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A Fine Sense of Place

Ephemeral: Carlos Betancourt's En la arena sabrosa (detail)
Jonathan Postal

In recent years, a lot of what passes for site-specific art seems like a recapitulation of average moments drawn from the land and environmental art of the Sixties and Seventies -- from Richard Long's grass-walking, to Robert Smithson's invasive Spiral Hill, to Michael Heizer's desert ground-scarring, to Gordon Matta-Clark's urban wrecking.

Back then, during the Cold War and before the oil crisis of the Seventies, the environment wasn't considered so important. Then throughout the Nineties, as anything related to nature became "cutting edge," curators and theorists brought back the tenets of land art. The idea was not to go back to those early "intrusions," but to monumentalize nature inside museums and galleries. It was an interesting development but something was missing: authenticity.

To repeat those pioneer gestures today (as revolutionary as they were) would be irresponsible. The environment, ecologically speaking, has been messed with for much too long. So the derelict inner city has become the "new environment" for two reasons: During the late Twentieth Century, as capitalism's urban utopia failed in its promise of better living, our abandoned inner cities became artists' sanctuaries, "pristine" urban forms. Now those forsaken areas are again attractive to market forces, which have begun to reclaim them through gentrification.

Against this backdrop, I'd like to point to two site-specific initiatives, both created to coincide with this year's Art Basel. A number of the works will be available to the public for limited periods over the next several weeks, and they are worth seeing because they address some of these crucial issues. One project is OMNIART, which commandeered warehouses and streets along NE Thirteenth Street between Second Avenue and Miami Court. Miami artist Tina Spiro organized and conceptualized installations, site-specific work, and street performances by more than 50 artists with encouragement from the City of Miami and the cooperation of faculty, students, and alumni from the University of Miami's and FIU's art departments (Carol Damian co-curated some of the installations). The idea was to present "the neighborhood as a work of art."

For site-specific art to succeed, it must establish a particular relationship with its environs. It must add or contrast meaningful dialogue (aesthetic, social, political) to its surroundings. Rehashing stuff just to fill space rarely works, though regrettably this often happens. On the other hand, it's difficult for a curator to achieve specificity without time and money; some of these projects just happen when they happen.

According to Spiro, OMNIART "was an opportunity to produce an urban intervention," by which she intended to take the normal experience of seeing art in a gallery or museum and transform it into something all-encompassing. You could walk by the art, over the art, into the art. You could touch it, hear it, and smell it. In keeping with Spiro's conception of the neighborhood as a work of art, she built replicas of the area's warehouses and filled them with color photos of the actual buildings. You felt the outside inside, and vice versa.

In Warehouse 1, Edouard Duval-Carrié's big and dramatic head totem, bathed in blue light, looked handsome. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's white sound room was barely discernible and dark -- too cryptic to do anything for me. In contrast, Chris Culver's big mural showed smart geometry and color scheme in rendering urban possibilities that were less than obvious. (Culver just graduated from Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High this past June).

Though Tania Bruguera is an important international performance artist, I wasn't impressed with her Autobiografía, a stage surrounded by white walls, microphone on a stand, and the sound of revolutionary harangues blasting through loudspeakers. The room's cold, intense light and the speech felt too sterile to properly convey the mesmerizing "empty" locus of power she obviously intended. Totalitarianism, as Hannah Arendt and Georges Bataille have observed, appeals to theatrical grandiosity; Castro's revolution is no exception. What Bruguera's site needed was raw spectacle.

The best site-specific work here was Magnus Sigurdarson's massive L-shaped installation of thousands of Miami Heralds -- as if a huge mausoleum -- perhaps an unintended pun.

Warehouse 2 had Hugo Moro's Failed Crop, a dimly lit room with dressed mannequins sinking into the ground, a clever take on how our individual economies are faring in today's global economy. Also witty and fun was Endoderm 2 by Leslie A. Speicher, a pouch-shaped room interior made of glued-together slices of white foam, which felt (without shoes) biomorphically shielding and futuristic.

Mangrove, a drawing series by Xavier Cortada, was elegant and a promising new direction for the artist. Natasha Duwin's Cuntal Objects was an assembly of provocative sculptures representing the female womb -- simultaneously attractive and repellent.

Out on the street was Fernando Calzadilla's peculiar wall installation Open Secret. A number of human silhouettes were sledgehammered through the walls (as if strolling along with us) and illuminated by a yellowish light coming from within the crevices. The result was hallucinogenic. I also had fun with Mark Koven's group of kids performing (quite seriously) their art homework from school.

