Art As Pageant

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Like that of other artists who came of age in the Sixties, Miralda's art is born of common experience, employing quotidian symbols, usually foods, that suggest larger social and political themes. The antithesis of a painter who toils alone in his studio, Miralda is an impresario, an instigator of participatory spectacles so far-reaching they can make even grand public art projects like Christo's 1983 Surrounded Islands seem like intimate affairs.

Influenced by his childhood in an industrial suburb of Barcelona, where his family worked in the textile trade, Miralda has consistently collaborated with artisans to create his own art. "I've always enjoyed working with professionals," he explains. "Things happen because of the knowledge of someone who knows how to do carpentry or to cook. Why would I start trying to make an ice sculpture or catch lobsters if there's someone who already knows how to do it?"

The artist also encourages people who usually have little contact with the art world to get involved. In 1981 he organized a parade through downtown Kansas City to invoke the links between livestock, agriculture, and the economy of America's heartland. Dancing steaks and wheat sheaves and giant cow floats were among the attractions. The event, which took three years to prepare, included an exhibition in the commodities exchange building; Miralda lined a wall with slices of bread and projected on it images of eating rituals and food production. That same year, Miralda organized a Thanksgiving dinner for animals in the Bronx Zoo. Elaborate dishes for the zoo residents were prepared by a team of New York restaurant chefs. Visitors could watch the animals enjoying their sumptuous feasts; at the same time, a video monitor in one of the animal houses showed American families pigging out on Thanksgiving turkeys and hams.

Miralda orchestrated his largest endeavor in 1992: the symbolic marriage of the Statue of Liberty and the statue of Christopher Columbus that overlooks Barcelona's harbor. The Honeymoon Project was carried out over six years and involved thousands of people around the world who offered banquets for the "couple" and presented them with gifts: rings made in Valencia, Spain, and Birmingham, England; a necklace constructed of Los Angeles traffic lights; a Liberty Bell cape made in Philadelphia; a giant Swiss lace handkerchief; a monumental wedding cake displayed in front of the Eiffel Tower. Miralda held a public celebration for the unveiling of each gift.

"There are so few artists who operate on such a generous scale," says Amy Cappellazzo, director of the Rubell Family Collection and one of those who showed up to have her tongue photographed. "Miralda's works are generous in size, in the bold materials that require large spaces. They are likewise generous in spirit."

Last year a retrospective of drawings and videos of Miralda's work traveled to Spain, accompanied by a 600-page catalogue documenting 75 projects he has conceived since 1965.

"Miralda has always been ahead of his time," says MAM senior curator Sue Graze. "Artists in this postmodern era may think that involving the spectator and the community as part of the work is a new thing, but Miralda was doing it years before. You get a lot of visual pleasure out of his work, but at the same time there's a lot of intellectual meat."

Helen Kohen, the former Miami Herald art critic, first observed Miralda at work in 1982. She was immediately impressed by both his joie de vivre and what she sees as the greater significance of his art. "I think he's a very important historian," she says. "He's always creating from memory, from history, from civilization and culture. I see the richness in him that I see with very serious people making art.

"For all the fun and games, he's always talking about very serious things," Kohen adds. "He doesn't let you off the hook on the obvious. You can laugh at the parade and eat the food, but you're really eating bits of civilization. His work may be fun and silly. It may take the form of a cake covered with gooey icing, but underneath is something very real."

Miralda came to Miami in 1992, drawn by the city's proximity to the Caribbean. But he is not a familiar name here. Before MAM offered him this chance to create a project as part of its "New Works" series, no local museums had expressed interest in him.

The public has seen a few of his works, notably a giant high-heeled shoe that until recently stood in front of Big Fish and could be seen from I-95. The wooden shoe, which becomes a gondola when the mirrored heel is detached, was created by Italian craftsmen for the 1990 Venice Biennial. Now owned by Miami Beach developer and art collector Craig Robins, the shoe faded and warped in the sun and is being restored. Miralda has replaced it with a giant fiberglass "tri-unicorn" -- a sheep standing on a pig standing on a cow -- made for the 1981 "Wheat and Steak" parade in Kansas City. Miralda also designed a South Beach lifeguard stand shaped like a bed, and two chairs on Lincoln Road fashioned from tires.

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Judy Cantor