Art As Pageant

On the kind of glorious Saturday afternoon that makes absolute sense out of living in South Florida, the riverside tables at Big Fish Mayaimi are filled with lazy diners relishing sunshine and fried fish. Despite the fine weather, the restaurant's tin-roof indoor dining room is buzzing with activity. Miami's cultural mavens have gathered here to stick out their tongues.

The small room has a pink color scheme and a wall of shelves laden with exotic foodstuffs: bags of varied beans, a row of colored soda cans from Caribbean countries, matzo boxes, fish tails, marshmallow Easter bunnies, packets of squid ink, and a dried pig's head grinning on a plate. In addition to these permanent flourishes, bright lights and umbrellas have been set up in one corner. A photographer holds his camera a few inches from the mouth of concert promoter Laura Quinlan, who giggles as she hesitantly extends her tongue. "Good," cheers artist Antoni Miralda, who stands behind the photographer, clapping his hands. "A little farther out. That's it."

Miralda, as he is known to everyone, is the proprietor of Big Fish, along with his long-time partner, chef Montse Guillen. He has organized the tongue photo shoot to gather images for an installation of his work. The show, "Grandma's Recipes -- Miami Bureau" opens this Friday, October 30, at the Miami Art Museum (MAM).

"Next!" shouts Miralda, an angular figure with a gray ponytail and a thin, secretive smile that flashes frequently. He flits about the room in loose light-blue slacks, an artfully clashing print shirt, and espadrilles with soles made from tire treads. Miralda weaves from English to Spanish to his native Catalan as he embraces newcomers, offering them iced tea, wine, and conch fritters.

"The tongue is something that's usually so hidden. It's so sensitive and so full of microbes," Miralda notes earnestly, peering through a second camera on a tripod. "It's such an important organ that I think we should stick it out and see what happens."

Spurred by phone calls from MAM personnel, 50 people drop in throughout the day to pose, including Wolfsonian museum director Cathy Leff, art collectors Ruth and Marvin Sackner, model Hunter Reno, artist Gary Moore, Ocean Drive features editor Tom Austin, and Spanish Cultural Center director Santiago Munoz. Miralda is inordinately fascinated by the large silver stud in one young woman's tongue. "Does it ache like a filling when you eat something cold?" he asks, peering into her mouth. It does.

Some subjects, such as Quinlan, have brought their children, and Miralda jollies them out of camera shyness by having everyone in the room join them in a communal "Aaaahh," tongues extended. The artist's favorite pictures will be exhibited at the museum, projected onto the wall so the tongues appear thirteen feet tall. Visitors to the exhibition will also be asked to sit for photos. Pictures not displayed at MAM will be posted on the Web (www.foodculture.com). By the show's end in January, Miralda hopes to have created an extensive and diverse collection of images of Miami tongues.

"For the people who stick their tongue out, there may be nothing more to it than it's fun to have their picture taken that way," Miralda admits. "But in a bigger way, there's the idea that the tongues become like a human landscape of Miami, which is a series of different tongues, as in different languages, different tastes, different levels of appreciation sharing a space, with which a dialogue is established. The tongue nourishes us and it allows us to express ourselves, to communicate with other foreign tongues."

Inma Roca, a corporate public relations executive and fellow Spaniard, preps for her photo by coating her tongue with green sugar granules, so it appears to have grown a layer of festive mold. "Your tongue is something so intimate, no one ever sees it," she says later. "Who but Miralda could get so many people to stick their tongue out for the camera?"

Over the past three decades Miralda, who is 56 years old, may have enlisted more people in the service of art than any other contemporary artist. Although his works have involved thousands, perhaps his projects are known better by seamstresses in Paris, bakers in Barcelona, or slaughterhouse workers in Kansas City than by typical art world patrons.

His preferred medium is ceremony, and his work recognizes ancient religious and pagan festivals as the original public art. "I was always interested in popular culture as a way to get beyond the barriers any artist has in reaching a broad public," Miralda explains. "I'm fascinated by the things that link people to their home and environment, in the souvenirs and icons of celebrations -- how an Easter bunny in your country is like a chocolate cathedral in mine, or a hand-painted egg in another."