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MIAMI — On opening night, I dutifully parked my car in the Omni parking lot as instructed and got inside the double-decker bus that would take me five or so blocks to the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). That ride on the top deck took nearly twenty minutes. We drove up the long driveway, past half-finished buildings, and were deposited in front of a gleaming jewel with swarms of people lined up at the doors.
The first site upon entering was a Project Gallery installation by Scottish artist Hew Locke, of many small-scale and colorful wooden boats suspended from the ceiling — a small armada floating on air. The installation felt sincere, but also overly familiar. It called to mind Nari Ward’s large-scale installation at MASS MoCA in 2011, Subodh Gupta’s recent exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in London, Chris Burden’s submarine flotilla, currently on view in his New Museum retrospective, and Cuban artist Kcho’s exhibitions as far back as 1997 at Regen Projects and Barbara Gladstone. It may be the case that other works of art, groups of paintings or sculptures, share as much in common, but a boat is so specific; it felt tired. On the other hand, given that Miami is reported to be the most threatened city in the United States should ocean levels rise, maybe it needs all the boats it can get.
There are three other so-called Project Galleries in the museum. They currently house works by Bouchra Khalili, Yael Bartana, and Monika Sosnowska. That’s three women and one man in those spaces — impressive.
Once I made it past the entryway, things began to look up. My first encounter was with the work of Leandro Katz, an artist I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of. Katz is an Argentinian Jew born in 1938 and a prolific filmmaker, photographer, and writer. The works of his on view were photographs from a series entitled The Catherwood Project. Two explorers, John J. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, were the first English speakers to visit many of the Mayan ruins in South America. Catherwood, an architect, did incredible renderings of these monuments, and Katz revisited the ruins and produced a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs of the sites in the present, displayed with images of the original drawings. On his website, he states:
My intention when starting The Catherwood Project, which resulted in nearly 4,000 black-and-white photographs and 1,800 color, was not only to reappropriate these images from the colonial period, but also to visually verify the results of archaeological restorations, the passage of time, and the changes in the environment. In this ‘truth effect’ process, issues having to do with colonialist/neocolonialist representation became more central, particularly during the last section of the project.
And this early encounter sets the tone of the Pérez: it’s not going to be about rounding up the usual suspects. If anything, the museum seems poised to assert that the canon as we know it is artifice; that convergence — the notion that ideas are in the air at certain times and are explored in different parts of the world with the same depth and intellectual acuity (remember, there were really two Darwins) — is a fact; it is simply that we are ignorant of these explorations. Similar to the way important and astounding works dating from the ’60s and ’70s are emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, PAMM, located at a crossroads between American and Latin-American cultures, wants to reshape the canon to include significant artists less known to an American audience.
The main exhibition currently on view is a traveling survey of Ai Weiwei’s work, According to What? After recently suffering a small bout of Ai fatigue, I liked the show and was glad to be reminded of the incredible series of black-and-white images that he shot during his decade-long stay in New York (these were previously shown at the Asia Society and also exist as a book, Ai Weiwei: New York 1983–1993). The survey includes a variety of work, but one of the most moving pieces is the installation on one of the largest gallery walls of the names of all of the children buried under rubble after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The wall is very large and the names are very small, like the children.
Ai has made a number of works referencing these buried children, including a wall of backpacks and a giant serpent, also formed from backpacks and suspended from the ceiling. At PAMM, in close proximity to the wall of names, are images of the bleak postquake landscape, which resembles Dresden after it was bombed at the end of World War II. Carefully stacked nearby is a sculpture made of rebar salvaged from the site, and we can see its former state — twisted and mangled — in the photographs. Each metal bar has been carefully straightened, forming a freighted minimalist floor sculpture. It seems to be an optimistic act, projecting a better future, sort of. It reminded me of a quote by Kafka that I came across recently: “There is plenty of hope, no end of hope, only not for us.”
There’s also an exhibition of contemporary work from the collections on view called Americana; it takes up six galleries in the museum. Each gallery is given a defining rubric: “Formalizing Craft,” “Corporal Violence,” “Desiring Landscape,” “Sources of Self,” “Progressive Forms,” and “Commodity Cultures.” Here one imagines the curatorial staff with a collection of works, many given as gifts and so reflecting the whims of individual collectors, having to figure out a way to organize what they have into some kind of coherent set of categories, rather than having overarching ideas that are then put into action. This leads to some jarring and uneven moments, but the work gifted to the museum also reflects a diversity signaled by the Leandro Katz at the start of the exhibition. The result is fresh and welcome.
Perhaps the most wonderful surprise was the collection of Ruth and Marvin Sackner, exhibited under the title A Human Document: Selections from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. The entire room is devoted to visual poetry. In an age when reading is declining and visual culture is so important, a room dedicated to the visual power of the word seems both apt and edifying. The first large vitrine in the room contains a rare 1897 publication of Stephen Mallarmé’s concrete poem “Un Coup de Des,” followed by Marcel Broodthaers’s (the poet turned visual artist) take on it. One could spend many hours here among the manuscripts and artists’ books and posters, both modernist and contemporary.
I gather there is sculpture outdoors, but it was dark and crowded and I never made it to those works. Nor did I get a good sense of the exterior of the building. Inside, the space felt open to me, unlike New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which feels progressively more architecturally oppressive each time it renovates and “expands.”
When I left to get back on the bus, I felt somehow elated. Despite some bumps, I really liked the Pérez. Much of this must be credited to Thomas Collins, the museum’s director, who has had his hands full navigating the demands of bringing such a place into being. It is interesting that there was such a flap in Miami over the naming of the museum. One can’t help but wonder if there would have been such indignation had the generous donor had a typical WASP name. But “Pérez” seems perfect for this museum — a reminder that Latin-American culture is a significant presence in the United States, and that Spanish ought to be everyone’s second language here, if it isn’t already their first.