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Why Is Playboy Erecting a Neon Bunny in Marfa, Texas?

by Lauren Klotzman on June 13, 2013

The new neon Playboy bunny and the concrete "box" and car just outside Marfa, Texas. (image courtesy Marfa Public Radio and used with permission)

The new neon Playboy bunny and the concrete “box” and car just outside Marfa, Texas (image courtesy Marfa Public Radio and used with permission)

AUSTIN, Texas — In a strange sequence of events, it seems that the Hugh Hefner Empire wants — and has recently obtained — a lease on 6,500 square feet of land west of Marfa, Texas, which is best known in the art world as the home of artist Donald Judd’s Chinati and Judd Foundations.

The news first trickled out from Far West Texas through an May 30 article from local Presidio County newspaper Big Bend Sentinel replete with diagrams and working sketches, albeit with no comment from Playboy Enterprises or specifically Neville Wakefield, the curator purportedly responsible for the project. It’s worth noting that Wakefield is no stranger to Marfa, he curated Ballroom Marfa’s Auto Body exhibition that was on view from September 30, 2011 to February 12, 2012, and he is also the creative director of Playboy’s Special Projects division — his coming out party last month was featured in the New York Times’ T Magazine.

The unlit Playboy icon. (image (click to enlarge)

The unlit Playboy icon (image courtesy Marfa Public Radio and used with permission) (click to enlarge)

It seemed at first to be some art world pranksterism, but surely enough, this past week brought more news and photographs of the evolving installation outside Marfa, which includes a 13′ x 20′ iconographic neon bunny (atop a 40-foot pole) and a somewhat dystopian-looking installation consisting of a Juddian concrete rectangular cube crowned by a muscle car.

This project, which has been the subject of chatter across the state, seems unlike other projects that riff on Judd and Marfa, both of which possess obvious cachet. Whereas others seem to have approached the Marfa connection with at least some modicum of sincerity, the Playboy project seems to be so overtly, banally commercial that you can’t help but wonder if this cornball cliché has to have another dimension. Perhaps it simply appears more crass than it would otherwise be due to the association: Playboy’s name/brand has devolved from being associated with a Norman Mailer and John Updike-penned ladmag heyday into Reality TV, softcore cable schlock.

Which is only part of why Marfa Residents, who actually comprise a diverse group, despite being often simplistically described as consisting of two factions (“ranching locals” and “art city slickers,” as it were), are — for the most part — up in arms about the thing.

This may be a case of (yet another) media invasion of the once-sleepy town; but whereas 60 Minutes‘ camera crews and Condé Nast quickly left after a few days, Playboy’s lease just outside of town on Highway 90 may be for up to a year, and there are suggestions that it could include plans for a 24-hour video feed, whatever that could mean.

An artist’s rendering of the Playboy outdoor art installation planned near Marfa as rendered in documents filed with Presidio County, Texas. (image courtesy Big Bend Sentinel and used with permission)

An artist’s rendering of the Playboy outdoor art installation planned near Marfa as rendered in documents filed with Presidio County, Texas (image courtesy Big Bend Sentinel and used with permission)

It is unknown as to whether the video feed could be part of a yet-to-be-announced art piece/event or merely a security measure on the part of the corporate sponsor. Prada Marfa, the now iconic piece of sculpture by artistic duo Elmgreen and Dragset (which has drawn a fair share of undue comparison to the Playboy project particularly by people outside the art world), was disfigured mere days after its opening and has sustained numerous acts of vandalism over its eight odd years in existence. When prompted for comment, some speculated on the KRTS Marfa Public Radio Facebook page that the Playboy installation would be “vandalized to the extent of non-use within a month,” while another was more succinct about his thoughts: “target practice.”

Of course, lack of comment on the part of Playboy officials and/or Wakefield makes this all fairly speculative. The rumor mill is high, but there are no concrete details.

Detail and scale of the Playboy Marfa bunny. (image courtesy Big Bend Sentinel and used with permission)

Detail and scale of the Playboy Marfa bunny (image courtesy Big Bend Sentinel and used with permission)

Which is not to say that local sentiment — local or otherwise — is monolithically negative. There are some who like the new Playboy presence, with one commenter on the Marfa Public Radio Facebook page calling the sculpture “iconic” and another declaring “Keep Marfa Weird,” which is an adaptation of of Austin, Texas’s unofficial motto (though Portland, Oregon, and other cities have also adapted the phrase). This neon bunny with “post-apocalyptic” Judd “redo” could be considered part of a lineage in strange, roadside Americana: it is, after all just another weird landmark in the middle of nowhere — an interesting site to see and reason to detour off the highway.

