LOS ANGELES — Earlier this summer, artists Sophie Lynn Morris and Thomas Macie met at the Burbank IKEA store, grabbed a cup of coffee, and wheeled their carts through the staged display rooms of affordable Scandi furniture and onto the warehouse, blending in with scores of couples, roommates, and families.
Morris looked up precise aisle and bin coordinates she had written down on a pad, but instead of locating flat-packed components for a sofa or table, she found a column that a worker’s forklift had smashed into, leaving a gash in the plaster. She pulled out a tub of IKEA’s MÅLA modeling dough and pressed it into the hole, then carefully removed the cast and stored it safely in a cardboard box like an archaeological specimen. Other coordinates led them to a long crack in the concrete floor, which they covered with sheets of MÅLA colored paper, making a rubbing of the fissure with MÅLA crayons. Macie then found a quiet aisle and took out a handful of pennies, hammering them into the holes of one leg of the shelving units that spread throughout the cavernous warehouse, creating a site-specific work with nods to both Donald Judd’s Minimalist stacks and the modular nature of IKEA’s furniture.
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Morris and Macie are participants in the first-ever IKEA Residency, a non-official, guerrilla program founded by artists and writers Mary Boo Anderson and Zoë Blair-Schlagenhauf. The pair told Hyperallergic that they created the residency in response to the disappearance of public spaces where people can congregate for free. They also cited as inspiration the work of Guy Ben-Ner, who used IKEA showrooms as sets to surreptitiously film Stealing Beauty (2007), a pseudo-sitcom starring his family.
Although it is a multinational corporation, IKEA blurs the line between public and private, presenting a welcoming atmosphere where people can gather, eat a meal, and stroll aspirationally through clean, utilitarian interiors.
“The idea is to capitalize on this mecca of capitalism for more creative, authentic pursuits,” the residency’s website explains. The residency offers no stipend or studio, but instead an open-ended invitation for cross-disciplinary collaboration, conversation, and creation.
After putting out a call on Instagram, they received about 75 applications, from which they chose 14 artists and writers. They grouped them in pairs, linking some based on similarities in their work, and bringing others together whose different practices they thought would make for interesting collaborations. The only stipulation is that each artist pair had to meet at IKEA once, and then rejoin the whole group for a dinner (at IKEA’s cafe, of course) to discuss the experience. The results varied widely, with some duos creating work at IKEA and about IKEA and others simply using the store as a kind of co-working space to brainstorm and work through different concepts.
Morris and Macie’s collaboration addresses controversies over IKEA’s wood sourcing practices and what they see as a policy of “greenwashing” to mask the Swedish company’s deleterious environmental impact. Their rubbings and play-dough castings highlight cracks in IKEA’s serene capitalist facade.
“We’re asking, ‘how can you be an ethical consumer?’” Macie said. “And the impossibility of that,” followed Morris. For better or worse, IKEA is a ubiquitous feature of contemporary American life, offering affordable, well-designed, if sometimes short-lived products. Both artists have previously incorporated IKEA products into their work, evincing their ubiquity.
Rosie Mayer and Emma Peters also sought to undermine the site’s inherent commercialism, covering an IKEA table with their drawings of IKEA furniture and food, filtered through their family memories, and reproduced on a Risograph press. The table will be used as the site of an art swap at Mayer’s art space in Atwater Village, Nova Community Arts.
Jacky Tran told Hyperallergic he had all but given up on the art world recently, having moved from social practice to a more financially stable position as a copywriter. For the residency, he spent a day at IKEA interviewing customers and employees about their lives. “Am I back in Social Practice?” he mused. His interviews will be joined in a zine with contributions from writer Cora Lee, who traveled up from San Diego for the residency.
Artist Michael Haight and writer Leah Clancy spent hours at IKEA, discussing several ideas over the course of two meals, before deciding on a collaboration in which Clancy will craft new narratives based on Haight’s evocative paintings. Haight is such a big fan of IKEA that he traveled to Sweden just to visit the first IKEA store. “It’s like microdosing utopia,’’ he said.
With a nod to Ben-Ner’s cinematic intervention, Caitlin Forst and Robben Muñoz filmed a series of dream reenactments — both subconscious and aspirational — at IKEA featuring their artist friends. Forst notes that IKEA’s maze-like warren of showrooms and “liminal spaces” made for a perfect setting for their fantastical scenarios.
At the post-residency dinner, over plates of Swedish meatballs, smoked salmon, and lingonberry jam, Anderson and Blair-Schlagenhauf celebrated the success of the residency’s initial round, with future editions planned for the fall and winter. They shrugged off concerns that the mega-retailer would go after them in light of IKEA’s official Artist in Residence program, which was announced in April with Annie Leibovitz as the first artist.
“If IKEA sues us, I’ll be thrilled,” Blair-Schlagenhauf quipped. “But I don’t think they’re a very litigious company. It would be one thing if we were wreaking havoc, but we’re using it as the public space that is.”