One of the Museum of Contemporary Art's first exhibitions since the very public dispute between the City of North Miami and MOCA's former board, "Alternative Contemporaneity: Temporary Autonomous Zones" presents works by more than 50 of Miami's established and emerging artists. The show seeks to create a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ), "a temporary space that eludes formal structures of control... thus creating the foundation for authenticity and spontaneity."
The exhibition's title is drawn from a term coined by poet and anarcho-immediatist Hakim Bey in the early 1990s and is meant to indicate a politically radical shift. Both exhibition and name are surely meant to be a clear directive from the museum, to reintroduce itself as a space of open expression, a space — free from hegemonic practices — where radical ideas can flourish. MOCA contends that in Miami-Dade's current social and political condition, artistic production is the "last place where freedom and individuality can be expressed."
The exhibition's curator, Richard Haden, says he sought artists that speak truth to power through their work, challenging social or political constructions that inhibit the creation of true "autonomous zones." Some of the works were created specifically for the exhibition, while many others were selected for their thematic fit; the majority of the works have been previously displayed at galleries, museums, and art fairs.
It's difficult to view "Alternative Contemporaneity" without considering underlying museum politics. This is not because the show is overtly political; on the contrary, the exhibition's curatorial message is almost completely lost in translation. In an attempt to offer an alternate forum where free expression and autonomy reign, MOCA has instead presented an exhibition that is both unorganized and confounding.
The show's failure in no way reflects the quality of the works exhibited; if anything, it's an abuse of Miami's emerging and established artistic talents. Haden was appointed by MOCA's director, Babacar M'Bow, to conceptualize and execute an exhibition for the conflicted museum, a museum that was once a pillar of progressive contemporary art practice and today is the subject of local and national media attention.
The highly publicized dispute between the City of North Miami and MOCA's former board of directors, who fled to form the Institute of Contemporary Art, has left many community members with questions concerning the future of the museum. Presumably, the exhibition was meant to introduce and establish, or at the very least create a conversation around, MOCA's new identity.
MOCA's intention for declaring itself a radical, expressive space becomes apparent with the manifesto included in the catalog, a tirade that airs the museum's dirty laundry and accuses its former board of a number of unforgivable sins.
Haden contends that TAZ is a way for the museum and the artists it showcases to speak to power — a means to live authentically without being controlled by money or greed. Unfortunately, this is a war in which everyone loses: The departing board took with it a large number of important works in MOCA's permanent collection, and the resulting turmoil has caused a ripple effect in which endowments, grants, and private donations to the museum have been significantly diminished. The result is fewer staff members, lower-quality programming, and dwindling public education programs.
Sadly, the lack of funding is apparent throughout the exhibition, which seems haphazardly thrown together. Though it's true the curators didn't have much time to organize and install the exhibition, the final product is confusing. Rather than display information cards next to each work, the works are assigned a number. A pamphlet details each artwork's information next to its corresponding number. The pamphlet is organized alphabetically by the artist's last name instead of chronologically, so locating the corresponding number within the pamphlet — which details nearly 60 works — is daunting and time-consuming. Even more troubling is the fact that much of the information printed on the pamphlet is incorrect, according to an artist who spoke to New Times during MOCA's April 5 open-format discussion about the exhibition.
Unfortunately, despite the caliber of the artworks, the exhibition fails to illustrate how these works together can constitute a TAZ. In a letter published in the exhibition's catalog, Bey writes, "I don't think anyone can simply decree a TAZ — but I do believe we can act in such a way as to evoke one." That seems to be precisely what the curator has done here: He has declared the exhibition a TAZ as a means to attack a model, without providing any evidence that the works within the exhibition actually achieve that feat.
Despite the messy presentation, the show highlights a number of poignant works. Guo Jian's Mock Tiananmen Square, a replica made entirely of raw pork encased in a six-foot-wide Plexiglas case, is a commentary on Chinese politics and the infamous 1989 massacre. Guo's work was radical enough to garner the attention of Chinese authorities; in 2014 the government detained the defiant artist for 15 days.
Buil presents a human-like sculpture distorted by gluttony. An accompanying video shows the artist, wearing heavy geisha makeup, continually gorging on food. She seeks satisfaction that cannot be fulfilled.
A more literal interpretation of the theme is depicted in Orestes de la Paz's celebrated Making Soap, a multimedia and performance piece that received widespread critical acclaim when it debuted at the Frost Art Museum in 2013. A video shows de la Paz undergoing liposuction; later he uses the fat to make soap. Viewers are invited to wash their hands with his stomach-churning DIY soap, a statement about our willingness to do nearly anything to chase elusive concepts of beauty.
While many of the works are thought-provoking and smartly draw on social or political themes, other pieces seem out of place. Many seem to have been included simply because the exhibition's overarching purpose was to showcase some of Miami's most celebrated artists, for the mutual advancement of the artists and the museum. It's painfully apparent that MOCA wants to demonstrate that it still has the clout to lure topnotch talent.
The curators, in both manifesto and exhibition, take great care to discuss how the problem with Miami's museum culture is the lack of public engagement, a belief with which many community members wholeheartedly agree. But by concentrating on the already-public dispute — one that seems settled, legally and otherwise — MOCA does little more than harm its credibility and reputation.
It's difficult to imagine that within the utopian space of a TAZ, there's room for such pettiness, particularly when its mission is to effect real change. If MOCA is to be regarded as the only Miami museum to engage its community free from the artificiality and false pretenses associated with the city, it would be a far wiser idea to let the exhibition — namely, the quality of its works — speak for itself.