In the age of online shopping via Amazon, the traditional American shopping mall has gone down a death spiral year after year. However, as the rate of dead malls in the United States continue to increase, so does a growing community of urban explorers on YouTube and other platforms who venture from state to state to visit and document these ailing malls for future generations to see and learn about. Among such talents in the dead malls community include Jack Thomas of www.deadmalls.com, Anthony at Ace's Adventures, Nicholas M. DiMaio of The Caldor Rainbow, Ron and Kristen of UniComm Productions, Anthony from Faded Commerce, Adam from The Vintage Spaces Channel, Ashley, The Neon Explorer on Instagram, Pat and Heather from Raw & Real Retail, Jon Rev of [jonrevProjects], and Salvatore 'Sal' Amadeo of Quite Studios, all of whom are active members of the Dead Malls Discord.
In his video, Century III Mall In Extremis, and Le Flâneur de Beaudelaire, the 36th of his Expedition Log Series and sequel to another video about Century III Mall, Sal and other members of the dead mall community meet at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania for the Inaugural Dead Mall Summit of 2018. It was an event open exclusively for the members of the Discord sever and it mostly took place in the area where Century III Mall is located due to the over-saturation of malls in the area. Therefore most of them were in stiff competition. The main focal point of this video is an analysis of the philosophy of Le Flânuer, which was introduced by 1800's poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire in 1872 and how it relates to the explorations of dead malls (or urban exploration in general), some of which these theories influenced the ideas of Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. Although the ideas Sal expresses in the video are speculative, he brings up some very interesting points and details as to how Le Flânuer relates to urban exploration and the art world, (specifically during the time period of the Impressionist painters such as Degas, Monet, Caillebotte and Renior) as well.
Early on starting in the 11:35 minute mark, Sal talks about how he got into the urban exploration community. He mentions that his interest in urban exploration peaked "quite sometime ago" and that he would venture out into the woods with friends, not to film, but solely out of intrigue. When he discovered Dan Bell's channel, "the interest really kicked into high gear because [he] learned that people were gathering and doing [urban exploration], that there were more people out there that were doing it and since then, [Sal] wondered why? What draws us to that? And if this is a new thing or not?". This is an important question to consider because although dead malls and other such urban exploration videos have gained popularity during the late 2000's and the 2010's, the concept of sharply observing society's urban areas, even in the most obscure corners dates back much further than it would seem.
I won't go into the history of how shopping malls came to be, since it's not the point of this blog post, but the history provided is still worth noting. It starts at the 13:10 mark. Later, around the 30:29 mark, Sal discusses the role Le Flânuer plays in the history of urban exploration. Starting in the nineteenth century, the world began to flourish with urban growth, mainly noted in Paris, France and in the United States. All over Europe and the United States, arcades opened and this concept of indoor shopping centers began to accelerate all across the globe. As Sal highlights:
"This idea of a vast interior shopping center was gaining traction around the world. This intense expansion of commerce was causing social waves among the classes and philosophers were beginning to take notice of a new type of urban figure who reveled in the details of architecture and observing the less traveled paths in a city and within buildings. This new urban figure was coined by Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal or The Flowers of Evil, and refers to somebody who observes a newly industrialized city and its structures while just taking a walk, pondering the philosophical implications of what these new passages and arcades have on society and looking for the secrets that common passers-by would otherwise miss."
This is where the term, Le Flânuer originated. In Sal's opinion, this term might have paved the way for today's urban explorers.
