The Hyperreality of It All
The Museum of Contemporary Art's "Making Art in Miami: Travels in Hyperreality," featuring 22 emerging local artists, is a timely acknowledgment for the arts in this city. In the catalogue that accompanies the show, Bonnie Clearwater, MOCA's director, puts it aptly: "Miami has witnessed ambitious museum exhibitions programs with an emphasis on contemporary art, the growth of strong private collections, the presence of two international art fairs, a recent proliferation of art galleries and alternative spaces, access to affordable studio space, local and international media attention, and the strengthening of the area art schools."
The idea for the show's title comes from a 1975 essay by Umberto Eco that deals with our culture's indulgence in the artificial. In the Seventies Eco toured the United States to get a firsthand look at the imitations and replicas on display in the nation's museums and tourist attractions. His essay "Travels in Hyperreality" describes, with a mix of wit and naivete, an American landscape filled with imitations and forgeries. The United States' habit of mirroring doesn't merely reproduce reality, Eco maintains, but even improves on it. He sees Disney World, with its re-created European main streets, fake castles, and cartoon characters, as the paradigm of hyperreality. Though a little quick in judgment, Eco's critiques remain sound: Our reality can be so banal that Disneyesque hyperreality, is, at times, a welcome alternative.
One senses that attitude in some of the show's works. John Espinosa's installation If you lived here you'd be home already miniaturizes and objectifies the landscape and man, not unlike the "pitch-for-sale" maquettes used by urban developers. The work of Mark Handforth communicates a kind of detached Functionalist humor; his use of Constructivist technology reveals a bit of satire. His big lamp on the floor, or his tipped aluminum pole, titled Self-Employed, can be seen as an homage to a failed project of modernity.
A photographer who indulges surprising pop references is Elizabeth Withstandley, but her photos of cream-pie-smeared faces appear somewhat tamer than her earlier Candy Coated series, shown at Locust Projects in November 1999. The fantastical Baroque musings of the female ass and flora concocted by Naomi Fisher successfully play a seductive game of inviting and repelling, not unlike Giuseppe Arcimboldo's vegetablelike face arrangements. The risk is that Fisher's reiterations, in spite of ingenious combinations, may turn these odd images into ornamental gestures. Friend or Foe, by Beatriz Monteavaro, mocks our culture's thirst for violence. The careful short film re-evaluates notions of good and evil in today's action flicks by portraying the good guys as being as perfidious as the bad guys.
The artist Cooper's Hand-Held is a video installation exploring alienation and life in a stupor. He includes a minitrailer, a dry pasture, a space suit, and a video box that hangs from the ceiling, offering the viewer both a voyeuristic and farcical spectacle. The pink-painted room filled with bubbles that are shot and burst by an electronic device is Eugenia Vargas's Blizzard, which makes us confront different realities. Pink can stand for rosy optimism, but it also strains our deeply ingrained cultural platitudes about color. Bubbles by nature pop and vanish, so they need to be constantly reproduced. Blizzard, more than any other piece in the show, visually and conceptually conveys the idea of hyperreality.
Another important piece is the exhibition's catalogue. Written by Bonnie Clearwater and Gean Moreno, the catalogue delivers an ambivalent premise with a kind of avant-garde affectation. Moreno (who also has works in the show) opens his essay In the Real of the Senses by stating that the "visual cultures of [ethnic Miami groups] have had negligible influence on young artists." This remark goes hand in hand with Making Art in Miami, Clearwater's contribution: "Miami may be the only city in the United States in which [these] artists are considered part of the dominant art community instead of marginalized representatives of other cultures."
Perhaps Clearwater and Moreno believe that in our multicultural environment, young Miami artists need to make a clear break between their ethnic backgrounds and the art they produce. Yet in the context of a contemporary show (in a Miami museum of importance) this cannot avoid being interpreted as a market move to satisfy the expectations of collectors and/or boards of trustees. The more prominent the art, the more attractive to the consumer. Moreno writes, "An art object is ... a public exchange that depends greatly on the viewer's attention and response." This explains Moreno's effort (in his six-page essay) to introduce the show as politically, ideologically, and ethnically uninvolved. He notes, "The emblem of this younger generation is not the fractured city they live in ... but rather a location thoroughly hyperreal." For Moreno it's better to escape to hyperreality than to face his own city's real troubles.
When Clearwater and Moreno use Vizcaya as the paradigm of hyperreality in Miami, they follow Eco's example of Disney World, but avoid mentioning the author's warnings. The Italian critic also said that as we plunge into sensorial hyperreality -- herded into endless lines to have a great time -- Disney World becomes a place of unconditional passivity, where "its visitors must also agree to behave like its robots."
Why is reality so difficult to digest for some young Miami artists? Is denying cultural identity a price to pay in order to sell art? Why aren't community problems and conflicts, social upheaval, urban sprawl, cheap architecture, traffic congestion, and media brainwashing part of the hyperreal? Because the bubble would burst, and the fun would be over.
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