Hannah Quimper-Swiderski fondly remembers her 13th birthday party at West Edmonton Mall, a "first taste of real independence" where she could wander with friends without parents in tow in "this magical place that I could only get to go to sometimes."
Such are the memories that fuel THE MALL, an exhibit co-curated by Quimper-Swiderski and Carolyn Jervis that "explores what continues to inspire artists to make work about the former largest mall in the world."
The exhibit, which opens this week at Mitchell Art Gallery at MacEwan University, features works made between 1986 and 2022 by artists from here and elsewhere who have something to say about a phenomenon that has loomed large in Edmonton's psyche since Phase 1 opened in 1981.
"It goes without saying that it is an important place here," Jervis told Taproot. "But in that significance, I haven't really seen a project within the arts that has thought about its cultural significance."
Among the works in the exhibition is Perch Menagerie, a piece of performance art that Cindy Baker will present at the opening reception on Jan. 19. In it, she "aims to recreate the original opulence of the mall by becoming one of the exotic objects of excess on display." The reception also includes Dress Like Cheyenne ᑭᒥᐘᐣ, an interactive experience created by Cheyenne Rain LeGrande, featuring two favourite mall activities: shopping and visiting the photo booth.
The curators were deliberate about reflecting what's both fun and fraught about the mall. While some works riff on the cheesiness, the excess, and the mall's strange history with captive animals, others pull on nostalgia, wonder, and delight.
"This is not a scathing indictment of the mall," Jervis said. "More like a love letter than a takedown," added Quimper-Swiderski.
"I grew up spending way too much time at WEM in the 90s and I will still find any excuse to stop by today," Wiercinski writes in her invitation to submit memories. "I'm wondering: what have we all been up to in there for all these years?"
Another interactive element is a special edition of Hungry Zine on the topic of mall food. Submissions close on Jan. 24, and the finished magazine will be available at the exhibit's closing reception on March 30.
"It seems to me that food is a really important part of the West Edmonton Mall experience," Jervis said, noting the memories associated with food courts, Bourbon Street, T&T Supermarket, and such. "Hungry Zine is the perfect steward of that project."
At the Mitchell, the programming is as important as the exhibitions, so this level of interactivity isn't unusual, Jervis said, recalling for example the POPOPOPOPOP collaboration with Big Rock Candy Mountain and students from John A McDougall school in 2020-21.
"I like to embrace the unexpected and think about connections between high and low culture, unpacking expectations of what it is that art galleries can be and do," she said.