The time seems right for Karen Finley to visit Miami, to perform in the black-box space of the Miami Light Project at the Goldman Warehouse, and to present her latest performance-art manifesto about the current political landscape, Unicorn Gratitude Mystery. In the show, which she began developing as a response to the U.S. presidential election in 2016, Finley plays a unicorn that morphs into a being with the characteristics of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, all wrapped up in the witty, satiric art that has made the New York-based artist a free-speech legend.
Finley’s appearance is the first presentation of the Museum of Art + Design (MOAD) at Miami Dade College's Living Together series. Rina Carvajal, the executive director and chief curator of MOAD and the curator of the series, says Finley as the kickoff couldn't be more fitting.
“We now have a different mission,” Carvajal says of MOAD, whose space inside the historic Miami landmark the Freedom Tower is under a major renovation. “Living Together is part of an initiative called Museum Without Boundaries, where we want to extend the conversation beyond the institution and to create a conversation that involves everyone and every discipline.”
The cross-disciplinary series of programs are an effort to galvanize Miami audiences with thoughtful and challenging performances and exhibitions that draw from art, music, theater, politics, and poetry, Carvajal explains. Seventeen events are scheduled by national and international artists, art collectives, musicians, and writers, beginning January 12 with Finley's performance and continuing through September.
"We are presenting in venues across Miami in collaboration with many different groups. Some of the performances may be in downtown, some may be in Miami Beach, while others could be in Hialeah," Carvajal says. "[We're presenting] whatever makes sense and is interesting to further the role of arts, and that is to connect people."
The series' presentations in April coincide with the reopening of the renovated museum at the Freedom Tower, where British-German artist Tino Sehgal will star in The Situation, in which unscripted interactions with visitors yield musings on topics both economic and existential beginning April 7. On April 21, Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino will posit questions about the present by revisiting a major work from the past.
From May to September, a video installation by the great South African artist William Kentridge will celebrate darkly comic fashion, resilience, and life.
Finley's work is the one that opens wide the idea of artist as a conduit to conversation. "To have the artist as a historical recorder, that's what my job is," Finley says. "It's interpreting events that are happening in society and culture through an artist's lens and then giving these deeper meaning to offer an understanding of where we're going to go and how we're going to move forward."
Finley says Unicorn Gratitude Mystery is designed to offer "understanding through humor instead of shock and awe."
"I began the show in New York," she explains, "and it was a response to, at that time, the issues that were connected to what was leading up to the actual election. So there's talk about the sexual dynamics of the Clinton-Trump race. It looks at gender disparity and, of course, abuse of power and the desire for power."
Then things took a different turn. "After Trump won, it was something we weren't expecting, and that added yet another dimension." In the show, she dons orange wigs, red "Make America Great Again" caps, and pantsuits and makes references to Monica Lewinsky's famous blue dress.
Unicorn Gratitude Mystery didn't begin as a look at the two presidential candidates, one female, one male. It began with the unicorn, what she says is a symbol of the sacredness of whiteness. She references the neo-liberal spaces of whiteness — walking down an aisle at a holistic supermarket or getting worked up when waiting in line for a latte — "the displacement of the ridiculousness of these capitalist consumer spaces of neo-liberalism."
She also considers that in today's climate, even having fun is a political statement. "Well, isn't it?" says Finley, who became known as one of the "NEA Four" when her grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, along with those of three other artists, was vetoed on the basis of subject matter in 1993. The case made its way to the Supreme Court and is now in the legal books as NEA v. Finley.
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"There will be tears and hilarity," Finley promises about Unicorn. "The humor here is a way for us to get our minds around the complexity of spaces that maybe we don't even want to look at."
— Michelle F. Solomon, Artburstmiami.com
Unicorn Gratitude Mystery. 8 p.m. Friday, January 12, at Miami Light Project at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami; 305-576-4350; miamilightproject.com. Tickets cost $5 to $15 via brownpapertickets.com; MDC students get in free.