Art As Pageant

Antoni Miralda's studio is the world and you are his subject

As artist Cesar Trasobares recalls, the charismatic Catalan artist's ideas were just too abundant for the festival organizers to bear. "It was a matter of Miralda's ambition going way out," recalls Trasobares, who was formerly the director of Dade County Art in Public Places. He and Miralda have since become close friends and occasional collaborators. "I think they assumed he was going to propose something small, like design a ribbon to cut for the opening ceremony."

But Helen Kohen, who accompanied Miralda during much of his visit to Miami, remembers it a little differently. "It was as if Miralda had come from Mars," she says. "He was never able to do anything he wanted here because nobody understood."

Kohen clearly remembers being present at one surreal meeting Miralda had with the management of the Fontainebleau Hotel to discuss his proposed Fontainebleau Deco Cake. Local Cuban pastry chefs were to have constructed edible replicas of Miami Beach buildings, which were to be displayed in the hotel lobby. "Here was Miralda wearing something like one pink shoe and one orange shoe and a funny shirt and a ponytail, trying to explain his idea to these guys in three-piece suits," Kohen says. "He was totally serious, but they didn't understand each other."

Kohen points out that after just a few days in Miami, Miralda had the prescient notion of celebrating the Art Deco structures. This was almost a decade before the renovation of South Beach, when the area was still a habitat of crack dealers. "Here was Miralda proposing to present these buildings in pretty colored cake icing years before anyone thought of restoring them and repainting them in pastels."

Miralda did create a mermaid-shape table laden with seafood and caviar for the New World festival opening. He was asked to re-create the installation during the festival at the Lowe Museum, but the museum director refused to allow him to display the seafood because of the smell. He had to use pastries instead.

Working outside the commercial art world network in any city, Miralda must depend on sponsorship by cultural institutions, government entities, and corporations to realize his projects. He has thus come to see time spent cajoling bureaucrats as an integral part of his work. "Miralda's more daring projects are absolutely unconventional," Trasobares explains. "Just try convincing people to support them and see how many laughs you get."

Miralda himself cheerfully acknowledges that people have often written him off as a nut. Long fascinated by the rituals surrounding death, he once had an idea for a suicide travel agency that would assist people in getting to the destination where they wanted to kill themselves. He found no backers for that one.

He started and abandoned many other projects for lack of funds. Often when works have had political themes or have somehow been critical of the status quo, sponsors have backed out at the last minute with little explanation. In 1980, for example, Miralda planned a holiday exhibition at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin featuring a Christmas tree made of sausages, which the artist described as alluding to "the analogy between cutting down trees and slaughtering pigs as rituals typical of the winter solstice, and Christmas as a ritual of the consumer society." After the invitations had been sent out, the gallery unexpectedly canceled the exhibition.

Miralda was also disappointed when one of his ideas for the Honeymoon Project, a peace pipe nearly 40 feet long, had to be abandoned. The pipe, which Miralda saw as a provocative symbol of the meeting of the Old and New worlds, was to be sponsored by the California Institute of the Arts. But the Native Americans who were asked to participate wanted nothing to do with anything related to a celebration of Columbus's "discovery" of America. "I've learned that you have to be able to convince people, and to fascinate," the artist says. "And you have to be very accepting and very flexible in order to make things work."

But Miralda's ability to shepherd thousands of participants when staging something as bizarre as the imaginary marriage of two monuments is testament to his determination. Video footage from the time captures boisterous revelers at some events, along with confounded passersby. Sarcastic newscasters constantly mispronounced Miralda's name, and some people they interviewed expressed anger that art had trespassed into territory where it supposedly did not belong. "I hate to see someone get away with something like this," groused a man interviewed at the presentation of the Statue of Liberty's engagement gown, presided over by New York Mayor Ed Koch and city officials from Barcelona.

"Logically, whatever you do there's going to be criticism," Miralda says with a smile. "And that also becomes part of the project itself." From his point of view, the mere fact that so many people participated in the Honeymoon Project qualifies it as a success. The publicity provoked many school teachers to take their classes on field trips to the Columbus monument and to discuss Spain's relationship with America. And when Miralda announced a contest for the best love letter written to either Liberty or Columbus, bags of mail arrived at his door. "My work isn't about instant gratification," he stresses. "It's something much more elliptical. The satisfaction comes slowly, like when you finally see 3000 love letters people have taken the time to write to the Statue of Liberty."

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