Summer of Utopia: The Society for the Preservation of Lost Things and Missing Time: Florida Arcane

On our final day of our latest week-long series, Summer of Utopia, DailyServing discusses the utopian ideals embedded in the building a new city and the economy attached to it. By delving into the work of Solomon Graves, we can take a look at preservation and lost information, truth and fiction and where utopia ends and reality begins.

The wilderness and wetlands that would later become the city of Miami ignited a utopian aspiration in one woman’s imagination, the aspiration to create a metropolis in the subtropical marshland. Cleveland native Julia Tuttle, the original owner of the land upon which Miami was built, moved to the Biscayne Bay region after inheriting land from her father in the late 19th century. Recognizing the need for transportation, Tuttle convinced American tycoon Henry Flagler to expand his railroad to this part of Florida. Initially, he declined her requests, but when the orange groves in that area survived the winter of 1895 and the rest of the state’s citrus crop was destroyed, Flagler allegedly saw the economic potential in Miami. The landscape was transformed.

The genesis of this urban paradise is a historical narrative; a literary embodiment of a past experience. Solomon Graves (an alias of the artist Raul Mendez), asserts on his blog that “objects and stories belong to all of us, in the now and beyond.” In his enigmatic exhibition, The Society for the Preservation of Lost Things and Missing Time: Florida Arcane, the artist investigates methods of remembering, analyzing, and preserving the past. As the Society’s website states, “It is our Mission to Thwart the all too common Demise of Things./ Stories, Ideas, which may not fit History’s Master Narrative./ We crave the Archaic and Arcane, the Strange, the Paranormal…those Things imbued / with Magical Properties, the Folkloric, the Homemade, the Story-told, /the Other World-ly./Left-Field.” Need I say more? Florida Arcane, currently on view at the Miami-Dade Main Library, consists of objects, ephemera, archival materials, and other fragments from Florida’s past. The objects are combined with descriptive and imaginative tales, which reference notable figures in the early history of Florida, but have little to no historical fidelity. Mendez cleverly utilizes the venerable institution of the library, a venue for scholarly research, to bolster his exhibition design. A two dollar bill is inscribed with the unwritten rules amongst hermits and derelicts in the Florida Keys at the end of the 19th century. A collection of optical and aviation instruments once belonging to Jacqueline Cochran (a native Floridian), and other evidentiary relics are here as well.

The artist combines documentation and historical fiction in a series of color photographs depicting a concrete modernist structure curiously situated in the middle of a swamp (seen above on the left, click here for detail). The structure is described as Mr. J.E. Lummus’ Failed City in the Swamp. In the accompanying text, J.E. Lummus, an individual associated with building the City of Miami, is described as an eager entrepreneur, whose jealousy over Tuttle’s success with Miami drove his desire to erect “a world class city of industry and culture in the midst of a swamp” for himself. According to the story, the winter of 1895 halted construction, and plans were never resumed. In reality, the structure, which resembles an interstate overpass, is the Shark Valley observation tower located in Everglades National Park, as noted in the Miami Herald. The magical mixture of historical and apocryphal information infuses the dusty discipline of history with imagination and thought, offering valuable insights into our broader processes of cultural interpretation. A speculative and philosophical presentation, Florida Arcane is obscure and difficult, but simultaneously enjoyable and entertaining.

Merging documentation, fiction, and art, Florida Arcane prompts the perceptive viewer to question the construction of history and thus reality, both past and present. The curator deviates from established histories, igniting learning with imagination. At the opening reception on June 24th, Raul Mendez, a.k.a Solomon Graves, theatrically continued his mission to “destroy ideological darlings” while sitting at a desk in the exhibition area. His costumed presence, which now exists only as a photograph, reminds us that awareness of imagination is a principle, and potent, feature in the formation of reality. In the subjective space between his materials and information, Mendez invites the viewer to experience experience itself, rather than experiencing a description of reality.