Take a peek inside the gleaming silver bridge tender's house plunked on a Miami Beach sidewalk along Washington Avenue, right outside the Wolfsonian-FIU, and what you see may confuse you. Inside is artist Gareth James's installation called The Department of Revolutionary, Everlasting Material, made with a fragile material: white paper. It's everywhere: covering the floor and walls and composing life-size sculptures of a naked man, a DJ/cop in uniform, two white easels holding two white works of art, and a tiny white box with minuscule words scrawled in a cartoon bubble describing the plot of the film The Man in the White Suit.
Watch that 1951 comedy, which stars Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton, a mild-mannered lab assistant in a textile firm who invents a fabric that doesn't get soiled or wear out and therefore wreaks havoc, and you may end up a bit baffled by the link between the installation and the film. But don't worry; British-born, New York-based James will explain it all to you. In his own way, that is.
Thursday the Wolfsonian-FIU will screen the film, but first James will introduce it by discussing its historic and aesthetic importance and its thematic ties to his project. But don't count on asking him any questions; he'll be there via videotape. "It's not a straightforward presentation," he says in a phone interview from his home in Manhattan. "If you appear there, it becomes a very standard kind of lecture format. But if you use a video, you can work in a quite fictional way. If you're physically there, it's just a fact, and people presume that what you're saying is somehow fact."
Well, the fact is that James is currently working in New York City, where he just completed a one-year residency at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Several months ago, at the suggestion of his friend, Miami-based artist Mark Handforth, James created this installation, one of the biggest in a series he calls "departments." He describes it as "a variety of incongruous elements, which are molded together like music. I tried to work with the different elements in the way in which some things seem out of place. They might not find a very easy way of relating to each other, but the overall scheme has a kind of musical energy to it."
The analogies to music may not be readily apparent, but the inspiration is clearly in the whimsy and antics of the film. The twenty-eight-year-old James remembers first seeing it as a teenager after coming home drunk from the pub on a Saturday night. "It had a strong visceral impact on me at the time," he explains, "but it's only recently that I began to think of it in terms of art."
The film also got James thinking about humor and its power. "The film, which presents this utopia or this everlasting material, I found really attractive," he says. "Normally we associate manifestoes with a type of blind leap of faith into the future, whereas the way utopia is worked in the film is not naive. The greatest thing about the film's approach to utopia is that it's a humorous one. It allows us to deal with quite weighty subjects while being able to laugh. That kind of self-reflection is a really useful strategy for not finding yourself too carried away with your own utopias, but allowing yourself to imagine the jokes of other people about your own obsessions."
In short, James wants people not to take themselves so seriously. According to the artist, when it comes to his project and the film: "The most important thing for me is that people have a laugh. To some extent any laughter that is produced by anything that happens in the world releases a certain kind of very social, political, and aesthetic reaction of some kind. Laughter is really something of a utopian resource." Got that?