At the 40:50 mark, he goes on the explain that the French verb means to stroll as the noun is used to describe someone who strolls and "wants to discover the secrets of public passageways, arcades, tunnels backstage areas and the like and to see what the general public might never notice". Anywhere most people never walk, le flâneur will step just to take in every little detail one might not ponder on. As a result, this concept became prevalent in Paris, even among professions throughout the Impressionist period, such as the artists of the time. Monet, Caillebotte, Renoir and Degas were all deeply immersed in the concept, that they would venture down less visited paths to paint images of areas and scenes viewers rarely noticed, if at all. Sal offers an analysis of the Caillebotte painting, The Young Man at His Window (1875) as an example of how Le flâneur is depicted in the works of these painters:
"[R]ather than the view of what the man is seeing, you see the man, the man's pose, an orange, velvet upholstered chair and the marble guard just past the window. The idea is that you are now the spectator, gaining an intimate view of something you wouldn't otherwise see. We don't see the man's face or what he sees because he's not the focal point of the composition. The idea of spectating is the focal point".
The backstage areas of performing art centers depicted in the works of Degas are another instance we learn about in this video. Degas painted what happens behind the curtain, all of which is invisible during a stage show. Monet also took his easel and art utensils, ventured into the back of a train station, went behind the rails and illustrated what passengers almost never see. These famous painters might just have been the first urban explorers in Sal's point of view. Given the similarities between today's content creators capturing these mostly abandoned places on camera and the Impressionists painters painting subject matters most people don't typically consider, the commonalities are very uncannily striking. In Sal's narration, he goes on to say the following:
"These in my opinion were the first urban explorers and they brought the idea of preserving a scene for purposes of exposure and archival to mainstream audiences. These people were exploring places that passers-by would never see and they were painting these places. They were capturing that moment and showing other people what they aren't noticing in their daily travels. How fascinating is that that these people were going out and doing urban exploration well before this ever became a popular thing? And now their art is selling for millions".
Next, we hear about Walter Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher from Germany. Before World War II broke out, Benjamin wrote about Le Flâneur, describing it as a representation of modern strolling into the urban culture, walking through the crowds at the arcades and coming across every brand new, shiny thing behind glass. Benjamin believed that because of the rapid growth in which urban culture was increasing along with the changes in socio-economic leanings in Paris at the time, Le flâneur as a trend began to soar. According to Sal's commentary, "[t]his change, which was rooted in budding capitalism, involved the creation of the of the arcades, which again, were the passageways through neighborhoods, which had been covered with a glass roof, embraced by marble panels, so as to create a sort of interior exterior for vending purposes". From Baudelaire's observations, the reason the passageways in which the arcades were designed with such style and grace especially in their shops, was because the concept behind the shopping arcades was to be seen as a small scaled city or a new world. On a social level, he perceived the arcades as a means for visitors to find a relief from the complications and/or monotony of daily life. Taking a leisurely stroll, he'd observe everyone and everything for both pleasure and gaining new insights into what is beyond the surface level.
After describing the feeling of going inside the active JC Penney and then returning to the lifeless mall, Sal delves a bit further into Walter Benjamin's philosophy, pin pointing that "Benjamin laments on the extinction of Le flâneur, who disappeared as the commercial world slowly deserted the interior exterior of arcades for the carpeted, artificially lit department stores that were to replace them". He then quotes Charles Baudelaire in which the main point was that even as the arcades would soon fall out of favor to department stores, Le flâneur will still roam even through such changes. From Benjamin's perspective, the more commercialized, the less Le flâneur would have an incentive to stroll whereas, Baudelaire's saw it as regardless of changes, the explorer will always have a reason to stroll the walkways.
In any case, as arcades evolved into department stores and from department stores to the major shopping mall, the idea for the places in which the public shopped was for them to be pleasing on the eyes and offer a delightful experience for the customers. With the rapid rate in which shopping malls are dying, Sal reminds the viewer that "the same notion of Le flâneur captured the minds of modern day urban explorers" and that the buildings they set out to explore "were something that the public would no longer see because they were being demolished and removed from our everyday lives". Like the mindset of the artists of the Impressionist period, today's urban explorers "felt an urge to capture [the structures'] last moments or moments that society either forgot about or will never see again to preserve what once was for future generations". Just like how the painters of 1800's would use their art to delve into and preserve what the general public didn't see or didn't realize they were taking advantage of, the urban explorers of the 21st century are always capturing what people miss through the lens of a camera.
