In a nearly abandoned shopping mall in a working class suburb south of Nashville, three young artists recently curated an exhibition in a vacated clothing store. “In Place” considered art as commodity, recontextualizing the lighting, spacing, and organizing we might see in a museum or gallery, and comparing and contrasting those displays with what we expect in a department store or boutique. The show upended the sacral gallery space in favor of the secular marketplace while simultaneously asking what role art might play in the revitalization of community and identity in a place where the prosperity of the past has given way to the uncertainty of the present.
On a Nashville neighborhood Facebook page, I recently saw a post by a young woman looking for an apartment. She listed locations she thought she could afford, including Nashville’s Antioch neighborhood. Helpful commenters responded, but more than one typed “Don’t move to Antioch.”
In the 1960s, Antioch was a small rural community, but in the 1970s it experienced explosive growth and today is part of Davidson County and governed by Nashville.
Antioch became a destination with the building of Hickory Hollow Mall in 1978. The mall expanded twice over the next 13 years. However, between 2006 and 2012 the mall was set adrift, losing all of its big name department stores. Nashville State Community College eventually opened a satellite in the old Dillard’s space and the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County converted the old JCPenney and an adjacent parking lot into a branch library and a community center. The Nashville Predators hockey team’s practice rink is now located in the complex. The mall never officially closed, but by the time CBL & Associates took over in 2012, there were only about a dozen storefronts operating.
Nashville photographer Mika Agari started wandering the nearly empty corridors at the mall about a year ago. Her digital images of ironically still spaces within the mall are studied compositions that include empty store entrances and a customer service kiosk with no customers and no services. These images are contrasted against her snaps of the local, mom-and-pop shops and restaurants that now call the mall home. Agari got the idea of mounting an exhibition in the mall and teamed up with fellow Nashville artists Alexine Rioux and Kayla Saito before approaching Ravi Shetkar, a partner and general manager at what’s now known as the Global Mall at the Crossings.
“This used to be the number one mall in Tennessee – not just in Nashville, but in Tennessee,” says Shetkar. “We’re turning it into a mixed-use space with office space, retail, family entertainment and a big international grocery store.”
Max Mason is the graphic designer at Global Print & Marketing, located in the mall. Over the last two years, he curated two group shows in a former luxury fashion store, dubbed Storefront #122, where “In Place” also was installed. “It has the white walls and the right kind of lighting, but also the big open space and the glass exterior so that you can see the work from outside,” says Mason.
There are various explanations for the decline of Antioch and its Hickory Hollow mall including the revitalization of downtown Nashville, the construction of competing malls, a demographic change from a white middle class to a diverse working class community, the closing of the nearby Starwood Amphitheatre, and rising crime rates.
The mall is in Nashville Metro Council District 32, which isn’t even among the top ten most dangerous districts according to Metro Nashville’s crime stats. But in Nashville, talking about Antioch inevitably turns to talking about crime. District 32 Councilwoman Jacobia Dowell thinks that misunderstanding has a lot to do with geography, and she thinks that the arts can play a role in helping to redefine and revitalize her community.
“Crime incidents that occur anywhere in Southeast Nashville are frequently reported as ‘Antioch.’ After a few years of casually referring to every incident as Antioch, it creates negative perceptions,” says Dowell. But how can places like the Global Mall and arts events like “In Place” help to reverse decades of such perceptions?
“Art can help our community define who we are – our community vision and culture,” says Dowell. “Art education helps instill the traits within people that we all desire. It helps foster socio-emotional development in our youth. Art education is linked to higher academic performance and it bridges cultural understanding,” she says. Furthermore, artists in Nashville have adopted the city’s more blighted spaces and transformed them, says Dowell. “More artists mean more public art, cultural events, and community engagement. It’s what’s needed to strengthen our community and foster economic growth.”
“In Place” included contributions from nearly 30 artists focused on themes of consumerism, commodification, commercialization, and community. The artists ran a GoFundMe campaign to rent the space, buy supplies, and print a catalogue of the show. Most of the artists were from Nashville, but the show included participants from all over the U.S. The diverse, dynamic exhibition explored common themes, offering up a number of eye-catching, provocative highlights.
Cyane Tornatzky’s “Reliquary for Objects Previously Treasured but Now Not Needed” presented a study in technology-fueled obsolescence, presenting decorative boxes containing old cell phones, iPods, remote controls, etc., along with typewritten notes from their former owners describing the relationship they’d shared with the discarded gadget.
Simone Schiffmacher’s abstract beaded sculptures investigated the primacy of brand identity through the use of borrowed corporate logos, and Christina Yglesias’s video installations undermined the corporate media’s control of popular imagery through the empowering intercession of the artist’s hand.
I’m always interested in a creative critique of capitalism and “In Place” was brimming with such works. However, the community component at the center of this exhibition is what made it most impactful: projects like Agari’s clothing exchange, which invited the mall’s Antioch neighbors to exchange their used clothes for new items from the mall’s clothing stores, made “In Place” a place that mattered.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.