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A Historic South Florida Mansion Reveals Its Lost Stories Through Art

Neon art and drone-shot telenovelas explore the secrets of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, one of Miami’s best-loved landmarks.
Vizcaya’s East Facade, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Located in Miami’s lush Coconut Grove neighborhood, the majestic beauty of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens spills over into its hidden spaces and secrets. If visitors make their way to the ticket booth, they might miss the drained, overgrown moat that hosts the first of a series of new works from two-phase exhibition, Lost Spaces and Stories of Vizcaya. Visit anytime in the next year and you’ll hear delicate, clanging, and unseen water rising from below like an invisible stream. This a sound piece by composer and multimedia artist, Juraj Kojs, an homage to Vizcaya’s lesser-known history. Once upon a time, unable to hold water, the moat was abandoned.


Kojs’ Moat of Sound revives one of Vizcaya’s stories that’ve been lost to time. Part of the museum’s contemporary art program, Lost Spaces alludes to the small details of the building’s life, long before it became a landmark. Built along Biscayne Bay in 1914, Villa Vizcaya was the winter home of James Deering of the Deering McCormick-International Harvestor Fortune; Deering took up residence in 1916. The moat itself is addressed by two artists: Duane Brant has added a long-running piece of reflective tape, the kind used on roadways, to indicate the street that once ran through it.


Above: Moat, c. 1916, Arva Moore parks Collection. Below: Duane Brant’s Ghost Highway, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

The works of Frances Trombly and David Rohn reference what curator Gina Wouters refers to as, “the dialogical elements of what’s lost.” Trombly, who specializes in fabric-based items and sculpture, hand-wove delicate fabric bell pulls to be placed on the original hooks where Deering would have requested the work of his servants. In contrast to Vizcaya’s lush but subdued palette, Trombly’s works are soft and bright. Rohn, a performance artist, has placed portraits of himself dressed as servants around the house, so that visitors may stumble upon them as they might have in the home’s heyday. In response to rumors of Deering's preference for the company of men, Rohn included an image of a fictional lover on the bachelor’s nightstand.

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Bell Pulls, Frances Trombly, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

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Staff life portrait, David Rohn, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Lucinda Linderman has created an equally interactive piece that utilizes the racks where Deering’s travel maps used to hang, replacing them with her own. Made from soft, tactile materials, they trace the impending sea level rise in Miami over the next century.

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Mapping Sea Level Rise, Lucinda Linderman, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

On a lighter note, EXILE Books founder Amanda Keeley has taken over the sun room with two large neon signs—reading “Take the gifts of this hour” and “Put serious things aside”—inspired by the Latin inscription on Vizcaya’s east façade, a text by Roman poet Horace: “Dona præsentis cape lætus horæ aclinque severe.” In such an austere room, the suggestion for play feels invitingly literal. Upstairs, in the servants' quarters, you’ll find Magnus Sigurdarson’s short film, Corazón Vizcaya, a hilariously melodramatic telenovela shot partly by drone.

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Neon signs, Amanda Season Keeley, Vizcaya Museum and Garden


Still from Magnus Sigurdarson’s Corazón Vizcaya, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Within Vizcaya’s European-traditionalist aesthetic, contemporary art has an unusual novelty here. But, considering Deering’s history as an arts patron, it’s appropriate. “You see this architecture inspired by old European traditions, but he was also commissioning work by avant-garde artists,” Wouters tells The Creators Project. “The stone barge outside is by Alexander Stirling Calder; the swimming pool ceiling is by Robert Winthrop Chanler. We wanted to continue that history of patronage.” The artists, selected through an open call, are all Miamians. “The local audience and arts community have a deep understanding of Vizcaya in the context of Miami’s cultural landscape,” Wouters says. Lost Spaces recontextualizes a place deeply embedded into Miami’s collective memory, producing a new way to imagine it. If nothing else, in the usually untouchable space of a museum, it’s an opportunity to interact.


Still from Magnus Sigurdarson’s Corazón Vizcaya, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Phase I and phase II (opening December 2016) of Lost Spaces and Stories of Vizcaya is on view at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens through May 2017. Lost Spaces is presented in conjunction with Vizcaya’s centennial.


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