Tyranny Re-Examined

Taking swipes at oppression and authoritarian rule, Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles has gained a reputation around the world as an advocate for human freedom. His works often put observers in uncomfortable situations to emphasize the inhumanity of tyrannical rule. In previous installations visitors have had to navigate a floor covered with broken glass or wade through a walkway buried a foot deep in talcum powder with the smell of gaseous fumes all around them. The artist has also imprinted Brazilian currency and recycled soda bottles with subversive messages.

In his newest installation, Strictu, part of the New Works Series at the Miami Art Museum (101 W. Flagler St.), Meireles keeps to his monkey-wrenching ways. For this work the artist takes one room of the museum and creates a tense atmosphere, one that recalls images of concentration camps and interrogation rooms. Lining the room are metallic poles in two rows. A metal chain is strewn over the floor, woven shoelace-style across the walkway. At the end of the chain are a collection of handcuffs and two lead balls. On a wall there are two keys hanging from separate key-ring loops. And at the rear of the room is a square wooden table with two chairs, starkly illuminated by an overhead lamp beaming cold white light.

Upon looking at the table, the observer reads the quotes of a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan: "We want to steal their time. We want to steal their space. We want to steal their minds." Meireles lifted the words from a news broadcast during a visit to New York City. Below these words is the artist's personal creed; the result of decades of dissent: "This is the mentality of all those who would like to protect forever the world's social/economic organization as it is today." He goes on to say, "Authoritarianism -- cultural, curatorial, artistic -- is only one of the faces of violence."

The cold room is spacious, yet there is a strong claustrophobic feeling to it. It is almost as if an unspoken law has been laid down, one that keeps the viewer in a prison, but it is a prison without shackles -- without locks.

Meireles's rhetoric, that of balls and chains and interrogatory light, is timely regarding the new world order put into motion since the September 11 attacks. Covert operations involving the detention of thousands of Middle Eastern citizens throughout the country; anonymous Afghanis, labeled enemies of state and held in Guantanamo Bay, and the occupation of Iraq could all play into the hand of Strictu.

Moreover the piece examines the conformity that is omnipresent in all aspects of society. Status symbols may imply what is to be embraced in culture and what is to be expelled. Rules of behavior govern how people treat one another. In Meireles's view the covert actions of an ambitious regime are the same form of tyranny as the social patterns that keep the masses acting in prescribed, formulated, and often dishonest gestures.

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez