Before you enter the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MOCA), a burned-out shell of a car greets the visitor, dropped into the outdoor decorative pool in front of the museum. It’s an artwork from one of the few non-local artists in the sprawling exhibit Temporary Autonomous Zones, and it’s an aggressive introduction — was this car carcass blown up, you wonder?
That’s a clear signal to what awaits inside, a forceful show that wants to address the difficulty of artistic independence and autonomous thought in today’s contemporary art world, along with the politics behind the lone island that MOCA has become. As anyone familiar with art here knows, the museum was blown up last year, when the former board of directors decamped from the North Miami home and set up a rival shop in the Design District, called the ICA. (While the majority of the art collected over the years by previous director Bonnie Clearwater stayed in North Miami, about 40 percent went to ICA.) It was, needless to say, an acrimonious split, and this exhibit nicknamed TAZ will let you know it.
For instance, one of the next artworks you encounter is a pointed piece from video and film artist Barron Sherer, “I See a Selection From the Permanent Collection.” It’s a silent blurred video — a compilation, according to the artist, of all the videos and films that the splinter ICA took with it. MOCA had become known for video, thanks in part to the now-defunct yearly Optic Nerve experimental video festival, but those works are now gone. Sherer pulls no punches. It’s a fascinating piece, reflective of much of what is jammed into this exhibit — thoughtful, quality works that show off the deep talent in Miami.
Some may want to disregard the political commentary here, about both the recent museum controversy and the theme behind the artworks selected for this self-proclaimed TAZ: works that are somehow conceptualized or created in an autonomous and authentic zone removed from the pressures of the art market and hierarchies. Others will be hard-pressed to even find a theme.
But the history is important to appreciating the exhibit. Like any divorce, feelings about the break-up of MOCA are raw, with various camps taking sides. There are uncomfortable aspects that many find hard to address, such as issues involving class and ethnic fissures — the ICA, for instance, is getting a new building in the latest luxury center of Miami, while the old museum stays in a working-class, heavily Haitian community with few resources.
But the curators of TAZ, Richard Haden and Christy Almaida, along with the new MOCA director, Babacar M’Bow, don’t shy away from their commentary, especially in the essays printed in the extensive, at times over-the-top, catalogue. They are overtly political in a global sense, and critical of the power structures that make up the art world, not just in Miami but across the contemporary landscape. However, the powerful emotions expressed in their words and choices for the exhibit come through in the art. So many of the works from the 50-plus artists are strong and compelling, with plenty to say.
Take the literal centerpiece, which after a month of sitting in the main gallery is starting to create an organic olfactory commentary all its own. Chinese artist Guo Jian has re-created his model of Tiananmen Square, made from 250 pounds of pork, and it’s starting to smell. The grand temples and buildings that surround the square in this replica are disintegrating; four weeks after creation, a layer of mold has appeared on the work. It evokes the carnage that occurred when Chinese troops killed their own citizens. And, writes the artist in his simple two-sentence statement: “The majestical system will share the same fate of its people and rot.”
Another organically changing piece comes from local Christina Pettersson, who has set up two white tents in a corner where artists create a mini-performance piece based around mourning. As it turned out, artist Kerry Phillips recently lost her long-beloved dog just before she moved into the tent, giving the work a poignant back story. Also mournful is the soundtrack that follows you through the exhibit, of Roberta Flack’s haunting First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, part of artist Sleeper’s multimedia installation.
Photography and video also have a hard time keeping quiet. In a gripping photo series, Sofia Valiente snapped the residents of duplexes on the edge of Lake Okeechobee. Once the home of migrant workers, they now house sex offenders. Because this ostracized group has extreme living restrictions (2,500 feet from any bus stop for instance), some are living in this Miracle Village, five miles from the closest town. Valiente, a women, lived among these men and documented them with her camera. Talk about raw, and autonomous.
Zach Balber’s glitzy series emits an utterly different vibe. For his day job, Zalber photographs all those multimillion-dollar properties sprouting up in Miami. But the artist, known for his portrayals of people living on the edges, decided to get a little subversive and take “selfies” while laying half naked on billionaires’ beds or sitting on their toilets while the owners were out, hoping he wouldn’t get caught.
In a clever video piece, Native American Elisa Harkins pokes fun at the struggle to keep indigenous cultures alive, while understanding the importance of such a mission. In a conceptual “selfie,” she calls the Indian Arts and Crafts board hotline, set up for people to tag potential “fake” Indian art when they spot it. She leaves messages saying she thinks she herself is making “inauthentic” contemporary art — obviously not what the craft board is aiming at.
One of the best examples of “temporary” is the Meta-Gallery in the project room. Organized by Andrew Horton, it features work from one artist per week for the run of the show. This particular week in April, Cat Del Buono showed her video installation on small screens across the four walls. When walking in, there was a cacophony of sound, with images of women’s cropped faces talking. When you got close, you could hear the actual dialogueof women from cities across the country living in domestic violence shelters, telling their stories. For Del Buono, giving voice to those brutally silenced is clearly a work of passion.
One vociferous piece you won’t forget comes from Orestes De La Paz. The multimedia “Making Soap” includes 20 soap bars made from coconut and vegetable oils, and 25 percent body fat from liposuction — plus “a jug and basin to wash hands” and a video of the actual lipo procedure that the artist underwent. After the initial shock, this piece leaves you with a feeling of extreme vulnerability.
Other installations, such as the wooden scaffolding of a room from Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova and the ephemeral image projections from Angela Valella, are simply lovely and beautifully crafted pieces.
It might be easier to view these works in the context of how Haden describes an undercurrent to the exhibit, as “islands of autonomy,” an archipelago “where we gather to create new authentic ways of being in the world in real-time.”
Islands are indeed what these individual pieces are, separately created but part of the main. Agustina Woodgate’s contribution might sum it up best. She has placed 50 globes, with vague continental and geographic outlines, on the floor. They look heavy and stationary, but when you move past them and create a wind, or tap them with your foot, they roll around and bump into each other (and any other artwork on the floor).
Navigating this exhibit can be chaotic, in pinpointing the authors of the various pieces, and in following the thematic threads. And some of the jabs at the art world in the catalogue are unnecessary and won’t help in healing wounds, a process that needs to begin now. But exploring the tension between the powerful and the powerless, and giving an artistic zone to voices that for many reasons are often ignored, with a grouping of such interesting artworks, is necessary for our growing and diverse Miami scene.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Temporary Autonomous Zones: TAZ,” through May 30
WHERE: MOCA, 770 125th St., North Miami
COST: $5 adults, $3 students and seniors; free to North Miami residents