Brian Ulrich began his Copia project in response to George W. Bush’s appeal to Americans in the weeks after 9/11 to shop and spend as a patriotic activity, but it developed into something much more far-reaching. The result of a decade’s work, Copia is a project that has grown organically out of its earliest premises. The work examines retail consumerism’s material and cultural legacies and has been shrewdly executed and edited as Is This Place Great or What?, published by Aperture with the Cleveland Museum of Art, where a selection of images from the project is exhibited until 26 February 2012.
Is This Place Great or What? presents the three components of Ulrich’s project, photographed in the American east and midwest: Retail (2001-2006), Thrift (2005-2008) and Dark Stores (2008-2011). Each of these alone is a coherent body of work, but in combination their power is multiplied. Retail examines shopping at big box stores such as Target and Costco, describing customers and what is on offer, and how it is on offer. The pictures are characterised by repetition, the glazed focus of shoppers, and environments built to encourage spending. Ulrich reminds us, through price signs and credit card placards, that all of shopping is transactional, but that the goods themselves speak to a deeply ingrained cultural association between acquisition and satisfaction. The image, about halfway through the series, of a man holding a handful of cash, is nonetheless startling; the greenbacks seem almost obscene in their physicality.
Gurnee, IL 2005 from Retail © Brian Ulrich
Thrift describes the workers at second hand charity shops struggling to keep up with the copious quantities of unwanted clothing and other merchandise that have flooded the aftermarket as American consumers have increasingly purchased more goods that are deemed obsolete more quickly. In these spaces, the hyper-rational signage and carefully designed displays of the big box stores give way to handwritten signs and notes and make-do attempts to organize the burgeoning merchandise: obsolete computer monitors, VHS tapes, a giant purple dragon, and of course an abundance of clothing. In her essay closing the book, sociologist Judith Schor notes that Americans now on average buy nearly twice as many pieces of clothing each year than they did twenty years ago due to inexpensive labor costs made possible by globalization, with its concomitant human costs, and an acceleration of fashion cycles.
Untitled, 2007 from Thrift © Brian Ulrich
Dark Stores is a study of the afterlife of big box stores and malls after they have closed. Some of the dead malls are maintained, clean, with plants cared for and power still running, and some buildings take on different incarnations as new businesses. Others, like the Dixie Square Mall that Ulrich photographed through four seasons, are gradually reclaimed by nature. One of the last of Ulrich’s images in the book is of a woman, Rose, lying in the bushes under a tree outside of the Northridge Mall. After the journey on which Ulrich has taken us, this image could be viewed as a return to nature, a post-apocalyptic, post-consumer Eden; it can also be read as an observation that just as buildings have been discarded, so have people been abandoned.
Belz Factory Outlet Mall, 2009 from Dark Stores © Brian Ulrich
Ulrich is a fine photographer and appears to have little difficulty making pictures that suit his purposes; his more significant talent is his ability to address a broad social phenomenon with an organisation of imagery that is compelling both as evidence and as rhetoric. It is his ability to comment while he describes and assesses, to present pictures that flow in parallel narratives, one analytical, the other deploying humour and symbolism, that is the great strength of this work. And, while at first glance, his project is reminiscent of earlier critiques of retail such as Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent. 1999, Ulrich, for all of his pictures of alienated people and alienating spaces, is wistful, even soulful in his approach to the human experience of consumption, and he is interested in the possibility of real redemption. It’s an effect that perhaps only comes across when regarding all three sections of Copia together. But as a whole, this project ultimately leans less towards Gursky and more towards Robert Frank.
In Retail, there is a sequence of pictures that shows, consecutively: a stack of flag-wrapped folding chairs on a palette (“Patriotic Chairs”, $9.99); an ATM in a casino under a sign reading “Cash & Redemption”; a display of nine crucifixes in Kmart (“Crucifix with base,” also $9.99); a man sitting at a lunch counter near the pharmacy section of a store, desaturated in his grey jacket under fluorescent light (“Please pay before eating”); the blue door to the employee locker rooms with a sticker reading “No employment, no enjoyment”. It’s not hard to make the connection with The Americans, where Frank observed the repeating symbols that undergird American values and ideals: flags, cars, roads, religious figures. Here in Ulrich’s spacious yet contained world of shopping some of those symbols are re-presented as commodities, scaled-down, accessible for $9.99. But behind the scenes, and where the clumsy messiness of human beings interferes with the promises of the merchandise display, there are warnings; the surfaces give way to grime and threadbare carpets, foreshadowing the later sections of the book. The symbols present a series of false cues, values compromised by being put on sale, and suggest that the real journey towards grace has something to do with recognising how life is really lived, seeing the dirt on the ground, and being skeptical of what stands behind the slogans.
Untitled, 2007 from Thrift © Brian Ulrich
Ulrich’s framing of his Copia project between found pictures from the heyday of the Dixie Square Mall in the 1960s visually contextualises the phenomenon of the last decade as part of a much deeper national habit, with Americans encouraged from every direction to liken acquisition with comfort and spending with productivity. (Schor’s essay provides a useful context for understanding the larger cultural, historical and economic forces at play in shaping consumer practices, though by framing 21st century retail and consumerism explicitly as part of a globalising process, and by pinning the death of malls on the 2008 crisis, she overlooks the cycles of growth, development, investment, redevelopment and abandonment that have characterised American communities for decades.
Sarah, Deerbrook Park, 2010 from Dark Stores © Brian Ulrich
Ulrich’s larger statement is about the intersection of the infrastructure of consumption with the meaning that consumption holds for Americans at the turn of the 21st century, and Ulrich makes a sophisticated argument visually about the ways in which cultural and economic practices, tastes and value systems all inform and produce one another. As such, this project shows some unpleasant truths about American cultural life but it does so in a manner that is neither accusatory nor pitying and presents an opportunity for self-knowledge. Ulrich recognises the vanity of consumerism but also notes that he himself had enjoyed the same attractions to malls and consumption that the subjects of his photographs experiences. “I had been there, too,” Ulrich writes, ”I want things too – this was not about photographing ‘the other’.”
The Cleveland Museum of Art
August 27, 2011 - February 26, 2012