McElheny, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, is best known for fantastical glass sculptures that address such issues as 19th century Romanticism, 20th century Modernism, the origins of the universe and the relationship of humans to light. And he’s also a filmmaker.
Vizcaya invited him to take a look at the equally fantastical villa and gardens, and asked him to make something of it. The result is a conceptually intense thing of beauty — a film that is part documentary, part historical fiction, part wistful fantasy.
McElheny had no relationship to Miami, and certainly no knowledge of the strange history of Vizcaya, the ersatz Italianate villa built on a swamp by the industrialist James Deering. It’s a romanticized version of something that never existed, the original Disney World.
As Deering was rarely around, he oversaw the construction of his estate between 1914 and 1922 through photographs and blueprints he had sent to him. McElheny discovered a treasure trove of such documents in the archives. As he pieced the history together, he became enthralled with a short story by a German author of the early 20th century, Paul Scheerbart, someone similarly obsessed with a version of utopia.
In his book The Light Club of Batavia, Scheerbart imagined an underground light spa made entirely of Tiffany glass, where people would gather in perpetual light and imagine a brighter future. As McElheny looked over the villa’s courtyard, past the incredible flora to the grotto in the back, he, too, imagined a fantasy underground world. The idea formed in his mind for a historical-fiction film, The Light Spa of Vizcaya: A Woman’s Picture.
On the phone from New York, McElheny talks about the possibilities and limits of utopia. When he conjured this spa, he thought it would be a queer bath, mostly for women, a place where people who couldn’t express themselves in real life could be open.
“People have intentionally glossed over the strange origins of this place,” he says of Vizcaya’s bayfront acres, best known for photography shoots for quinceañeras and wedding receptions (dream-like occasions themselves).
“Over time it was given a ‘safe’ veneer. But here was a house built by a gay robber baron,” filled with an amazing array of eclectic artifacts from all over Europe, always shrouded in an element of mystery. “Deering used Vizcaya very little; he built it from the start as a sublime kind of ruin.”
McElheny says it was an unreal, twilight world from its inception. Combining archival stills and gorgeous contemporary cinematic footage, McElheny added a narration. Referencing real characters who helped make the fantasy villa, he added a storyline about a lost diary, describing a secret glass clubhouse on the grounds where people “out of the mainstream” could meet. There are many more layers to this tale, but you’ll have to discover it yourself.
True to McElheny’s passion, there are many shots of light works – chandeliers, lamps, outdoor lanterns. For one night only during Art Basel, on Thursday, the film will be screened outdoors in the gardens, at a location that references the imaginary passage through which the characters of the Light Club would have traveled to find their way to the electrified spa.
After that, the 30-minute film will be shown every hour indoors. The drawback here is that visitors will walk in and out, observing some nice historical images, without realizing that this is much more than that.
McElheny also created six “movie” posters, mostly based on the original blueprints, that are placed around the villa.