Sal concludes his observations with this statement:
"While Le flâneur was the rise of interest in seeing these places, Le flâneur gave rise to the Impressionists, who went out and found places of interest that nobody saw and painted those things so that we can see them. Their senses were then dulled by the artificial department stores, which were just bland and bleached out inside until you got stores like Wanamaker's and such, which were gorgeous.
But, for the most part, in the rural sections of the department stores were pretty boring and Le flâneur didn't want to see it anymore. But once these places started crumbling and growing mold and trees inside of the mall where the carpet was, this was a wholly fascinating experience and a cathartic one, too because as the urban explorers were seeing these things, the mall was closed, the department store was closed and nobody would see it, so they began capturing these events as the Impressionists did back in the 1800's and showed the public because it was fascinating. The pedigree of modern day urban explorers in summation comes the idea of Le flâneur and the urban expansion in the 19th century. Urban explorers get their roots from Le flâneur and the Impressionist painters of the 1800's"
While Sal makes it clear that this is just his own speculation based on his own research, it's easy to see the similarities between the Impressionists and today's content creators on YouTube. As someone who shoots to write and draw her own stories that dispel expectations and strives to offer new insights into expected ideas, I find Sal's analysis not only insightful, but accurate. As both the Impressionists painters and urban explorers show spectators of their art new insights into the things they take for granted or don't usually give a second thought to, they utilize creative means to expand the boundaries of their expectations and challenge their perceptions. Our perceptions might deceive us into seeing only what is on the surface without questioning if there is more beyond that surface layer. Once the spectator takes a moment to remove that surface layer, uncovering the underlying details, the spectator can't help but discover new insights into what they thought they knew. Urban explorers, through the content they produce use video as a means to communicate such ideas as the Impressionists did through painting. Works of art indeed are supposed to invoke, not only emotions, but new insights as well. If an urban exploration video inspires a viewer in such a way that offers the new insights and suspends what was perceived early on, the modern day urban explorer successfully accomplishes what the Impressionists accomplished centuries ago.
When walking into a coffee shop or a store at a mall or a lifestyle center, some of these places might have a floor decorated with a pattern entirely made up of tiles. Sure, it's not the first thing we think about when walking in, but we might be aware that the color of the tiles are purposefully set up to match the store's brand color scheme, but could something as simple as floor tiles tell a story we often overlook? In an episode of NHK World Japan's The Mark of Beauty, hidden stories are not only told, but there is a level of craftsmanship that makes tiles into a true work of art.
The Mark of Beauty is an NHK World Japan original documentary series that centers around the arts and crafts unique to Japanese culture. It features the art of everyday life arts and crafts that go unnoticed at a first glance, but upon close examination, there is a greater depth and meaning which creates the beauty of such techniques. The episodes center around topics such as the craftsmanship behind embroidery, jade, kiriko cut glass and lacquer-ware. The episode delving into the art of tiles stood out the most to me because whenever one steps into a store or shop decorated with tiles, the last thing that comes to mind is how can it be seen as an art form. Within the three main categories, Style, Versatility and Art, the viewer receives new insights into how something so simple as the way tiles are set up can contain a greater story and craft than they realize.
As Part One of the episode starts with Style, we are introduced to writer, Eri Nishimura and photographer, Junichi Okugawa, who are traveling around Japan taking snapshots of the various tiles they come across. Impressed with the tile work, Okugawa takes pictures of the floor at a shopping arcade clothing store. The narrator then delves into his and Nishimura's fascination on the subject.
"Their love for tiles has culminated into a photo book. They put their feet in the photos for size comparison and also to show that the tiles are indeed on the floor! They say an old shopping arcade is a treasure trove of tiles. Nishimura takes us to a shop that has one of her favorite tiles."
