Surfing Exhibit at FAU Should Be a Lot More Fun Than It Is

A general air of "it's good for you and you'll like it" hangs over "Surfing Florida," which is just a step or two away from a dental-hygiene documentary from your childhood or a nonoptional serving of your least favorite vegetable.

I wanted to like the exhibit, having grown up with the idea of surfing as a transgressive outsider culture — somehow forbidden, vaguely sexual, and infused with a fuzzy Zen sensibility. Yes, the Beach Boys and their ilk were wholesome, all right, but they also represented a subculture of ultimate slackers, guys (and surfers were mostly male) who eschewed adult responsibility in favor of that search for the perfect wave. At least, that's how it all seemed to a kid growing up in the landlocked hinterland.

The word history in the show's subtitle gives the game away. This is not a lighthearted romp — a "fun, fun, fun /Till your daddy takes the T-bird away" kind of outing. Rather, it's a series of strung-together lessons, with more wall text than you'd encounter at one of the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale's papal exhibitions.

There are some interesting tidbits — for a demographer. Consider this: "At the beginning of the 20th century, Florida, with its 500,000 residents, had the lowest population density of any state east of the Mississippi." Or this: "The surf industry today is a mix of sportswear brands, media interests and board makers based largely in California and marketed worldwide."

Such movies as Gidget, Where the Boys Are, and Elvis' Follow That Dream and Girl Happy are referenced, as is the era's distinctive music. Opportunities to situate these pop cultural touchstones in a larger context, however, go squandered.

At its best, the show presents surfing in Florida as an alternative history to beach culture in California and elsewhere. There are sections devoted to various regions of the state and their surfing connections. A morsel like "While surfing in Florida began in Miami Beach, Daytona Beach was Florida's first surf city" is juxtaposed with a great black-and-white photograph from the mid-1960s featuring the members of the Smyrna Surf Club lined up with their boards.

Photos, in fact, are the exhibit's strong suit, which is not surprising, considering that surfing has always been highly photogenic. A small selection of particularly cool vintage photos is not clearly labeled, although the images appear to be from the 1940s and '50s. Elsewhere are 18 actual scrapbook pages created by surf legend Bill Whitman circa 1935.

As with any sport, there is an almost fetishistic focus on names and dates and titles and stats. And although it may be of interest to a surfing fanatic that so-and-so won the such-and-such championship in 19whenever, the rest of us may not be so captivated by this kind of minutiae.

One bit of wall text proclaims, "Surfers often say that surfing is more than a sport — it is a way of life." But that's exactly what's missing from "Surfing Florida" — the sense that surfing is more than an accumulation of statistics and historical facts.

At one point, there's a mention that "Legendary California surfer and surf photographer Leroy Grannis bellyboarded in Florida as a child in the early 1920s." But the magic provided in the glorious 2007 coffee-table book Leroy Grannis: Surf Photography of the 1960s and 1970s — a volume that could have and should have influenced this exhibit — never materializes, except in the vintage surfboards that hang from the gallery's walls and ceiling and stand in makeshift sandboxes throughout the space.

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Michael Mills