Framed Like Miami

Opening Up The House of Cards sums up our transient, impermanent existence

One of the finer moments I have had looking at contemporary art was sitting on the floor between Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt in front of their House of Cards at the Miami Art Museum. The piece consists of a twelve-foot building made of giant playing cards, supported by wooden scaffolding. Foot-high people mill around on the ground in front of it, creating a distortion of scale by both enlargement and miniaturization. I milled around it myself a few times after Behar brought me in to look at it, and I noticed a sleeping figure up in the scaffolding -- Behar himself, dreaming the whole thing up. The real Behar was sitting on the floor, and I took my place next to him. Marquardt sat next to me a while later, and we looked and talked.

Behar and Marquardt have a gentle, likable, cultivated style that subtly captures Miami-ness. This applies to their persons as well as their work -- they are instantly recognizable, he always looking dapper with his necktie, blazer, and woven straw hat; she crisply dressed and towering over him. In Miami, a city of immigrants in a country of immigrants, a nonnative might have advantages in trying to get at the essence of the place. These Argentine-born artists are able to produce work that addresses aspects of Miami existence while maintaining a delicate tone. Their training as architects, filtered through a lighthearted sensibility, enables them to meditate on the urban fabric with a comic touch.

One enters their installation, entitled "A Place in the World," through two curtains of colored strips of plastic tape. Behind the first is Wheel of Fortune, a carnival wheel marked with the cardinal directions Home and Spin Again. The implication is that the orientation of the world you are about to enter is determined at random, and may possibly -- but not likely -- be home. Behind the second curtain is House of Cards, lit by strings of Christmas lights.

TERESA DIEHL: COURTESY OF MIAMI ART MUSEUM

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Sitting on the floor is a good vantage point for looking at the work -- it puts you at about the level of the little people on the ground. Nevertheless they're too small to relate to directly; they remain part of another world, bringing up the question of whether you, they, or the sleeping Behar are supposed to be the true reality. From the floor, the house of cards looks even more monumental. A recording of planes flying overhead disturbs the silence of the museum. The figures seem to have no purpose in mind -- they suddenly find themselves there, and must figure out what to do. House of Cards has a Borgesian feel about it, in which an anomalous world forces people to accept an awkward state of affairs.

The whole piece points to impermanence and transience. The planes flying by indicate people coming and going, the figures have no place to live, and the house of cards holds up by grace of scaffolding. It is the habit of Miami to tear down any structure more than 40 years old, so this house is an apt metaphor for the mutability of the landscape. We exist as a gateway to -- and from -- South America and Europe, so the planes flying overhead remind us of the mutability of the human landscape as well. But the figures below, despite having nowhere to settle or fit in, seem unperturbed. They are dressed for spring and have calm, happy looks on their faces. They have decided that this strange realm is a good enough place to be, coming to a conclusion not unlike the one some of us arrive at as we live here year after year.

It's ironically apt that this piece comes into existence as the future of the new Miami Art Museum is being debated ("Tumbling Chairs," May 1, 2003). To recap, MAM wants to occupy the last bit of open waterfront along downtown Biscayne Boulevard in a greatly expanded space. A laudable idea -- but powerful people in the art community have doubts about its feasibility and worth. Pressed for numbers and details, the supporters of the so-called Museum Park scenario have a difficult time producing them. The new MAM, in its current state, is an edifice of good intentions, dreams, and desire, and fate could blow it all down -- a veritable house of cards.

It is a pleasure to see pointed, multilayered commentary evoked with such softness and finesse. One needs a little pleasure, because across the hall at MAM is Visual Poetics: Art and the Word, a somewhat interesting but otherwise dry exhibition of concrete poetry and art using text. What's upsetting about Visual Poetics is that MAM has done it before. Former curator Amy Rosenblum put together a New Works show with the same word-as-image theme. It was years ago, and present MAM curator Cheryl Hartup has done it bigger and better, to be sure. But this brings up my primary concern about Museum Park -- the possibility that an expanded MAM will only spin its wheels with greater fury. Fortunately artists themselves don't form a coherent group that would result in a similar hegemony of taste, and the local talents -- including Behar and Marquardt as shining examples -- will continue to go their own way.

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