Smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk along Washington Avenue stands an old bridge tender's house, a small steel hut that once upon a time overlooked the Miami River. The presence of this glistening anachronism in the heart of South Beach is weird in itself, but what's even weirder is the bespectacled woman sitting, inside broadcasting passages from a history book through two speakers. As the midafternoon traffic bustles by, she reads to pedestrians some rather esoteric stuff about the art of Chinese printing.
Maria Gonzalez speaks into a headset in an even and silky voice: "The block-printing techniques of this ancient folk art led to clear and durable impressions." Some people stroll by indifferently; some hesitate for an instant and look back in baffled amusement; a few stop to listen for a bit as they scrutinize the tender's house.
Whenever anyone makes the slightest gesture of interest, Gonzalez looks up from her book, waves, and offers a cheerful "Hi!" A teenager in baggy clothes stops to make faces through the window, asking whether he can come in to read, too -- a request Gonzalez politely denies. Later a couple of young executive types strike up a conversation, and Gonzalez describes what the heck it is she's doing in there.
She has to do that all the time. Gonzalez isn't running an information kiosk for the city, as passersby often assume. She is an artist, and this is her latest project. The Bridge Tender's House stands outside the Wolfsonian-FIU, a museum of art and design that restored the structure, built in 1939, after it was retired from its post on NW 27th Avenue in 1993. In the past few years, the museum has commissioned local artists to create works that complement its collection, displaying them in the historical landmark.
And now it's displaying Gonzalez. The artist is part of the artwork, a conceptual piece she calls LIBRARY: Readings/Visual Investigations. Since October 7 she has been perusing a variety of books that will inspire her to create an installation of objects, images, and texts inside the house. Gonzalez primarily works with complex, multimedia installations, and she always does extensive research before beginning. But for the first time, she's presenting the research as another "layer" of the aesthetic experience. "This is my workspace," says Gonzalez, who will continue to work in the house until January 26. "I want to show people how it's happening. I want them to see progress."
Gonzalez usually reads twice a week, for several hours a sitting, and shifts easily between her disparate areas of interest. One is the tender's house, its operation and its history. Another is the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, which the Wolfsonian-FIU is spotlighting in an exhibition titled "Leading 'the Simple Life.'" As Gonzalez reads she plans changes in her surroundings. She jots down words that strike her as important, prints them on transparencies at home, and affixes them to windows encircling the structure. Gonzalez also has begun preparing objects. On a table against the wall she has arranged an antique-looking address book, two clothespins pinching a needle, a worn pair of white socks, and a bundle of blue string. Each rests on a numbered sheet of black construction paper.
In the coming weeks, Gonzalez will stop reading and start transforming mundane objects like these into "bookworks," incorporating pages of text into them. Gonzalez explores the ways objects function and how they tell stories about their former owners. "What I do is visual investigation," she explains. "I'm a detective. I learn as much as I can about this amazing world, which is filled with amazing things."
But the Bridge Tender's House is only the beginning. Gonzalez will move on to other locations, where she will also read aloud as she intermingles objects with texts. Possibilities include a construction site, a park, and a nursery school. It may be several years before she assembles all her handiwork into a finished piece, what she envisions as a "library" of her observations. Until then people will keep doing double takes as they walk by, and wondering about art in the most unlikely places.