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2019 SPE Annual Conference: The Myths of Photography and the American Dream / Major support by The Joy Family Legacy Foundation

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Janae Contag

SPE Member since 2013
Member Chapter: Midwest


Sprawl is America’s new urbanism, and we are beginning to witness the deterioration of the new. Vacancy is the aesthetic of our time.

Defunct shopping malls, empty strip malls, vacant office parks, and failed subdivisions are a testament to culture. Neither ruinous nor antiquated, they no longer serve their original commercial purpose. Retail development is as much a litmus test of economic fluctuation as a designer garment to a new season. In an era of disposable fashion, jump cuts, and hashtag news sources, the notion of permanence runs counter to an ephemeral and mediated mindset. Americans expect speed and spectacle, which yields building faster, with standardized plans, and insistent anticipation about the next best place to shop, eat, live and work. Willingness to allow what was once iconic fade into the generic, and then become vacant, hinges on the accessibility of gloriously manifest excess. The results of this yield unoccupied zones and fragile ghosts of retail’s history.

My work observes and transforms retail and residential places in suburban and exurban America: shopping malls, mansions with pools, and homogenous housing developments. Most sites are banal and familiar, yet signify the material display of desire. My photographs, performances, and films lend a haunting sense of the uncanny. The films trace these spaces through the seemingly disembodied camera’s slow and smooth movement over an extended duration. Ambient music eerily echoes through long hallways. Cinematic cuts that are momentarily congruous but not necessarily accurate are disorienting, but visually satisfying. These works straddle associations as sociological studies, horror films, and jarring stills, an ambiguity that drives the visual and conceptual components of the work.

The indoor mall is amongst the most ubiquitous regional attractions in suburban America, and is the subject of my recent research. As a past enabler of the American Dream and a concentrated representation of capitalism, the mall is disappearing from the landscape of shopping. Synthetic shrubs and naked mannequins are the detritus of its interior, preserved in stale air and shoved into corners. The indoor mall’s decline signifies a momentary failure in the illusion of capitalism, alluding to a precarious economic future.

Corbin Park, Overland Park, KS

Frontenac Mall, St. Louis, MO

Southdale Mall, Minneapolis, MN

Metcalf South Mall, Overland Park, KS

South City, St. Louis, MO

Metcalf South Mall, Overland Park, KS

Metcalf South Mall, Overland Park, KS

St. Charles, MO

Metcalf South Mall, Overland Park, KS

Metcalf South Mall, Overland Park, KS

Eureka Springs, AR

Metcalf South Mall, Overland Park, KS

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