 

Billie Grace Lynn's colossal (inflatable) white whale entitled Moby Dick, as well as her Dead Mouse (a bleeding Mickey in military attire), humorously conveyed political timeliness and were popular with the public. Patricio Cuello provided a striking counterpoint to the area's dark sky with his festive The Cloud, made of white, red, blue, and yellow balloon-clusters.

Warehouse 3 was OMNIART's pice de résistance. The expansive interior contained installations by Carlos Betancourt, Gretchen Scharnagl, and Kaarina Kaikkonen -- all within axial view. Scharnagl's Küntslicher Walder (Artificial Forest) was a striking assemblage of discarded Christmas-tree trunks hanging from the ceiling. The pruned-shaft arrangement showed a not-so-obvious clearing. One had to walk inside the piece to find a spectacular mass of (dead) bird sculptures.

Betancourt's En la arena sabrosa was an arrangement of almost 6000 sandcastles, molded with a drinking cup and arranged in rows of 54 by 111. The gesture was ephemeral, but the symmetry and repetition of such a simple shape obtained opulence and drama. It had to have been Betancourt's best installation to date.

On the other side of the warehouse was And It Was Empty by Kaikkonen (a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize this year). She employed hundreds of men's jackets and suspended them from wall to floor, eliciting a mesmerizing landscape (Carol Damian co-curated the installation). These three "sites" worked perfectly. They had the right scale, a sense of drama, and engaged their surroundings meaningfully.

Though not everything at OMNIART looked to be site-specific, the scope of the project and the curatorial labor involved made it a very significant undertaking for FIU's and UM's art departments and students. It was the best school-sponsored event Art Basel has seen so far.

OMNIART's warehouses are now closed to the public, though photos can be viewed at www.omniart-miami.com. Warehouse 1 will be reincarnated as OMNIART 2 and will reopen for a limited time beginning January 7 in conjunction with the Art Miami fair. Some works from the other warehouses will be incorporated into a reconfigured exhibit.


Not everyone knows that downtown Miami's Lummus Park (just west of I-95 near the Miami River) contains a long, low coral-rock building that served as slave quarters before the Civil War. The historic structure was later moved to its present location after the park, Miami's first, was created in 1909. This is where William Keddell and Brook Dorsch organized Sites-Miami 2004, with installations by 34 local artists.

When I visited the park exhibition on opening night, some people complained about the lack of visibility, but the existing light was, in fact, appropriate. Michael Betancourt's Ghost, a video projection of an actual enslaved female on a loose white sheet, benefited from the shadows. Lou Anne Colodny's huge photo of an old aborigine fixed on a coral wall (and lit from below) exuded a contained force.

Each installation presented a distinct engagement with the park. Robin Griffiths had a monumental bare tree trunk hanging by ropes and chains in between two massive trees. It looked like a tortured soul without limbs -- a strong reflection on our legacy of brutal slavery. To comment upon the human crisis in Sudan's Darfur, David Rohn arranged a gathering of soiled and mutilated dolls on the park's grass, an open mass grave.

Ralph Provisero's formidable plank sculpture elicited elegance and drama and felt historic, though in a more abstract way. Likewise with Robert Huff's wooden water cistern. These pieces evoked a moment in time before the rise of technology. Carlos de Villasante set a playful mood with his iconic canvases that took the shape of a moving wheel, while Rebecca Guarda's spiral assemblage of fluorescent traffic signals suggested some ancient, labyrinthine blueprint.

On a more humorous note, Kyle Trowbridge played with the idea of the manmade appliance vs. nature. He designed detailed operating instructions and placed them at the bottom of trees, as if they were eco-gadgets. Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz, who collaborate under the name Guerra de la Paz, assembled in a circle colorful headless mannequins holding hands, a strange kind of pre-Modern pastoral gesture.

In his seminal Architecture of the City (1966), Aldo Rossi elaborated the idea of "inventory and memory," a sort of metaphysical space "as if stumbling upon what was already there." OMNIART and Sites-Miami 2004 prompted me to consider a model for site-specific work: organic and solemn, yet without pretentious self-importance; striking a balance between subject matter and medium; and blessed with a bit of humor.

 

OMNIART

January 7 from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., January 8 and 9 from noon to 6:00 p.m. Warehouse 1, corner of NE Second Avenue and Thirteenth Street, Miami; 305-576-2950, www.omniart-miami.com.

Sites-Miami 2004

Through January 16. Lummus Park, 404 NW Third St., Miami; 305-305-7012 (William Keddell).


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