Sometime in the 1980s, art world observers began to notice that artists were often among the first entrepreneurs to move into neighborhoods widely considered uninhabitable, where they would jump-start what soon became the gentrification process. It would have been in large, coastal American cities’ industrial and warehouse areas that this phenomenon first received predominantly negative attention. Whether the objections had more to do with the ethics of displacing the actual, if ignored and so invisible residents of such skid rows, or if they had more to do with the fact that, as their new neighborhoods were upgraded, the artists who made it possible soon priced themselves out of the market, remains an open question. So far as I know, it was LA performance artist Francis Shishim, known professionally as The Dark Bob, who coined the phrase, “Artists are a mobile urban renewal force.” But this holiday season we are learning, here in Salt Lake City, how the arts also can be among the last institutions to depart a neighborhood as it reverses the trend of upward mobility.
Few Salt Lake City residents can have missed the giant, 21st-century, commercial hopscotch game that has seen downtown shopping leapfrog around the city. Even hardcore anti-Capitalists, no more likely to shop at City Creek than they were at the Gateway or ZCMI, must have had to deal with the demolition, rerouting, and relocation of traffic, parking, and access to parks and landmarks that has accompanied the remodeling of their city. Of less concern to the consumer are the struggles born by the perpetrators of these all-but-constant changes as they have cut and pasted whole environs. Still, it’s hardly surprising that, despite management’s efforts to induce stores to stay in a no-longer-fashionable shopping complex, outlets go out of business and display windows go dark. It’s a particular problem at this most-profitable time of year, when festive lights and seasonally adjusted dioramas are undermined by signs that the illusion of plenty has moved elsewhere.
In response, it would seem, Gateway’s management came up with an idea full of potential. Why not let artists fill their blank display windows with colorful and intriguing installations? Let them show off a less commercial, but possibly more universal, seasonal initiative. Of course there is always a risk when artists, dangerously independent creative forces, get involved. But a number of otherwise blacked-out windows surrounding Gateway’s popular fountain eventually were filled with alternative versions of Christmas cheer. In one case, the glass itself sprouts thematic ornaments which, when viewed up close, turn out to contain images of exotic animals: narwhals, moose, and big-tusked walruses, around which orbit smaller species, all too numerous to count. Challenged to identify the sampling of distinctive, unseen-yet-remembered beasts, one becomes aware that arctic climes and winter scenes favor more than just reindeer and jolly old saints.
But the real discovery here cannot be so readily seen. In fact, in the daytime it’s nearly invisible. At night, however, David Baddley’s video installation comes alive. Unlike the other artists’ shallow exhibits, Baddley stripped his window of the lining meant to prevent passers-by from seeing the abandoned space behind it. A couple of chandeliers still hang from the ceiling, while odd festoons of wiring emerge from the floor to mark the former locations of display cases and cash registers. Running diagonally back across the space, from near the window on the right toward the rear wall on the left, a series of partitions that presumably separated the sales floor from the storeroom, serve as a projection screen. Here a 10-minute video, shot just after sunset, looking west over the Pacific from the Garrapata State Park in California, runs continuously. The artist has described his organizing principle as matching the longest straight line in nature—the horizon—with the longest line available to the filmmaker—the diagonal from one corner of his aperture to the opposite corner. Whether viewers need to know that, or any other example of the many strategies that artists use to kick their work into gear, is debatable. But in practice, what David Baddley has done is arrange his stormy horizon so that it emerges low on the left, where we habitually start reading (and so looking), then climbs dizzyingly up around the cubical wall until it reaches an eye-stopping climax near the ceiling. The effect of so much water, its surface tilted something like 30° from the soothing horizontal, mounting to the right as it roils and surges, recalls the Romantic poets’ and painters’ notion of the sublime—an intersection of unease and exultation in the face of nature’s raw power. Surrounding it, the wreckage of a commercial enterprise recalls the sea-wrack and vital ruin that so often accompany vistas of barren seascapes and, for the Utah audience, their analogues: desert landscapes. The way Baddley’s captured water world rekindles itself every 10 minutes recalls the way night follows day in diurnal succession, and the realization that such a complex experience has been built of so few elements, most of them imposed accidents the artist has accepted and not his creations, reminds viewers that one or two powerful elements can be more effective than all the digital inventions larded on our many expensive entertainments.
This window may not be what the Gateway management envisioned, but one hopes they will perceive the energizing effect it has on those who experience it, whether they pass by and discover it for themselves, or seek it out due to hearsay, while gazing into a dark and inaccessible environment: a space as much mental or emotional as real, wherein gravity works magic while our first home, the wild ocean, ceaselessly advances and recedes like the breath of life itself. In a traditional season of hope, and a time of grave concern, David Baddley has come through with a reminder that there is something more, something bigger and more wonderful, that awaits our recollection and reconnection.
The Artshop Project at The Gateway features installations by Camille Overmore, Carol Sogard, David Baddley, Brady Petersen, Sarina Villareal, Sign Witches, Briana McLaren, Sarah Peterson and Soon-Ju Kwon. The displays will be up through January.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.