Were it not in the name of “art,” which anything that is erected near Marfa is inevitably compared to and/or assumed to be. In conversation Joe Nick Patoski, writer and frequenter of the area since 1959, told Hyperallergic: “big art is great; big advertising, not so much.” It is hard to disgree with that idea. The beauty of Marfa isn’t necessarily in some untainted authenticity — the landscape is constantly changing — but it is rooted in some degree of isolation from the cacophany of 21st century life. Which is perhaps part of why Anthony DeSimone, a musician, chef, and resident of Marfa for the past six years, declined to saying anything to Hyperallergic except: “Worst thing to ever happen here. End of story.”

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  • wolfspider

    I’ll bet there would have been fewer complaints if someone like, say, Jeff Koons had done this.

    • Kokeehead

      Someone like Jeff Koons did do this. Not quite as good, but definitely in the same mold.

    • Eris de Suzerain

      Let’s stick a neon playboy bunny in your backyard and see if you ask who created the idea before complaining.. No, it does not matter who created the schlock – it’s still schlock.

  • owen

    corporations are people. Now they are artist. :(
    Marfa is over before it began

  • wesleann

    The purpose of art in any form is expression! Despite however you feel about the Playboy connotation, which has always embraced the freedom of expression, the sign itself is a beautiful structure and very cleverly engineered. The sign was built and Installed by Ion Art, a sign and fabrication company in Austin, TX. They do fantastic work!

    • Eris de Suzerain

      It is a glowing interruption to an otherwise dark and gorgeous countryside inhabited by people who like to see stars. Their freedom of expression is trampling on others freedom to see the sky – which is why people live in this area.

  • Wyrt Wicce

    Marfa residents aren’t just “up in arms” about the issue of taste – though in my opinion the decision to erect this neon sign displays pretty poor taste – but there is a counties-wide dark skies ordnance. Less than an hour’s drive away is the McDonald Observatory, where top-notch scientists conduct astronomical research on a daily basis. Residents and businesses of the surrounding towns of Fort Davis, Alpine, and Marfa have agreed to keep bright lights out of the atmosphere in order to limit light pollution. This big honkin’ neon sign 40 miles away definitely violates this ordnance. It isn’t necessary, it doesn’t reflect the culture of the town or region, and it’s blatant light pollution.

    • Mary Lee

      I was thinking the same thing. I haven’t been to Marfa in years, but it was the darkest place I’d ever seen at night — absolutely gorgeous skies. And is this in the vicinity of the famous Marfa Lights?

  • thomy tube

    Oh boo hoo what will the architects, old fart and new fart minimalists and designers do now that their weird snobby hangout has been tarnished.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=578586926 Kristian Narvesen Nammack

    Kind of perfect commentary of how sex and art are both re-staged as commodities. Is David Zwirner the co-sponsor of this ad along with Hugh Heffner?

  • owen

    it cool if it’s prada because it represents wealth. elitism.

    if it’s playboy ooh they represent sleaze.

    what Thomy Tube said “their weird snobby hangout has been tarnished”

  • Skip Van Cel

    If this is true, it is brilliant. If this is fake, it is brilliant. What it states about the commodification of art, commerce and Marfa is absolutely spot on.

  • Skip Van Cel

    If it were richard prince doing it, they would be falling all over themselves to legitimize the work.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      That’s not true.

      • Skip Van Cel

        I think the work is absolutely brilliant, as I stated before. My point is about the people complaining. They seem to be more upset that it is a “corporation” doing it and that somehow it is crass commercialism. But Prada isn’t? Marfa isn’t?

        • Al Quinlan

          There was local concern over Prada Marfa, as well. And Marfa is a diverse town of 2000 people in the high desert of West Texas – not a corporation. Marfa the town is not Marfa the “brand”.

  • JDBRD

    More comments here than most other articles I’ve read in Hyperallergic… nuff said.

  • Scott Martin

    I did my own creative interpretation at Playboy Marfa this week: http://www.martinphoto.com/playboy-marfa/

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