Public Art, Private Parts

As for future Art in Public Places projects, Rodriguez notes the majority of those currently in the planning stages are earmarked for MIA. Several artists' installations already in progress will help to diffuse the airport's kitschy pastels and neon decor, reminiscent of a Miami Vice set. Incorporated into the walls and other elements of the existing architecture, these works include Maria Martinez Ca*as's engaging 40-foot-high photo mural in Concourse D (depicting evocative images of pre-Columbian statuary, historic maps, and ancient documents), as well as Bob Huff's intricate, abstract tile work in Concourse B. Both projects are nearing completion and will officially open next month.

Some of the most ambitious projects are, logically, destined for the parts of the airport now under construction or renovation, and that includes the international terminal. Also in Concourse A, Michele Oka Doner has created A Walk on the Beach, which consists of 2000 flat bronze sculptures of algae and microscopic sea creatures, crushed shells, and mica, all of which have been embedded in the concourse's expansive terrazzo floor. Designed to evoke South Florida's beaches and shallow waters, the artist's elegant "tidal basin" lends a contemplative, calming sensation to the new area that will eventually be crowded with passengers waiting out long layovers. It too is accessible only to international passengers.

Oka Doner and Janney have succeeded in creating a sensuous oasis, one that reflects the area's natural resources but omits any reference to its grittier contemporary realities. No roar of traffic or Tower of Babel shouts are heard in the Harmonic Runway; no body parts wash up on Oka Doner's terrazzo shores. At the airport, travelers can experience an enviable alternative to the bustling strip malls, violent neighborhoods, and constant clash of cultures that are part of Miami residents' daily bread.

"Airports are gateways into cities," says Rodriguez, explaining the curatorial philosophy regarding works chosen for MIA. "This is the first thing a lot of people see when they get to Miami. In some cases the passengers never actually set foot in the city -- they're just changing planes from South America or wherever. We're giving them the opportunity to experience some of the area's unique qualities and to give them a little glimpse of who we are.

"These artistic environments can create little pockets of positive memory about Miami that people can take home with them," she adds. "And for people who live here, they're sources of civic pride that say something about our community."

Like Miami, other U.S. cities are converting their airports into cultural showcases through art in public places projects. Similarly, those cities are cultivating a kind of site-specific airport art that carries a particular message. "It's sales. Part of what we do is sales," allows Susan Pontious, a curator for San Francisco Art in Public Places's airport projects. "Miami, like San Francisco, is heavy on the tourist trade. Where do you get your first impression of a city? In the arrivals corridor."

On a recent afternoon in MIA's Concourse A, the connecting corridor was sparsely populated. Maintenance personnel, by now oblivious to the bird calls and croaking frogs emanating from Janney's installation, dusted parts of the moving walkway, onto which stepped five Indian gentlemen on their way to London. They looked around with thin smiles and embarrassed shrugs when they heard the animal sounds, and giggled when they passed through the light sensors that triggered a string of high-pitched notes. "Strange, very, very strange," one of them noted. A Miami couple on their way to Mexico came through the security checkpoint and looked around with delight, donning their sunglasses and turning their faces to the ceiling to catch the colored rays.

Having returned from Tampa, Gustavo Matamoros says he'd still like to visit the Harmonic Runway. "I can't say how this piece reflects Miami because I can't see it," he grouses. "I want to know what people coming into Miami are looking at."

Individuals wishing to view Harmonic Runway and A Walk on the Beach should call Art in Public Places at 375-5362.

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