The Biscayne Times

Jun 02nd
Mapping Vizcaya PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida   
April 2011

In his latest work, Cuban artist Ernesto Oroza navigates the famed estate’s history, both real and imagined

Art_Feature_1Visiting Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is a quintessentially Miami experience. The view of Biscayne Bay is spectacular. The gardens are lush and tropical. And the interior design of the faux Italianate villa is so over-the-top, so wannabe A-list as to be, well, so Miami.

The house was built by one of South Florida’s first transplanted tycoons, a product of the Gilded Age, James Deering. He wanted his mansion to look as though it had been around for centuries, like a real Old World landmark. So in 1916 he had his designer, Paul Chalfin, appropriate a mish-mash of styles from the 16th to 20th centuries for the new structure.

In 1953 this quixotic specimen of grandeur and excess -- really, a Disneyfied version of a European castle, years before anyone had even heard of Uncle Walt -- became a museum, run to this day by Miami-Dade County.

This history, simultaneously real and imagined, organic and borrowed, captivated Ernesto Oroza, a Cuban-born artist who spent a year walking the museum. The more he walked, the more he noticed the quirky secrets of the villa -- on the floors, the walls, and even in the mix of visitors flowing in and out. Oroza eventually came up with Archetype Vizcaya, the latest in the Contemporary Arts Project series commissioned by the museum.

Oroza has literally mapped out the normally unseen highlights of Vizcaya in an artful brochure, which includes a legend with numbers and symbols. On a sunny, cool day, he points out some of his explorations.

Art_Feature_2When he first started making his rounds, he says, he noticed what was constantly under his feet: the floors made of marble, terrazzo, wood, tile, different styles all shoved together, sometimes in a single room.

In particular it was the marble that really caught his eye. It is, he explains, the ultimately “contaminated” material. Over thousands of years, minerals and weather have infected the stone, imposing on it that unique quality of veins running through it. “To mineralogists, these shapes that we consider beautiful are, in fact, impurities that invaded the rock,” Oroza explains. “Any piece of marble in Vizcaya may be considered the diagram of a similar process of contamination that has occurred during the life of the building.”

And, he adds, marble shouts out wealth, another central theme of Vizcaya. From ancient times until today, marble columns, sculptures, and especially floors have signaled to visitors that money and power inhabit a space. And Vizcaya is covered in it.

Modeled on 17th- and 18th-century Venetian floors, the marble layerings in the villa were imported, likely from North Africa, another way for moguls like Deering to flag wealth “and worldly experience,” says Oroza. “It was from the beginning meant to be a showroom.”

Art_Feature_3As you move from room to room with Oroza’s map, you see the beginnings of Miami as a place where outside influences and manufactured identities dominate. We reinvent ourselves here all the time. “History” is malleable. Pasts are remade or just erased.

Take the Breakfast Room. It is decorated in a pseudo-Chinese style, popular in the late 19th Century, with lacquered furniture (actually crafted by a Cuban team) and a painting of a South China Sea fishing scene (actually painted in the late 1600s by a Frenchman). As the new deputy director for collections and curatorial affairs, Flaminia Gennari-Santori, who is overseeing the art series, quips: “Look closely. One of the fishermen was really born in 1916!” The original painting was expanded to fit the wall, which meant adding figures and subjects. Talk about imposition and contamination.

Other stops on the map reveal subtle points that would go unrecognized without some help from Oroza, such as details in the 550-year-old rug depicting the “Hand of Fatima.”

Oroza’s own interventions are few, and are pasted on Plexiglas barriers in certain rooms: silhouettes depicting invasive plants that have been imported to Miami through the years, endangering the native vegetation. The Plexiglas itself is its own, strange intervention, says Oroza -- something that jumped out at him, like the floors. When the villa became a museum, these Plexi plates were installed to keep visitors from harming valuable objects or venturing too deep into the rooms. But as Oroza points out, they were haphazardly placed, in some cases protecting relatively unimportant works, while other more precious pieces stood completely exposed.

A third segment of this unconventional art exhibit involves Oroza’s “mapping” of the people who have passed through Vizcaya over the past half-century. Using the Web, he gathered amateur videos of quinceañeras, weddings, parties, and star-studded concerts, which unspool in a continual loop (Oroza adds to it when he can) in the South Gallery. This study of human interventions at the site leads him to understand something else about Miami. As a relatively recent arrival from Cuba, Oroza says he had never visited the museum. But once he started hanging out, he saw how central the place has become to the local Cuban community, another important layer in Miami’s multilayered history.

Art_Feature_4From Deering to Chalfin, from the property’s African and Japanese plant species to exile families celebrating coming-of-age rituals -- and even the hands behind this exhibit (the Cuban Oroza and Italian Gennari-Santori) -- Vizcaya reflects so many of the influences that make up the broader cultural terrain here.

Oroza has devised a clever way to uncover all this. As Gennari-Santori writes in the exhibit’s introduction: “The map directs us to look at the surfaces beneath our feet and, in doing so, breaks our normative viewing habits and frees us to participate in an intensive treasure hunt for curious artifacts. Oroza’s map is an object in its own right that can be taken home and enjoyed as a piece of art or wallpaper, or in any way one wishes.”

Archetype Vizcaya is a highly conceptual work from a very intellectual mind, but it can be engaged on almost any level. If you’ve never been to this amazing museum, here’s your excuse; follow the map through the house, or just take the opportunity to wander and stumble on some interesting tidbits.

Circling back to the idea that Vizcaya was, from its inception, supposed to be a showroom, Oroza points out it was designed in the era of Cecil B. DeMille, and any resemblance to a larger-than-life movie set is intentional. “It was made to be photographed,” he says. “It was made to be catalogued.” And of course it was made to be explored.


Archetype Vizcaya by Ernesto Oroza runs through May 29 at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, 3251 S. Miami Ave.; 305-250-9133;


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