The ghost of the Ghost Parking Lot
In 1978, in an anonymous car park near the “Hamden Plaza” shopping center in Hamden (Connecticut), was created a fascinating and unique work of art: the Ghost Parking Lot, designed by SITE/James Wines.
This is an example of a “site-specific” project, which has its own particular expressive power in its placing inside a generic, trivial and anonymous urban setting: twenty cars – selected among local carbreakers between models of the ’60s and early’70s – are embedded in the asphalt surface at different depths, from maximum exposure to the outcrop of a small part of the pavilion.
Those “ghosts” take up some parking spaces among the entire plot, in an apparently random way: asphalt coating goes along with the shape of the vehicle, allowing the viewer to easily identify the different car models. The appearance is that of gradually disappearing cars, or rather absorbed by the asphalt at random between those actually stationing in the area.
James Wines in an interview (1) reminded that the ‘Hamden Plaza’ mall developer (mr. David Burmant) was an art lover, and commissioned SITE in 1977 to design a sort of public art still performance, to be placed in an area next to the commercial building. SITE was left free to choice subject, design and building materials for the area. From the words of James Wines: “Public art often derives it’s meaning from its location. You go to a parking lot and expect to see cars in the lot, not under it. It’s inverting expectations. You’re seeing something in a place which makes sense but whose presentation does not. Now remove this from the parking lot and place it in a museum and it loses all meaning, all relevance”.
The evocative power of the “Ghost Parking Lot” – also featuring much of the work of SITE in the ’70s and ’80s, such as shattering BEST shopping malls for the enlightened developer Lewis – was playing on the American archetype of motion-fetishism, on the typical yankee cult for the alleged cars’ and shopping malls’ dynamism. Moreover – and this is perhaps the most interesting aspect – this archetype undergoes the inclusion of interesting “uncontrollable” variables, typical of the firm, comprising the concepts of vagueness, ambiguity, entropy, instability and inversion of sense, all applied with particular mastery in the relationship between object and context.
Far beyond mere architecture as construction of space, the work of SITE becomes a special vector for messages speaking directly to our intellect, or rather to subconscious. Caught attitude, so out of the box of the post-modern theory in full force at the time, so on the edge of strictly architectonic discipline, and for this reason especially remarkable.
Unfortunately, one of the most successful examples of ‘stem concepts’ introduction – as intelligence, irony, rhetorical and cultural sarcasm – right there where they become more explosive, that is in close contact with the ideal object of their critical action (the triviality of the mall and its hypertrophic car-oriented life), today no longer exists: after years of gradual deterioration due to poor maintenance and the harmful, unexpected use of the ‘ghost cars’ as springboards for night skaters virtuosities, despite several attempts and proposals for restoration (all of them ended in nothing), this decidedly low-tech artwork – made up of real cars covered with a thin layer of asphalt and concrete spraying – was finally demolished September 21, 2003. The reason has the air of mockery: the need for additional parking.
Too bad. If you are in Hamden and take the Dixwell Avenue, on the site that contained the Ghost Parking Lot you will observe a trivial pertaining area with a standard parking near an ugly shopping center. The lot came back to the state of the site before 1978: “ghosts” have disappeared. We could say that times have changed, that business and its meat grinder seems to have finally won their battle. No one expects more to “consume art” even in a suburban mall.
But we like to think that this was foreseen in the life cycle of the work – which, in the words of the same Wines, was never meant to last forever. Namely, the scary ghosts were definitely phagocytized (if not physically, at least from a conceptual point of view) by the parking lot of the Shopping Mall, and the gesture, the sensitivity of the artist has simply fixed them for some time, in a sort of frozen instant: a freeze-frame lasted, fortunately for us, some luster. Before the final dematerialisation.
Today, only blurry memories of a unique work, an “imaginative, wild, explosive game, in a place where people normally would never dream of thinking” (2).
(1): ‘The Ghost Parking Lot’ in “Lost in Jersey blog” (http://lostinjersey.wordpress.com/2009/04/08/the-ghost-parking-lot/)
(2): Itsuo Sakane, ‘Site’, “A & U”, december 1986
Hamden, Connecticut. The Ghost Parking Lot site today (2011), view from Dixwell Ave. (©GoogleMaps StreetWiew).
“SITE BEST STORES”, a short movie on SITE BEST projects (©1978 Howard Silver, Arts Into Production), in which features also the brand new (at the time) Hamden’ Ghost Parking Lot.