It wasn’t so long ago that public art typically paid homage to mythical goddesses and larger-than-life military figures. Today’s public works encompass a wide range of styles — giant painted steel flowers, motion-activated LED installations and a temporary floating sculpture covered with coins — intended to spark debate about modern life and conceptions of beauty.
Miami-Dade County’s Art in Public Places is among those best known for innovation. Since June, it has been curated by Amanda Sanfilippo, who previously worked with visual arts organizations in Miami and New York, and still directs Miami’s Fringe Projects.
At both organizations, Sanfilippo challenges Miami’s status as a so-called “international art city.” Can the city’s art community openly question our history, secrets, conflicts and aspirations, she asks, or is this a place where the arts primarily serve development, tourism and sales?
In Sanfilippo’s view, public artwork should interact with its location and reflect the time in which it is created.
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Nor does art need to be an object. “It can be temporary, ephemeral, performative,” she said. “Artists are challenged to examine not just the hard facts of site but the soft facts of history, the people who look at it, the ways it will be talked about.”
The most compelling public art is site specific. Gone — at least mostly — is the bronze figure casually plopped into a neighborhood plaza. Today, local review panels assess artists’ designs for relevance to the site — such as a juvenile courthouse or pet shelter — and to neighborhoods’ ethnicities and history. The most revered public artists — such as Christo, who decades ago wrapped Biscayne Bay’s islands in pink, and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei — create works that evoke reflection and even controversy, and linger long after you’ve seen them.
SEA LEVEL RISE
The most emotive works are also timely, which explains recent commissions collectively titled “Sea Level Rise” for an exhibition created by the county’s public art program with the University of Miami.
Tom Scicluna’s “Climate Sync” above the Lincoln Road entrance of Art Center South Florida through May, literally flips a digital time-and-temperature clock upside down. The message of climate chaos is missed by most pedestrians who parade past without notice.
The SEAing Breath immersive virtual reality experience by HANNES BEND and colleagues incorporates bio-feedback breath monitoring, scientific presentations and cartoon animation to deliver an intimate experience of life underwater and of our imperiled geography. Several institutions have showcased it already; a schedule of 2018 showings has yet to be announced.
Other elements of the “Sea Level Rise” series shown last fall included Misael Soto‘s “Flood Relief” construction zone-like installation using giant flood mitigation pumps in a fountain symbolizing the futility of mitigation efforts, Domingo Castillo’s “Tropical Malaise: Prologue” video depicting South Florida in 500 million years, wallcast at the New World Center. A collective exhibition of the projects is in the works.
Sanfillipo’s work isn’t limited to county-funded projects. Since 2013, she also has been director and chief curator for Fringe Projects supported by Wavemaker grants, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Miami Downtown Development Authority, the Knight Foundation and the county.
Fringe hosts temporary public art throughout downtown in parks, on highrise facades, in bars and in the bay. The works often challenge the status quo and urge viewers to examine the relationship between the art and its location, questioning “What’s gone on in this place?” and “What might its future be?”
Past projects included David Brooks’ 2015 Museum Park mural using billboards perforated with “windows” into the bay, reminding viewers of an endangered reef nearby, and Dara Friedman’s ceremonial dance orchestration at an ancient Tequesta site in the Brickell financial district. Last fall, Fringe commissioned 30 temporary works to coincide with September’s DWNTWN Art Days weekend.
This year, through Jan. 31, London-based Hew Locke has installed “Reversal of Fortune,” in and outside the historical Alfred I. duPont building on Flagler Street — “in an abandoned jewelry shop… all the hopes and dreams gone,” he said during a recent walking tour led by Sanfilippo. Locke’s critique of global economics is both playful and ferocious, targeting colonial exploitation, IPOs and, by implication, the vagaries of the art marketplace. Then and now, international financial interests outweigh local interests of countries blessed with valued natural resources.
In a more optimistic expression, the collective R&R Studios — composed of Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt — sewed brilliantly colored silk flowers into a gigantic flag, proclaiming “Flower Power” across downtown. Their goal: bring fantasy and beauty into urban street life. (Ironically, public protest against replacing an American flag when it was first flown in October led to its prompt relocation from the Southeast Financial Center to Bayside Marketplace.) New locations have yet to be announced.
Through this month, you can see Milwaukee-based collective American Fantasy Classics’ “classic” — i.e., graffiti covered — public telephone in downtown. The “golden transmission terminal” rings invitingly to engage passersby in an “ambiguously cult-like, pseudoscientific self-help hot line,” conjuring both the ubiquity of yesteryear’s public phones and today’s automated “services.”
MDAPP’s partnership with the Underline linear park below Metrorail’s southern leg kicked off last year with temporary sculpture installations and performances by Miami artists. (Among them, Agustina Woodgate and guests pedaled a mobile radio station while discussing transportation issues.) Additional artworks and performances are being scheduled for 2018.
Sanfilippo is part of a growing list of practitioners focused on non-commercial work. When you add in exhibitions by Locust Projects, the non-commercial feminist Fair held during Miami’s December art week, the Art Basel / Public sculpture still visible on Miami Beach outside the Bass, New World Symphony’s “Project305” and increasingly daring gallery and museum exhibitions, a cultural maturation emerges. Miami is more than flash and glamor after all.
IF YOU GO
▪ Hew Locke’s “Reversal of Fortune,” Alfred I DuPont Building (in and outside), 169 E. Flagler St., through Jan. 31.
▪ Ivan Toth Dapeña’s “Reflect,” at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center lobby, 111 Northwest 1st Street, Miami; building hours Monday - Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; www.miamidadepublicart.org, 305-375-2616
▪ R&R Studios’ “Flower Power.” 2018 schedule not yet announced; new locations being sought. fringeprojectsmiami.com.