Art As Pageant

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

The first thing Miralda is likely to do when he visits a new city is go to a food market, and any time he is bored or blue the cure is a trip to the supermarket. On a recent morning, he headed to the Miami produce market in Allapattah, where he amused himself for several hours taking pictures of bundles of sugar cane, squash in net bags, and sacks of rice. He also chatted with vendors from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Next he stopped at a store in Little Haiti and bought an armload of tropical fruit sodas, choosing them for the bright-color graphics on the cans.

Miralda shares a high-ceiling Miami Beach townhouse on Espanola Way with Guillen, a space that also serves as his studio. The kitchen counter is covered with carefully chosen foods, folkloric souvenirs, and household saints from different countries. Miralda gleefully points out some of his latest purchases: a carton of Soy Dream soy milk with a rather erotic picture of splashing white liquid on the cover; phallic Gerber Graduates chicken sticks for babies; instant soups by a company called Fantastic Foods.

He has been hired by the organizers of the next World's Fair, to be held in Hanover, Germany, in the year 2000, to design the exposition's nutrition pavilion. While this is an appropriate position for the artist to hold, given that he has been involved with both food culture and large groups of people for so long, he is an unusual choice considering the official, international character of the fair. Miralda has made a scale model of the pavilion, which will include a winding passageway shaped like an intestine, a "garden of edible delights" growing on a compost wall, a display of potato clocks he is working on with a team of Finnish scientists, insect delicacies, and (if animal rights activists will permit it) an exhibit of grazing cows.

One feature of the pavilion will be a large screen on which recipes will be projected. In an attempt to create an archive of traditional dishes from all over the world, Miralda has begun gathering these recipes, establishing "bureaus" in different cities. The installation at MAM featuring the tongue photos will serve as one collection site. People can also send recipes to the www.foodculture.com Website.

"What we're looking for is the inner life that recipes reveal," says Maricel Presilla, a food historian who is assisting Miralda with the project. "They're like road maps and codes. It all goes back to the definition of what a recipe is and what a grandmother is. A grandmother is not just a woman of a certain age, she's someone who is a link between past and present. She's the person in the house who keeps the fires of tradition burning, and that person could be young or old. 'Grandmother' is really a metaphor."

Miralda's idea has already been met with enthusiasm by customers at Big Fish. On the afternoon of the photo shoot, one Peruvian woman showed Miralda her great-aunt's recipe book, handwritten in a beautiful script, while the artist oohed and aahed. At another table a man from Spain eagerly shared his recipe for fried anchovy spines.

This is the kind of reaction Miralda had hoped his call for recipes would elicit. "Food is a language we all understand," he says. "It's understood in Hong Kong the same as in Zaragoza. Today all of us are controlled by the mass media, but you have your grandmother's recipe, and you read it and you remember a day your grandmother made you rice pudding. Maybe your grandmother was Spanish and made it one way, or maybe your grandmother was Russian and she put some vodka in it. Foods are common symbols that at the same time mark the differences between us. People are beaten down by the system, they're manipulated and their cultures are homogenized. But at the same time, we have this crossing of cultures that's taking place -- and that's what saves us all."

On the shady back patio of the Palacio de los Jugos on West Flagler Street, Cuban families dig into huge pork sandwiches and homemade tamales, typical Latin American square patties of corn meal and pork wrapped in corn husks. Miralda is busy taking pictures of a man selling lobster out of his van. The artist sits down, and he and several people at neighboring tables are soon calling back and forth, trading Spanish proverbs, which the artist is delighted to learn are the same in Cuba as in Spain.

Settling down to eat, he instead picks up a tamal and uses it as a visual aid to explain his philosophy of art. "My view is, Why can't we start thinking of this as a sculpture?" he asks. "Exploring the texture and the shape, and imagining what's inside, what's going to come out when we open it."

Miralda has always seen things in a particular way. Growing up in Terrassa, just outside Barcelona, he was expected to join the family textile business. "They had a desk waiting for me," he recalls. "My natural instinct was to say no to that. Why do I have to wear jeans and sit at a desk in a textile company and go on vacation? I hate jeans and I hate vacation."

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