By Sandra Schulman
In what could have been an urban disaster, the mad scientists at owner company Related Group have conjured up an international art-infused delight, turning the former anchor store Macy’s space into a cavernous experimental gallery. They are calling it Culture Lab – a multi-installation, malleable space retrofitted with visual and aural artworks.
I took a tour prior to the Lab’s official opening in January and was delighted by the first major installation that greets visitors — a huge wraparound mural on the building by British artist Michael Craig-Martin called Palm Beach Parade.
This is his largest public artwork and his first in the United States. The bright blue, pink and yellow images take clear advantage of the elaborate architectural designs on the buildings façade, splitting images in half to accommodate the rectangular spaces. He paints ordinary things in extraordinary ways – sunglasses, a soccer ball, a thumb drive – with searing pop colors.
“When I was young my parents took me to Macy’s to ask Santa for presents. I never thought that I would be given a Macy’s to play with,” Craig-Martin says. “I have always thought that access to everything important is right in front of your nose. We often look for the special in special objects or special events but actually, if we understood the quality of ordinary things, we are closer to the substance of life. I feel that right now I am doing work that has a certain simplicity and clarity that I could never have done without the previous 50 years. I do see what I am doing now as late work.”
Stepping inside the store I was struck by the enormity of the space now empty of merchandise, and how that clarity emphasizes the gleaming marble floors and huge glass lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling. Custom-made display cases stand like elaborate skeletal effigies to consumerism. Are they awaiting jewelry and pricey handbags or has the high-priced swag fled leaving them like fickle lemmings for the outlet malls? They line up like silent on-guard sentinels towards the atrium and its endlessly rotating pair of escalators.
Even the choice of up or down takes on heightened meaning in this strange new world. Going up heaven-like there are large blow up photos taken from the video installation by sound artist Stephen Vitiello, who showcases his multi-channel, site-specific sound installation You Are the Magic on the second floor of the Culture Lab.
There are three sections of the installation – one is the video that runs on a 10-minute loop with word “art” swirling around in psychedelic pulsating forms. A row of chairs lets you sit and watch. A second section has the pure talking of voices that repeat and fade in and out like snatched conversations. The third is the space “Luggage” that faces the front of the building and is the most beautiful, with windows shaded in melancholy blue and giant beanbag chairs to lounge on while a droning meditative sound bathes the space.
Even the store signs have been cheekily altered to add another dimension. Remnants of Macy’s Thanksgiving parade balloon images silhouetted in silver on the walls have been scratched at, but outlines of Jeff Koons’ Rabbit and Kermit the Frog can be detected.
It’s a bold and imaginative use of the space. On the ground floor pop-up vendor storefronts are being readied that will open up to Hibiscus Street. It’s up in the air how long the installations and vendors will be in place but for now it’s a bold and edgy move for a space that could have sat empty or – horrors! – become office space.
Tokyo-based artist Frankie Cihi has unveiled Hybrid Infinity, a large-scale mural with colorful geometric patterns on the façade of south and east side of the Hibiscus parking garage.
“What’s most exciting is the different approach, whether it’s the sound installation, new art or fresh ideas. That’s exactly what helps drive forward that identity of a place to make it special, and with what I know is planned, it’s really going to be an exciting addition to what we have,” said Raphael Clemente, executive director of West Palm Beach’s Downtown Development Authority.
Related Group opened CityPlace in 2000 as a mixed-use, open-air entertainment and retail destination, but the fluctuation of the economy and market have found many businesses moving in and out rapidly. Luckily the Related Group is owned by mega-art collector Jorge Perez, who understands the allure of art to a neighborhood.
“Continually adding new, inventive and dynamic retail, dining and cultural experiences allows us to engage with a broad range of visitors and regular patrons, giving them plenty of reasons to keep coming back. We are constantly looking at every aspect of CityPlace and asking how we can make it better for locals and visitors alike. As more residential and workplace options become available within the downtown district, we are responding to the kind of density and live-work-play opportunities that so many people are seeking,” Related executive Ken Himmel said.
“Over the next several years, experiential retail and dining combined with world-class cultural anchors will become synonymous with the very identity of downtown West Palm Beach. We aim to add a range of ever-changing attractions and experiences to the locally authentic destination that is CityPlace,” Himmel said.
It’s a unique urban partnership in that the core of the city was basically demolished in the 1980s with visions of a well-planned community from developers. After some fits and starts, Related seems to have found its art-infused stride. Mad scientists indeed.