Longform

Art As Pageant

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This is the kind of reaction Miralda had hoped his call for recipes would elicit. "Food is a language we all understand," he says. "It's understood in Hong Kong the same as in Zaragoza. Today all of us are controlled by the mass media, but you have your grandmother's recipe, and you read it and you remember a day your grandmother made you rice pudding. Maybe your grandmother was Spanish and made it one way, or maybe your grandmother was Russian and she put some vodka in it. Foods are common symbols that at the same time mark the differences between us. People are beaten down by the system, they're manipulated and their cultures are homogenized. But at the same time, we have this crossing of cultures that's taking place -- and that's what saves us all."

On the shady back patio of the Palacio de los Jugos on West Flagler Street, Cuban families dig into huge pork sandwiches and homemade tamales, typical Latin American square patties of corn meal and pork wrapped in corn husks. Miralda is busy taking pictures of a man selling lobster out of his van. The artist sits down, and he and several people at neighboring tables are soon calling back and forth, trading Spanish proverbs, which the artist is delighted to learn are the same in Cuba as in Spain.

Settling down to eat, he instead picks up a tamal and uses it as a visual aid to explain his philosophy of art. "My view is, Why can't we start thinking of this as a sculpture?" he asks. "Exploring the texture and the shape, and imagining what's inside, what's going to come out when we open it."

Miralda has always seen things in a particular way. Growing up in Terrassa, just outside Barcelona, he was expected to join the family textile business. "They had a desk waiting for me," he recalls. "My natural instinct was to say no to that. Why do I have to wear jeans and sit at a desk in a textile company and go on vacation? I hate jeans and I hate vacation."

Even more stifling than the idea of a bourgeois existence were the realities of life in Spain in the Fifties under dictator Francisco Franco. Miralda recalls a repressively controlled Barcelona in which popular festivals and public dances were monitored by the guardia civil. For Miralda the Spain in which he grew up was frozen in spirit, and virtually colorless.

"There was one black man in all of Barcelona," he says. "He happened to be the lover of my neighbor. I was so lucky I could see his skin, the way it shone. I could hear his accent. Differences are what make things interesting." He decided to go in search of those differences. "The most important thing was to get out of Spain. I wanted to see what was really going on."

Miralda won a six-month scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He took the money but never entered the school, except to eat in the cafeteria. Instead he began making a living as a fashion photographer. Then he was drafted into the Spanish military; he went home to complete his service lest he be exiled from his country and his family for refusing.

Returning to Paris two years later, in 1967, he began exhibiting drawings of soldiers and put up his first installations, which used plastic toy soldiers to suggest the absurdities of war. It was the time of the student riots in France and of the Vietnam War.

Miralda soon met and married another artist, Dorothee Selz. Though they later divorced, while together they began making edible objects, and then turned a gallery into a restaurant, serving dyed and color-coordinated food to guests. Miralda recalls the venture being a success because someone threw up and the vomit was bright green. "I was always interested in color and the symbolism of color, and food was like a direct line to that symbolism and to the people," he says. "What we were looking for was participation."

He is definitely a product of the Sixties: Artists were exploring new ways of making art, staging happenings, collaborating on multimedia works that dealt with social and political issues, and bringing popular culture into galleries and museums. But Miralda insists that what he was doing was always a little different. "For some people it was or continues to be theater or performance," he explains. "But what I do is not a performance or a happening, because no one's directing what's going on. It's not planned. The idea is to prepare the terrain for things to happen, to create the possibility for participation, for interaction, for ceremony.

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Judy Cantor