A Museum’s Renovation Delivers Stellar Performance Art to Miami

Still from William Kentridge's More Sweetly Play the Dance
Carrie Mae Weems performing "Past Tense" at Wolfson Auditorium
Carrie Mae Weems, Past Tense, MDC Wolfson Auditorium, Miami, February 3, 2018. (Photo: Carl Juste, courtesy of Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College)

Since January, Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art and Design (MOAD) has been insinuating itself into different neighborhoods of Miami by bringing a series of performances, concerts and readings to various locations around the city under the rubric of “Living Together.” Karen Finley, My Barbarian, Carrie Mae Weems and Tino Sehgal are just a few of the stars who participated in this civic-minded program.

“I thought we should rethink the mission of the museum differently than just being an institution in a building,” says Rina Carvajal, MOAD’s executive director and chief curator, who faced a particular challenge when she took over this position a year-and-half ago. The museum, housed in the historic Freedom Tower, was undergoing a $245,000 renovation and would be closed for some time. But instead of shuttering its programs, Carvajal saw the opportunity to take the museum outside of its confines and reach out to the greater community. She solicited the help of Joseph Wolin, an independent curator from New York City, and together they created a “dream list” of participating artists. “I thought that if we could work together with good, interesting groups in the city, and pulled together our resources to make a larger movement in the city, we could do something very powerful here,” says Carvajal.

Karen Finley, performing "Unicorn Gratitude Mystery"
Karen Finley performing Unicorn Gratitude Mystery for Miami Light Project at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse on January 12, 2018. (Photo: Oriol Tarridas)

In the end, Wolin and Carvajal secured commitments from 17 internationally acclaimed artists, starting with performance-art pioneer Karen Finley, who brought her one-woman show, Unicorn Gratitude Mystery, to the Miami Light Project at The Light Box, a not-for-profit performance space at Goldman Warehouse in the Wynwood District. Never shy about confronting the psycho-sexual dynamics of the current political climate, Finley peppered her performance with caricatures of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, taking her inspiration from the 2016 Presidential campaign.

According to Wolin, this was the perfect way to kick-off the series, which was intended to raise questions about civic engagement at this moment in history. “Living Together was meant in part to engage with Miami audiences, in the absence of a museum space, with ideas of social and civic life, thinking about politics and American issues at this particular historical moment and in the particular context of Miami,” he says. Wolin was particularly moved by Carrie Mae Weems’s contribution, Past Tense, performed at the MDC Wolfson Auditorium to a sold-out crowd of over 400 people. Bringing together  strains of Sophocles’s classic Antigone with sorrowful tales of police shootings from today’s headlines, the multimedia performance enlisted the help of a chorus and an orchestra with many musicians hired locally. “Being in that room with Carrie Mae Weems was just electrifying; the way she was weaving together Western civilization’s oldest stories with what’s in the news right now in a moving and poetic way, that was an amazing experience,” says Wolin.  

Eleonora Fabião talking to passers-by for her project "I Will Have a Conversation About Any Subject/Converso Sobre Cualquier Asunto" in Miami, January 22, 2018. Photo: Francisco Moraga, courtesy of Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College.
For her project I Will Have a Conversation About Any Subject/Converso Sobre Cualquier Asunto, Eleonora Fabião engaged passers-by in the Calle Ocho District, Miami, January 22, 2018. (Photo: Francisco Moraga)

Other performances in the Living Together series included those by My Barbarian and Samora Pinderhughes, both at the Light Project, Eleonora Fabião’s I Will Have a Conversation About Any Subject / Converso Sobre Cualquier Asunto, presented at Miami’s Government Center and on Lincoln Road in South Beach, and Antoni Miralda’s “The Maggic Banquet” at Exile Books in Little Havana. Acclaimed poet Richard Blanco will give a reading on a party boat in the bay on April 27, and San Francisco Beat poet Jack Hirschman will perform with a jazz band at the North Beach Bandshell on Collins Ave — two examples of the unique venues incorporated into this series on April 28.

MOAD reopened its doors on April 6, bringing the two most recent programs of Living Together indoors. Visitors to the museum may be caught off-guard by This Situation, 2007, a performative installation by Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal. Here, when entering a gray empty room, audience members are greeted by team of six “interpreters” who initially take on poses from famous paintings in art history, such as Manet’s depiction of a scandalous trio in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe from 1863. After a moment of stillness, a single performer announces a quote from a famous text of philosophy and then the group improvises a philosophical dialogue. Occasionally, they will elicit opinions from audience members and try to bring them into the discussion. Part-living sculpture, part-conceptual art, This Situation is geared to make audience members think about the current political situation and what is required of civic engagement.

“Except for the sign outside, visitors don’t necessarily know this is an artwork; it’s an empty room with people in it,” says Wolin. “It’s a very untraditional work of art, very non-object oriented.” According to Wolin, the “interpreters” are not professional actors, but mostly philosophy professors and graduate students. They were trained by members of Sehgal’s team for the event, which takes place all day, every day, at the museum for the duration of the show, through April 29.

Still from William Kentridge's More Sweetly Play the Dance
William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, 8-channel video installation with four megaphones, sound, 15 minutes. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Closing out the series, the museum will present More Sweetly Play the Dance, a 2015 video installation by South African artist William Kentridge, opening on May 19. Perhaps the most traditional work in the entire Living Together series, the 8-channel video will be projected on all the surrounding walls of the museum’s Tower Gallery, creating the sense of a funeral procession led by a brass band. Incorporating live action with the artist’s signature silhouettes and hand-drawn animation, More Sweetly Play the Dance also references the current refugee crisis and all the troubled souls marching in diverse locations.

“I have worked in big museums with much bigger budgets, but I think here we can make a different kind of contribution,” says Carvajal. “Here, we can come down from the ivory tower and really be a part of the city.”

Barbara Pollack is a New York-based critic and curator.

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