The Business of Art: Can An Intellectual Case be Made for the Art in Retail Spaces?

Interior of K11 MUSEA, Hong Kong’s first cultural-retail destination. Image courtesy K11 MUSEA.
Jeff Koons with one of his creations for his 2017 collaboration with fashion powerhouse Louis Vuitton. Image courtesy of Louis Vuitton.
Samson Young, Big Big Company (Mini Golf), 2019, at K11 MUSEA where visitors can engage with the work through a game of mini golf. Image courtesy of K11 MUSEA.
One Avenue at night lit by Kengo Kit’s colourful installations. Image courtesy Xixi Art Lab.
Exterior of One Avenue showing Kengo Kito’s hula-hoop installation. Image courtesy Xixi Art Lab.
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In light of a proliferation of contemporary art—whether site-specific or carefully acquired pieces—appearing in retail spaces and malls, such as the newly opened K11 MUSEA in Hong Kong, or Xixi Art Lab’s recent project in Shenzhen, Christie Lee asks: Can an intellectual case be made for the art in retail spaces?

 

TEXT: Christie Lee
IMAGES: Courtesy various

Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore are obsessed with malls—so much so that malls are increasingly out-competing one another in pursuit of the most distinct brand identity. There are the ultra high-end luxury malls, malls that target millennials, ‘family-friendly’ malls, and malls that take pride in their selection of lesser-known brands. In recent years, there has been a rise in malls that are positioning themselves as champions of art. Whether it is to hang art around the mall’s walls, commission artists for site-specific works, or carve out a nook for art incubation projects.

Interior of K11 MUSEA, Hong Kong’s first cultural-retail destination. Image courtesy K11 MUSEA.

 

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, brands have been using art to lure customers for a long time, from Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian collection in 1965 to Jeff Koons’ collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2017. The art that dons a commercial gallery may not be all that different from the million-dollar handbags on spotless display shelves—especially if they are bankrolled by the same deep pockets.

 

Jeff Koons with one of his creations for his 2017 collaboration with fashion powerhouse Louis Vuitton. Image courtesy of Louis Vuitton.

 

The rise of online and digital retail sites allowing shopping at your fingertips—and often with many more options than a physical shop can offer—means that people are also increasingly looking to retail spaces for leisurely experiences. Retail destinations are no longer just for handing over the credit card. According to a recent report released in September 2019 by global management consulting firm, A.T. Kearney, 74% of Gen Z shoppers say they appreciate a well-curated store experience. The study focuses on the US and Canadian market but is equally reflective of what we are observing happening worldwide. Vans, for example, has transformed London’s Old Vic Tunnels into a concept store, “House of Vans,” boasting a cinema, gallery, café and bar. Putting art in a mall is an extension of that concept. Whereas shoppers might see a mall’s pathways and entrances from a purely functional point of view, a rising number of developers are transforming these spaces with art.

Samson Young, Big Big Company (Mini Golf), 2019, at K11 MUSEA where visitors can engage with the work through a game of mini golf. Image courtesy of K11 MUSEA.

 

In malls with ‘public’ (a mall, as we know, is never completely public) areas, art has the potential to nudge the imagination and spark conversations. On a recent visit to the recently-opened K11 MUSEA in Hong Kong, I overheard throngs of youngsters discussing if Hong Kong artist Samson Young’s Big Big Company (Mini Golf) was for play or view (after taking copious amounts of selfies with it of course).

In essence, one’s journey in a mall becomes a continuous series of experiences rather than isolated trips to specific shops. As was the case during Montreal’s Nuit Blanche festival, when non-profit outfit Art Souterrain transformed the city’s underground network of malls and train stations into a meandering exhibition of paintings, sculptures, video art and installations.

One Avenue at night lit by Kengo Kit’s colourful installations. Image courtesy Xixi Art Lab.

 

Art in a mall also allows us to reconsider site-specificity. Of course, the site-specificity here is very different from the site-specific art of the 1970s and 80s, when it was used, as art historian T.J. Demos says, as “a way to resist complicity with market forces that would reduce objects to mobile commodities.” In a retail space, art and commodity will always be intertwined—even if the work is critical of consumerism, once it is placed in a retail space, it almost always gets subsumed under capital—but at the same time, the art does also need to respond to the site it is in. After all, it might appear a bit odd if Tayeba Begum Lipi’s Love Bed, conceived from stainless-steel razor blades, was placed outside the entrance to a luxury bedding company. Nor would one want to gawk at Marc Quinn’s Self sculptures, made from pints of his own blood, while eating sushi. Which begs the question: will art in malls only ever be, like the shops and products themselves, temporary? This is perhaps what Xixi Art Lab set out to do. The Shenzhen-based company works with artists to produce temporary site-specific art for corporate retail clients. Most recently for Shenzhen’s One Avenue, Xixi Art Lab worked closely with Berlin-based Japanese artist Kengo Kito who created colourful installations both indoors and outdoors of the mall with his signature hula hoops and other ready-made materials.

Exterior of One Avenue showing Kengo Kito’s hula-hoop installation. Image courtesy Xixi Art Lab.

 

There is perhaps, also an educational case to be made for putting art in malls. Whereas many are still resistant at the idea of walking into a white cube gallery, malls are something that almost everyone feels comfortable walking into. A mall could very well be where someone sees a sculpture by Louise Bourgeoise or Haegue Yang for the first time. Of course, many will be more interested in taking selfies with the art than engaging in a high-brow conversation about female fragility and visual abstraction, but, as some would argue, some exposure is always better than none. As for whether this initial exposure will drive people to museums and galleries, that remains to be seen.

 

 


 

Christie Lee is an arts journalist. Her articles have been published in Frieze, Artsy Editorial, Yishu, Randian, Artomity and The Peak magazine. A graduate of McGill University, she lives in London and Hong Kong.
 
 
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One thought on “The Business of Art: Can An Intellectual Case be Made for the Art in Retail Spaces?”

  1. In Tokyo department stores have had built in art galleries for decades. Some of the world’s most expensive paintings are owned by them. Van Gogh etc. The novelty and cost are designed to draw shoppers. And it works.