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 February 10 at the Dorsch Gallery in Wynwood.
He 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.
"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.
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."
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 "1001 Dreams of Occupation: What's in It for Me?" conflates issues of postcolonialism and the transient nature of exoticism in a globalized world via 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, half-nude, and seaweed-covered Goth Viking washed up on South Beach by the tides. He has also dressed up as an English beefeater and documented his antics while riding public transportation amid London's befuddled rush-hour crowds.
For Sigurdarson, our city's schizzy cultural DNA and the equally exotic nature of Scheherazade's classic tales 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. "Driving through Miami, it can be difficult to orient yourself," the artist says as he navigates his battered Jeep Cherokee west along a stretch of NW 20th Street. "This city is flat and full of strip malls, where you see the same gas station on a corner next to a market or CVS over and over again. I like to look for markers to get my bearings and familiarize myself with the territory."
He pulls up to the Miami Bakery Café on the corner of NW 20th Street and 22nd Avenue and parks under a towering 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.
He signals toward the Eurasian Hair Ornament and Susy's Maternity Shoe shops. "For me the landscape here is my own exotic desert in a fascinating sort of way," Sigurdarson says. "The beauty of Miami is that it has so many faces. It's like living in another world."
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.
"When I was a boy growing up in Reykjavik, I had a poster of an image by an Icelandic artist named Erro hanging over my bed which often induced a strange reverie in me," the artist remembers. "It featured a reclining Moorish man smoking a water pipe while a giant satellite flew above him in a star-filled sky. For more than five years, I stared at it every night dreaming of the world beyond Iceland."
As he pulls his Jeep out of the parking lot, he informs, "I am having this spinning camel re-created for my show." After adjusting his visor and rejoining the four-wheeled black-top caravan, Sigurdarson drives to a warehouse near an I-95 overpass on the outskirts of Allapattah.
We drop in on Karl Vohwinkel at his studio, where he is carving a Shetland-pony-size replica of the camel out of Styrofoam. "This guy is like a magician with this stuff," Sigurdarson says excitedly as Vohwinkel juggles a hot wire and several sculpting knives to give the animal form.
Sigurdarson plans to paint the finished sculpture white and exhibit it on a slowly rotating platform at Dorsch.
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. "Glenn Curtiss, the developer of Opa-locka, was an aviation pioneer who made his fortune selling planes to the U.S. Navy during World War I," the artist explains.
Curtiss was inspired to create his bizarre development after seeing the 1924 movie The Thief of Baghdad and even built a train station and city hall boasting spiral staircases, onion-shaped domes, minarets, and towers fit for a sheik. When Florida Gov. John Martin toured the site in 1927, he was regaled at the train station by city honchos wearing turbans and Bedouin robes while mounted on white steeds.
That scene must have looked very much like one of Sigurdarson's faded postcards from the colonial days when the first seeds were planted for today's lingering distrust of the West in the Arab world.
In his video, Sigurdarson appears at the train station holding one of his cardboard "Occupy" signs 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.
"While standing there surrounded by these tiled arches and striking Moorish architectural flourishes, I couldn't help but think of those people who died during the Arab Spring fighting for freedom in their public squares," he says in a hushed voice. "Over here, people see the Occupy protesters and they sometimes think it's kind of like, 'What's in it for me?' So I want to question that attitude with the work."
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 and a reminder that the United States remains mired in a war on the other side of the globe.
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"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."
The Dorsch is also opening "The Politics of Time" by Kyle Trowbridge and "Magnetic Poetry" by Carlos Rigau.