This weekend, I went to an exhibit at P.S. 1 in Queens to see Walead Beshty’s photos of dead malls, the abandoned shopping centers left behind after the affluent move away and established their happy hunting grounds elsewhere. The pleasures of shopping depend much more on the sense that one is participating in something novel and fresh rather than the actual goods involved (which, incidentally, had better be perceived as novel and fresh themselves). Shoppers aren’t looking for utility in their purchases, they are after an elusive sense of being on the progressive edge of the triumphant ideology in America, that of perpetual growth and innovation for its own sake. If growth is always good, newness is always greatness, and one can feel part of the national reatness, by taking advantage of every opportunity to luxuriate in the new. This means people will always prefer to shop in environments that seem to have been built yesterday over older establishments even if they require one driving fifty miles to reach them. This is why downtown shopping districts in most cities struggle while new shopping malls continue to get built at an alarming rate in the suburbs even as cities start to retain more population.
Admittedly, it is a glorious comforting feeling to see the spacious, brand-new parking lots with bigger spaces for SUVs, to see bright, untarnished stucco, and signage all in currently trendy fonts with up-to-date renderings of familiar logos (reducing the cognitive dissonance that comes from commercials that try to make the present seem timeless and eternal clashing with dreary evidence that the firms being advertised have evolved in sundry obvious, mundane ways like refreshing their overall design). It’s a true testimony to the power of the new-is-better ideology, how powerful the allure of the brand-new shopping center can be. These new centers are in fact material monuments to the ideology, the most powerful way it’s articulated. The effort and expense convinces you its right, that the values it expresses are indisputable. New casinos have the same effect, conveying the splendor and glamour of gambling and merging that dubious pleasure with the ideologically charged (and/or sanctioned) pleasure of the novel. When you live in Las Vegas, you check out the new casinos, even if you have no intention of gambling in them — they just feel right, that is, they prove that the city in which you live is moving forward and progress is being served, that the city is doing what it is supposed to in order to grow. So new malls are more about reassurance that society is living up to its own ideals (the ideals that we absorb and assume as our own) than they are about shopping.
Dead malls, then, are the reverse side of the same coin, and reassure us in the same way. That may be why there seems to be no pathos in them in Beshty’s photos, even if he intended there to be. The bad light, the functional, featureless architecture, the vulgarity, the fly-by-night way they seem to have been deserted all conjure a sense of fraud and ruthlessness, of a society in which commercial imperatives have obliterated all traces of the human spirit and in so doing, obliteraed itself. We have a sense that these places are rightly deserted, that the dreams they once catered to have passed out of fashion and become incomprehensible, detestable — this even though the essential dream was the same when they were built, to make shopping feel original. The contempt we inevitably feel for these places in the photos is equal to the strange joy a new mall can evoke. I had the feeling that Beshty wanted to evoke sympathy for these “modern ruins,” but maybe I’m wrong, maybe he meant to show just how lacking grandeur they are, how ignoble the passions of the culture that generated them (and the new ones just like them, in essence) will seem to arbiters in the future. They don’t haunt you at all with a feeling that you missed out on anything. You are filled with a sense that some things deserved to be ruined, they make you crave the bulldozers that will wipe the abominations of the face of the earth.
But that seems such a harsh judgment for these places, places where many meaningful teenage rites of passage occured for people now in their thirties. Ours may be a generation irretriveably scarred by the indignity of having to act out these defining dramas in so sordid an environment — proof of our growing inability to imagine more appropriate places to be for important moments in our lives, a trend that culminates in families in their cookie-cutter housing developments, in houses huddled together like a circled wagons, seeking protection from a natural world, a local environment, that feels ever more arbitrary.