Behind the Scenes With Artist Magnus Sigurdarson, Sole Member of "Occupy Opa-locka"
Magnus Sigurdarson stands on the corner of Ali Baba and Barack Obama Avenues in Opa-locka while holding a cardboard sign that reads, "Occupy My Innocence."
"The 'Other' is in the White House," cracks the Icelandic artist, who has appropriated the Moorish-themed municipality as the conceptual stomping grounds for his show opening at 6 p.m., Friday, February 10 at the Dorsch Gallery in Wynwood.
Sigurdarson plans to exhibit photos and a video piece documenting what he calls his "protest" in front of Opa-locka City Hall. There will also be a rotating camel and computer drawings of scenes inspired by French colonial-era postcards depicting life in a Saharan oasis, nomadic encampments, and camel caravans departing for trade on the Silk Road.
In some of his images, the artist appears at various locales throughout Opa-locka, such as city hall and a train station, holding signs that say, "Occupy My Dreams," "What's in It for Me?" and "Fundamentally Right."
Living in an occupation nation
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Sigurdarson, who stormed Opa-locka as an occupying army of one, was the solitary voice in the wilderness because other protesters "didn't get the memo," he jokes. "Hey, I'm not making fun of anyone other than myself," he adds seriously. "I'm turning my sights inward, not out."
His exhibit titled "1001 Dreams of Occupation: What's in It for Me?" conflates issues of postcolonialism and the transient nature of exoticism in a globalized world. The exhibit draws on the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and his own sense of feeling like a nomad since arriving in Miami seven years ago.
Sigurdarson, whose MFA thesis at Rutgers University dealt with the origin of the "Native," typically explores issues of identity in his multilayered, performance-based work. In the past, he's had himself photographed as a sobbing Goth Viking washed up on South Beach and as an English beefeater amid London's befuddled rush-hour crowds.
For Sigurdarson, our city's schizzy cultural DNA provided a fertile backdrop. New Times recently joined Sigurdarson for a tour of some local landmarks he says were part of the inspiration for his current body of work.
This dizzy dromedary prefers the desert to an urban wasteland
He pulls up to the Miami Bakery on the corner of NW 20th Street and 22nd Avenue and parks under a soaring signpost topped with a rotating statue of a life-size camel. "This is not the first animal that comes to mind when you are in Miami," he says, before mentioning that the incongruous dromedary is one of his compass points in town.
Under the bakery's teal-and-pink awnings in front of a sign announcing, "Vendemos Tortillas, Churros y Carne Asada," a ray of afternoon sun frames Sigurdarson's bearded face, giving the impression he is wearing a turban of light.
Soon he begins sounding like a contemporary blond Bedouin on a quest. "I'm more inspired by Sir Richard Burton, who was the original Lawrence of Arabia and the first Westerner to touch the black stone," he says of the British explorer and spy who entered Mecca disguised as a native and was the translator of The Arabian Nights.
After returning to his studio, Sigurdarson grows animated as he talks about the recent uprisings in the Middle East and the Occupy movement in the States.
"Last year the democratic uprising in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria was daily news, and that part of the world is changing faster than we can react. At the same time, the Occupy movement gained steam. I like that... people have had enough with corporate abuses and intrusions against civil liberties," he explains.
"I'm with occupying everything. For me it's all about questioning structures of power." Sigurdarson says he chose Opa-locka as a stage for his work because it has the largest concentration of Moorish Revival architecture in the Western Hemisphere.
In his video, Sigurdarson appears at the Opa-locka train station holding one of the cardboard "Occupy" signs that he says also reference the foreign powers that colonized Northern Africa and fetishized its culture through propaganda and art. He has used Ravel's Bolero to score his video, further freighting the work with a sense of the surreal.
Sigurdarson pauses to mention the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was killed during the 2009 Iranian presidential election and whose death was captured on video by bystanders and broadcast over the Internet. Arguably the most widely witnessed death in history, Neda's murder became a rallying point for those thirsting for democracy throughout the region.
Interestingly, back in 1970, a photo of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway from Opa-locka, also provoked outrage when she was captured kneeling in anguish over the body of a student killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. It is just one of the deeper layers of history informing Sigurdarson's show.
"What is happening in the Arabic world represents a paradigm shift. We can no longer talk about them as the 'Other' now, because we want them to be our friends," he says.
"Stop to think about how rapidly the world has changed. That we elected a president with the middle name Hussein is fucking unbelievable."
Also opening at the Dorsch the same evening is "The Politics of Time" by Kyle Trowbridge, and "Magnetic Poetry" by Carlos Rigau.
You can read full story in this week's pulp edition.
"1001 Dreams of Occupation: What's in It for Me?" February 10 through April 7 at the Dorsch Gallery, 151 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-576-1278; dorschgallery.com. Tuesday through Saturday noon to 5 p.m.
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