Art As Pageant

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

Even more stifling than the idea of a bourgeois existence were the realities of life in Spain in the Fifties under dictator Francisco Franco. Miralda recalls a repressively controlled Barcelona in which popular festivals and public dances were monitored by the guardia civil. For Miralda the Spain in which he grew up was frozen in spirit, and virtually colorless.

"There was one black man in all of Barcelona," he says. "He happened to be the lover of my neighbor. I was so lucky I could see his skin, the way it shone. I could hear his accent. Differences are what make things interesting." He decided to go in search of those differences. "The most important thing was to get out of Spain. I wanted to see what was really going on."

Miralda won a six-month scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He took the money but never entered the school, except to eat in the cafeteria. Instead he began making a living as a fashion photographer. Then he was drafted into the Spanish military; he went home to complete his service lest he be exiled from his country and his family for refusing.

Returning to Paris two years later, in 1967, he began exhibiting drawings of soldiers and put up his first installations, which used plastic toy soldiers to suggest the absurdities of war. It was the time of the student riots in France and of the Vietnam War.

Miralda soon met and married another artist, Dorothee Selz. Though they later divorced, while together they began making edible objects, and then turned a gallery into a restaurant, serving dyed and color-coordinated food to guests. Miralda recalls the venture being a success because someone threw up and the vomit was bright green. "I was always interested in color and the symbolism of color, and food was like a direct line to that symbolism and to the people," he says. "What we were looking for was participation."

He is definitely a product of the Sixties: Artists were exploring new ways of making art, staging happenings, collaborating on multimedia works that dealt with social and political issues, and bringing popular culture into galleries and museums. But Miralda insists that what he was doing was always a little different. "For some people it was or continues to be theater or performance," he explains. "But what I do is not a performance or a happening, because no one's directing what's going on. It's not planned. The idea is to prepare the terrain for things to happen, to create the possibility for participation, for interaction, for ceremony.

"We never knew how to explain this work," he goes on. "People are always trying to define what I do. Instead of sitting around and talking philosophy, I'd much rather just do something and see if it works."

While they may be skeptical at first, those who have gotten involved in Miralda's projects tend to emerge feeling enlightened, as well as enamored of the artist. Maricel Presilla, who has a doctorate in medieval history, first helped Miralda conduct research into medieval banquets. Soon she was cooking food for the Liberty/Columbus wedding feast in a homeless shelter in Las Vegas. The meal was served to 600 guests out of the trunks of 22 white limousines. "It was insanity in the name of art," laughs Presilla, who lives in New Jersey. "Miralda is a magician. He has the incredible ability to work miracles from nothing."

Montse Guillen met Miralda nineteen years ago in a restaurant she owned in Barcelona. At the time, she agreed to bake 1000 loaves of bread with flutes inside them for one of his projects. They have been together ever since. In the early Eighties they opened El Internacional, a fantastically decorated tapas restaurant in Manhattan that quickly became a hip spot among the downtown crowd.

By the end of 1992 the pair felt burned out on New York and decided to come to Miami, with the intent of traveling often to the Caribbean. When they first moved here Guillen ran the kitchen at the Shabeen Cookshack in Miami Beach's Marlin Hotel. "People enjoy working with Miralda so much because he never tells anyone what to do," she says. "Miralda gives you a problem and lets you solve it yourself. He inspires you to learn new things, and at the same time you learn about yourself. With Miralda you're always discovering something you didn't realize was there."

Finishing his lunch at the Palacio de los Jugos, Miralda picks up his camera and resumes taking pictures. He focuses on a plastic bag full of rotten bananas hanging from a tree, likely a Santeria offering. Then he gushes with approval over the composition of a coconut and a can of Coca-Cola sitting side-by-side on a table. The smell of grilled meat is in the air. Salsa blares from a car.

"Everything in society is so controlled that people don't participate," he complains. "The structures are made so that you're convinced you can't understand something because you don't have a degree or you're not cultured. Why do people think that to understand art, everyone has to understand the message and the line and the composition. Why?

"Look at this," he says, gesturing to the people eating around him, enjoying the food, the day, and each other. "This is life. This is what people understand.

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