To walk into the Boca Museum's Federico Uribe installation is to walk into a tropical forest filled with ideas as well as plants and animals. Uribe may not be the first "green" artist, but he is certainly one of the most original. His jungle is populated with plants and animals that have been fabricated from found objects, materials that have been wrenched from their normal contexts and repurposed by the Colombian-born, Miami-based artist, most notably athletic shoes and shoestrings.
In a bit of wall text near the beginning of the show, Senior Curator Wendy Blazier explains: "Uribe creates for us a world in which man and animal co-exist in the bounty of nature, transforming the debris of our out-of-control consumer culture and regenerating flora and fauna from mankind's materiality."
The exhibition is essentially one massive installation that takes all the main galleries on the museum's first floor. It's an immersible environment in which we are asked not just to view the art passively but to experience it, to interact with it, to engage with it on its terms. Only by plunging us into his strange but oddly familiar world can Uribe hope to draw us into the intellectual dialogue he proposes.
It doesn't take long to notice that human beings are absent from the portrait of nature Uribe creates. Where, then, is this "world in which man and animal co-exist" that Blazier writes of? You may realize with a jolt, as I did, that we the viewers complete the equation. Our presence within the exhibition fleshes it out — our participation is required for the show to make sense on its most basic levels. We are implied by the art.
Nor does it take long to recognize that our very presence actually alters the installation itself in subtle ways. As we walk among the flora and fauna, our footsteps disturb, ever so slightly, the countless shoelaces that have been strewn about the floor as if they were blades of grass or bits of organic debris. Each person who passes through the show inevitably leaves his or her mark on it, regardless of intentions. Like Margaret Mead's famous premise that the anthropologist invariably changes the culture she observes just by being there, we become unwitting participants in the drama Uribe posits.
Uribe wants to get us thinking about the ways we as a species interact with the natural world around us. That world is shrinking, the artist implies, because of our rapacious appetites for whatever we can wring from it. There's the sense that Uribe believes we are at a crucial juncture, a point at which we first have to recognize and accept what we have done to nature in order to take steps to save it.
Some wall text puts the artist's ideas into perspective: "Arrogance is our doom. We divorced ourselves from nature as if we were not part of her... We foolishly believe in our ownership and inalienable rights of and to nature... as if nature's resources were endless." He goes on to talk about "possessions that we don't need" and "disposable objects that we burn in the air, bury in the earth, and throw into the sea as if nature could magically make them vanish."
Uribe's theoretical framework comes into play only after we encounter his art on a purely visceral level. That elephant at the beginning of the show and its rhino companion don't first strike us as part of an intellectual treatise — they mesmerize us as we slowly realize that they are made entirely of shoelaces and parts of sneakers and athletic shoes that have been deconstructed and reconstituted. The attention to detail is amazing, right down to the little birds that pick bugs off the animals.
Part of the sheer fun of this exhibition is approaching its components and trying to figure out what makes them up — there are trees with foliage composed of books, flip-flops, rakes; a zebra with legs made from crutches, its mane fashioned from scrub brushes; a horse made of wine corks; flowers put together from clothes pins and brushes; a bird built up from pencils.
It's as if we have stumbled onto a treasure-trove of creatures that have escaped from a children's book. Uribe seduces and entrances us before springing his sobering ideas on us. He wants us to experience the wonder and awe of nature so we will appreciate its value and precariousness.
Children will no doubt love "The World According to Federico Uribe," but it's a mistake to approach it as a kids' show. For all its sensual delights, it's an exhibition that encourages us to think and feel. Take the kids, if you have them, but use the occasion to impress upon them the respect for nature that Uribe's art ultimately represents.