying text-based messages. It was purchased by the National Gallery in 1985, but as the technology aged, it could no longer be displayed. To ensure the ongoing integrity of the piece, the Gallery’s conservation department worked with Holzer’s studio to rebuild the work for future generations to enjoy. This will be the first time since its restoration that this iconic sculpture by the storied American artist will be on public view.

“It is a large billboard sign that cycles through a series of flickering messages that address the individual directly, using the visual language of advertising,” explains Vogl. “It was created in the 1980s, and is about how we can act or survive in public in the post-nuclear age. Not only does Holzer use advertising technology, which relates to consumerism, but she also plays with the idea of being watched and of watching others: how we present ourselves as we are walking through public spaces like malls, buying things while also being watched in every store we enter. So there is also a darker tinge to it all.” 

Vogl and Shaughnessy say that Holzer’s Unex Sign works in dialogue with all the other works in the show, by drawing attention to the eroding distinctions between public and private life, citizen and shopper. In this exhibition, the store becomes a front to an all-powerful global marketplace in which, for the time-being at least, the mall remains its congregational epicentre.

Store/Fronts is on view at MOCCA from January 31 until April 19. For more information, please click here.

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