Last weekend, the Perimeter Ride took its second annual detour to see “Spindle,” a 1989 commission by Dustin Shuler in the parking lot of the aging Berwyn Plaza. (A Service Merchandise there has sat empty since its bankruptcy in 1999; the parking lot is crumbling, some of the artworks have deteriorated, and the town around it has changed considerably, to say the least.)
While googling the artist to locate his other works in California, I found several mentions of other artworks placed at strip malls by developer David Bermant–notably at Hamden Plaza outside New Haven. However, it turns out that a lot of the whimsical strip-mall conceptual art of the 1970s and 1980s has disappeared. Commercial priorities of new owners has subsumed much of the early work by James Wines at SITE, including Ghost Parking Lot (photo) and eight of the nine weird Best Products showrooms. (“Forest” in Henrico, Va., is the lone survivor; it’s now a peacefully wooded setting for a church.) Even the Spindle has been threatened: 69% of Berwynites voted to remove it in a primary-election referendum just a year after its installation, and other works (including SITE’s Floating McDonald’s, replaced by a standard outlet) have disappeared from Berwyn Plaza.
What the wacky, anti-consumerist artists were doing installing pieces in shopping malls in the first place isn’t quite the point; it’s that, once installed, I would have assumed that suburbanites’ inherently conservative tendencies would have left the works standing. However, the forces of commerce and progress are perhaps too strong to remain provoked, even in what are now decaying inner-ring ‘burbs.