Thus, she leads the viewer to a meat shop, which opened in 1936. It contains such vibrant tiles, shining with reds and oranges with white outlines, laid out in front of the display case. At that point, we hear a bit of backstory behind how such tiles were chosen. "The owner's mother laid these tiles around 1975. She chose this design in hopes of giving the shop a modern makeover" says the narrator. Shop owner, Masayuki Arai tells Nishimura and Okugawa that after plumbing work was being done on the shop, a few of the tiles were cracked, that they had to be replaced. His mother had hoped to find the same colored tiles as the original, but they were so rare, they are practically irreplaceable. Arai goes on to say that "they've been [t]here for so long, so [he's] attached to them". Okugawa "pays homage to the shop's history and snaps a pic", which features Arai's feet standing on the floor as well as another photo with Nishimura's beside his. "It's been taken care of, so the color is still there, not faded. And the cracks in them actually make them tasteful. I feel attached to it and I really adore it" says Nishimura. The narrator then states how much the tiles had supported Arai's shop over the course of four decades, which brings us to the first mark of beauty: "Aging Together". Aside from how long the tiles had been around for, the reason for their selection and what they had endured over the years, even within all their simplicity, they carry a meaningful story altogether. Upon hearing the story behind the tiles, it's no wonder Arai has such a personal attachment to them.
The narrator even goes as far back in history as the 6th century when tiles were transferred over to Japan from China with the example of the Todaiji Temple in Nara. Although tiles were ultimately used in temples to design the floors, it was after the earthquake of 1923 that prompted a more common use of tiles. Since the buildings were wooden structures, making them a fire hazard, this evoked a shift in the type of materials used to build buildings. From wooden structures to concrete ones, tiles became the norm. In the intervening years, they eventually became more and more artistic and stylish as seen in the Tokyo National Museum with a work created by Taishin Ikeda. The wall designed by Ikeda features a pattern of an imaginary flower, which is plastered before the tiles are applied. According to the narrator, "drawing a motif with small pieces of tiles was a revolutionary method at the time" the piece was made. Even in modern times, artisans are always developing new methods to designing with tiles. Contemporary artisan, Amane Shiraishi demonstrates his craft, process and the art behind them by demonstrating the making of a living room wall. The project was made for a client who wanted a 'happy and colorful wall', so Shiraishi explains that he made it colorful, but the important thing was to make it stylish. Citing the works he had been exposed to while being trained in Morocco, he highlighted his observations of tile work done on a mosaic. Along with the array colors used in the design, white tiles were always present between colors. As we often hear the phrase, 'less is more', the end results are a prime example of such. With the large curvy white tiles in the center of each triangular shaped color tile, the ambiance the of wall texture sets a different mood each time of the day. As the sun sets, the bumps in the white tiles change the feel of the setting in the living room than that of how it looks during the day. "And it will watch over this family from here [where it stands] always" says the narrator to conclude Part One of the episode. The tiles will all age together with their own story to tell for years to come.
