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This time last year, Bert Rodriguez found himself atop the art world. But by the end of 2008, he had unexpectedly crashed to earth.
Rodriguez, who was in the Whitney Biennial last April, followed his success with projects in Paris and London before closing the year out with the debut of a Stanley Kubrik-inspired work at Art Basel Miami Beach.
"Right after Basel, I got hit by a fucking car," the 33-year-old conceptual artist says. "Doctors tell me it's a miracle I didn't end up in a wheelchair."
Rodriguez says he was riding his bicycle to a business meeting with his art dealer, Fred Snitzer, when he became the victim of a hit-and-run. The driver clipped Rodriguez, who says he was zooming along at 30 mph, hurtling him to the pavement in front of the Bacardi Building at 21st Street and Biscayne Boulevard, where his blood still stains the concrete.
Rodriguez broke his back in three places and sustained a nasty crescent-shaped gash on his forehead that snaked from ear to ear and required 47 stitches to close. Luckily, a passerby stopped to aid the injured artist and called 911.
"I don't remember much about the accident," says Rodriguez, who was in a back brace for three months. "The guy who stopped to help me later told me I was poking my fingers into my head wound and took off my shirt to stop the blood. The survival instinct takes over, I guess."
Today, with the exception of the serpentine scar, Rodriguez looks no worse for wear. "It's incredible; the doctors said I would be recuperating for six months. I didn't even get a concussion," he adds.
Ironically, on display at the Bass Museum of Art is an image of Rodriguez's noggin punctured with scores of staples, eerily reminiscent of his brush with death.
It's part of "In Your Own Image: The Best of Bert Rodriguez — Greatest Hits Vol. 1," his first show since the accident.
The series of works comprise 134 postcards bearing the same headshot of the artist, whose entire head has been shaved.
Last year, Rodriguez printed 1,000 postcards with instructions inviting the public to work his image over by adding hair, clothing, accessories, or makeup using the media of their choice.
The postage-paid cards were left in shops, cafés, and bars throughout Paris and mailed back to the artist after strangers completed them.
Some of them depict Rodriguez sporting a Mohawk, Mickey Mouse ears, a crown, insect antennae, devil horns, Hitler bangs, flaxen tresses, and even a pair of runny sunny-side-up eggs on his pate.
"I've always been intrigued by the Bible phrase that says God made man in his own image," Rodriguez explains. "I wanted to play with the notion of role reversal and let people play creator with me."
Rodriguez says he plans to expand the project to cities such as Nairobi, Berlin, New York, Israel, and Japan. He says he will also publish a book with the corresponding images for each place.
His exhibition — which includes works in a diverse variety of media, such as photography, sculpture, video, installation, and sound — can be considered a sprawling self-portrait in one form or another, Rodriguez says.
One web-based project is iambert.net, in which the artist has set up a computer on a desk he created for an earlier show.
As one clicks on the arrows on the homepage, extreme closeups of tiny sections of the artist's nude body appear.
"It's kind of a topographical map with super-close-up details," Rodriguez says. "It's sort of like the pictures the Mars Rover might take while surveying the planet," he cracks.
Rodriguez says that each year he will add new images to the website as a way of archiving his aging process. "After I die, it will become iwasbert.net and people will be able to see how I decayed over time. The whole piece here at the Bass, including the website, the computer I've worked on, and my desk, completely references my body even if I'm not there."
Another piece that evokes chuckles is My Most Memorable Feature (Red, White, Blue, Green, Yellow), created in a Mold-A-Rama machine. Visitors can drop in a token and walk away with a limited-edition wax facsimile of the artist's schnozz for 50 bucks a pop.
"It's like one of those machines you find at the Miami Seaquarium or Metrozoo where you put in some change and get a dolphin or a gorilla," Rodriguez says. "Literally, people stop me often to comment on my nose, especially elderly women. I'll go to the mall to buy some shoes and crazy old ladies, many who have had tons of plastic surgery, will come up to me with their friends and say, 'Look at his nose — it's perfect. You should get yours done like that.' It's nuts."
The exhibit also features four video works, including Breaking Down and One Minute Man.
In the first, Rodriguez appears to be crying in a succession of images, each of which also shows a single musical note. As the images flicker back and forth, they create what sounds like a disintegrating melody.
For the second video, Rodriguez compressed eight months of porn he had downloaded on his computer into a 60-second money shot. Sweaty, heaving bodies combine to create this blurry, abstract imagery not unlike a sublime Rothko painting.
Perhaps the most iconic piece on display is Rodriguez's Weeping Monolith, which he debuted at the Miami Beach Convention Center during Art Basel last year.
Inspired by Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the black sculpture, fashioned from foam, resin, and Fiberglas, spills a tear every 30 seconds.
"It has all this interior plumbing and works with gravity," Rodriguez says. "It's surrounded by all these Renaissance paintings from the museum's permanent collection with religious figures in them, so it almost takes on the element of one of those crying Virgins that appear to people occasionally."
Rodriguez never stopped working for this show even though he found himself lamer than Lazarus while recovering from the crash, and on opening night, he showed his Bass audience that his resurrection was complete.
In a howl-worthy performance piece titled What a Tree Feels Like, he buried himself like an Indian fakir at the entrance of the museum, leaving only his head exposed above ground as he greeted visitors.
"People were pretty shocked. They didn't expect me to be alive."
As the Bass exhibit shows, he's more alive than ever.