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Reviews / March 26, 2009

NeoHooDoo: Meet Me in Miami

Felix Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) 1991 Installation view from "Lifestyle - From Subculture to High Fashion" Kunstmuseum St. Gallen

It’s not uncommon, when visiting the Miami area during March Break, to run into fellow Canadians; the roads beachward are replete with Ontario and Quebec license plates, and overheard conversations seem to involve the words “Montreal,” “Harper” or “79 cents on the dollar” more so than they do “mojito,” “sunscreen,” or my personal favourite, “Bernie Madoff sucks!”

Still, it was a surprise to walk into the Miami Art Museum last week and see a few works that felt downright down-home: the group exhibition “NeoHooDoo” prominently features art from Brian Jungen and Rebecca Belmore alongside pieces by varied Cuban, Guatemalan, Brazilian, Jamaican, Puerto Rican and American artists. (The exhibition originated at Houston’s Menil Collection last June and moved to New York’s PS 1 in the fall. Miami is its final stop.)

The full title for this exhibition is “NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith,” a premise inspired by part by poet Ishmael Reed. In the 1970s, Reed coined the term NeoHooDoo to define a continuation of spiritual practice outside of definable faiths or creeds. He also proposed that “every man is an artist, and every artist a priest”—a lofty sentiment, to be sure, but also one resonant with possibility.

Prior to “NeoHooDoo,” Menil curator Franklin Sirmans was best known as an editor for Flash Art and as a curator of “One Planet Under a Groove,” a well-received 2001 show on hip-hop and contemporary art. Here Sirmans gathers works from contemporary artists who might be construed to work in that grey zone between religion and atheism, between physical migration and spiritual steadfastness. Ritual actions, totemic objects and sacred symbols all make an appearance to varying degrees, as do glimpses of the brutality, strife and cultural upheaval that can make both spirituality and creativity necessary tools for individual survival.

The exhibition includes many striking works. Rising to the fore is Radcliffe
’s Storm at Sea, an installation created with pieces of wood that at first look like discarded lumber but which one realizes on reflection are piano keys. These keys rise up from the ground in a kind of messy wave, on which a dark sailing ship rests. On the opposite end of this rickety wooden trajectory is a small African sculpture. And on the wall rests a metronome stilled via a permanently tipped base. Bailey’s choice of materials in terms of those silenced black-and-white keys is very effective in conveying the sense of something intricate, beautiful, ordered and whole having been rended asunder. And rended asunder not for a grand kind of creation, but only to serve as simple sticks might. Very sad.

There are other works, too, that prove immediately effective. James Lee ByarsHalo is a magnificent golden circle propped casually against a wall, inspiring awe whether one believes in angels or not. José Bedia’s The Things that Drag Me Down is a large installation in which cargo-loaded dugout canoes and model planes pull away from a large figure they are chained to on the wall. Though the migratory subject matter is grim—the chains promise to pull off the figure’s skin once they get far enough away—Bedia’s imaginatively arranged cargo impresses. Small 747s bear cigarettes and cigars on their wings, while boats ferry rows of rum bottles, taxidermied animals and exotic horns and feathers. Overall, it forms the kind of joyful-seeming offering that ends up tearing psyches apart rather than uniting them together. Robert Gober’s sunset-lit prison window, placed high up on one wall, conjures a perfectly mixed feeling of longing, and William Cordova’s found-wood shack with delicate gold chains and books edging out from its base seems to prove a poverty that holds its own form of great riches.

Particularly compelling as well was Tania Bruguera’s Delayed Patriotism, photographs of random people holding a hooded eagle as they stand in front of different black-and-white portraits. The full process is documented on a nearby video, with the portraits explained to be largely unknown political leaders. But the snapshots alone intrigue with the reference towards archaic forms and symbols of power, ones also randomly awarded and arrayed.

Less successful, perhaps, are video works by Regina José Galindo and by Michael Joo. Both have good ideas to start with. Galinda honourably attempts to document her own exposure to mechanisms of torture and control like tasers and high-pressure hoses, while Joo swims through a pool of salt, attempting to have it later licked off by wild elk. But in the conveyance, something’s amiss; Galinda, after all, can seemingly call off the torture using a safe word of some kind, which undermines our sense of the brutality she is critiquing. For his part, Joo only pretends to swim in salt; it’s actually MSG in the end, a contemporary material that seems misused in the context of Joo’s keening, one-with-wilderness tenor. (It could also, of course, have been meant as ironic, but there’s nothing else to the video to suggest that’s the case.)

Last but not least, of course, are strong works by our Canadian artists: Belmore’s Fringe raised goosebumps for many when it was installed recently in Vancouver and Montreal, and it certainly echoes a theme here of tradition acting as both a healing and a wounding force. Jungen’s golf-bag totems also find a different resonance in this circumstance than they possess in more general installations like that of the contemporary wing of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Surrounded by other pieces that investigate the links between traditional spirituality and contemporary circumstance in diverse cultural contexts, these seem to stand taller somehow, revealing themselves anew. And his Beer Cooler? Well, that’s enough to send any self-respecting hoser back to the beach for more cold refreshments and heated reflection. (101 W Flagler St, Miami FL)

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via