Part Two, Versatility, as the title implies, delves into the various functions tiles are adapted to. In Kasahara, Gifu, the highest amount of tiles are produced as seen in their shops and cafés. The café featured in this documentary, for example contains colorful tables, decorated with tiles that immediately catches the eyes of visitors. What's even more fascinating is how the tiles are used to create various sections of the shop as if they were separate rooms. This is achieved by decorating the floor with a flower pattern on one section of the shop and using the same pattern, but with opposite colors on the other. The vibe of the pattern feels like a 'charming flower garden' as the narrator describes it. These small sized tiles are used to create a big picture. Café owner, Kumiko Tamesawa offers her insight by indicating that "[t]iles can be used to create designs in infinite ways" and that she "discovered that by just changing the colors you use, you can give a totally different impression". After the narrator highlights how the various combinations of tiles can display an array of expressions, the second mark of beauty is "Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities". Small sized tiles open a window of possibilities for artisans to create an assortment of new patterns as seen in the Mosaic Tile Museum, which is located in the town of Kasahara. The museum itself is a major staple of the town with its historic origins as a town known for its pottery making until the 1950's when manufactures shifted their focus to tiles. Since then, the tile factories produced creative new pattern designs, even drawing inspiration from fashion magazines. "I think most factories then did not have their own designers, so the President or the salesperson of each company were the ones who designed the tiles." recalls chairman of tile trading company and former tile designer, Kazuyuki Nakane "We used to always be thinking of tiles, looking at everything, thinking how they could be motifs for tiles. We were always looking to create new designs". In addition to finding innovative design methods, the traditional means of craftsmanship is still active even in the age of machines. The viewer is then introduced to a tile manufacturing company, founded in 1957, where traditional, hands-on tools are still in use. The viewer then meets a fifty-year veteran tiler named Masako Matsuyama, who demonstrates her process and showcases her craft as well as the reasoning behind her design choices. So, why is such a task still carried out to this day if with all the technology given at our disposal is an option open to designers? "When this is done by humans, you get a soft impression. It's more beautiful!" Matsuyama pinpoints. "When done by machine, it feels calculated". Indeed, there is an organic quality that goes into the craft of tile making that machines simply cannot capture or replicate. This goes to show that tiling is more than just applying a pretty pattern on a wall or floor to simply look nice, but it truly is an art form. This brings us to the final segment of the documentary where Style: Aging Together and Versatility: Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities start to come into full circle.
Art is the third and final segment the episode explores. At this point, we know that style is how tiles age gracefully and versatility is how tiny pieces can paint an even greater picture, but did you know that there are public bathhouses in Japan that contain murals made entirely up of tiles, forming a complete image? A public bathhouse located in Kamigyo, Kyoto has a scenery image on the wall, depicting a lake surrounded by grassy hills, snowy mountains, sail boats and a castle. The lake being placed in front of the bath gives an illusion of flowing water as if the water in the image is flowing into the tub. Because tiles are resistant to water, the mural is still in perfect condition even four decades later from the time it was created, once again highlighting how they age together as well as how such tiny pieces are formed to create endless possibilities. At another bathhouse, located in Itabashi, Tokyo, is decorated with an image of sea fairies, which was completed in 1953. In fact, a Japanese painting piece from that same year also served as an inspiration for its motif. A combination of the light reflecting on the image as well as the steam depicted in the image and coming from the bath give visitors a mystical type of aura. According to bathhouse owner, Shinichi Zenimoto, people post positive comments in their blogs about how relaxed they feel when they see this piece, much to his delight. People even come to the bathhouse because they really want to see the mural. That said, the third and final mark of beauty is "Art, Savored from the Tub". The viewer then receives a glimpse into the creative process behind one of the murals made by architect, Kentaro Imai. The piece he made for a bathhouse in Machida, Tokyo is based on a piece by Yokoyama Taikan. To differentiate his piece from that of the one made by the iconic painter, Imai limits his palette to twelve colors to keep it from being too over saturated in gold. He utilizes a select few yellows and variate with other colors to give visitors the feeling as though they are bathing in the clouds. With a simple color palette, there is a great deal of depth that creates a three dimensional feel. As Imai goes over his process and the reasoning for his design choices, the viewer can see how and why his efforts paid off in the end with comments from guests saying that the mural belongs in an art museum as bathhouse owner, Taichi Tsuchida mentions.
It's interesting and amazing how some of the most everyday structures can be easily taken for granted at a first glance. When taking into account how something seen in everyday life like tiles can be used to create so much more than a commodity, the possibilities start to seem endless. With an array of art styles, to creative techniques, to craftsmanship that can go into tile work, one can garner a new found appreciation of it, be it from the simplest of patterns to more complex variations, to those that form an image. So, the next time you come across a wall or floor with tile work that sticks out to you, don't be afraid to ponder its backstory and ask about it. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.