Sad Tropics—Photography and Video Installation at The Front New Orleans

Sad Tropics—Photography and Video Installation at The Front New Orleans

by Cristina Molina with Jonathan Traviesa

What would usually take the average driver ten hours takes us two days. We set out from New Orleans for South Florida in the early morning, stuffing the car to its max capacity with snacks, presents, snorkel equipment, cameras, and clothes. Jonathan Traviesa, my collaborator and husband, has a long standing practice of making images of objects he sees along the road. This is why he insists that we take the coastal routes instead of expediting our trip on the highway. On the highway it would be impossible to see what he describes as Beacons Abound—those seemingly random roadside structures that make you think WTF? An empty fiberglass pool tipped on its side and hitched to a trailer, a half inflated bouncy castle in the middle of a cow pasture, a rigged sprinkler pump with a full scale moose statue at the center of a lake… 

On these road trips back to the Sunshine State, where we both grew up, we jokingly point out the things that so obviously scream Florida! We don’t need the state border sign to know we have arrived. We only need tangerine-colored Honda Civics with satellite-looking spoilers, and perfectly manicured bushes that spell out Buena Vista or Lago del Mar or Paraíso del Sol in front of Spanish-roof-tiled housing developments to indicate that we are home. Of course, the identity of an entire state cannot be reduced to these visual descriptors. What these descriptors do exemplify, however, is a sentiment of aspiration. Florida is a place where settlers young and old have come to establish their own vision of utopia—whatever that might be.

After a visit to Jacque Fresco’s compound in Venus, Florida it became clear that our home state was—excuse the metaphor—ripe for the picking. Fresco, a hundred-year-old futurist and self described engineer, holds seminars that are open to the public every Saturday. Out of curiosity, we decided we would join the group. At first we were perplexed by the scene; Fresco sat upright on a well cushioned chair addressing an audience while a super-high-def movie-camera was pointed at him. His own image was mirrored behind him and lagging a few seconds on a large monitor. Fresco’s philosophy is one not dissimilar from many modernist thinkers. The Venus Project’s main thesis is that problems in society, like famine, poverty, and socio-economic divides can be solved through design and intelligent use of technology. We know why Modernism failed — humans are sloppy and don’t like being dictated by design or social infrastructure. But the second part of the seminar is more convincing of Fresco’s argument than the lecture. Roxanne Meadows, Fresco’s partner, gives a tour of the grounds—a group of about nine unique buildings all constructed by Meadows and Fresco, designed for both efficiency and style. Many of the buildings’ architectural decisions follow the Modernist vocabulary. Streamlined forms and geodesic ceilings are surrounded by lush foliage. Inside the buildings are hundreds of renderings, models, diagrams, and animations that show Fresco’s plans for a most evolved civilization. Fresco and Meadows were implementing Fresco’s theories in their daily lives through architecture, lifestyle, and social design, and overall it was pretty impressive. It was one thing to hear Fresco preach these ideas, it was another to experience it. Fresco’s narrative is a classic example of the Floridian immigrant. He settled with his followers in the middle of nowhere with a vision; the weather was good, and the land was cheap, and most importantly no one was going to question his motives.

I take the time to describe this experience because the idea for Sad Tropics, Jonathan and my collaborative exhibition, followed soon after. Sad Tropics, or the original Tristes Tropiques, is a memoir/ travelogue written by Claude Levi Strauss that documents his travels, especially to the Brazilian Amazon. The famous first line, “I hate traveling and explorers” particularly struck us when thinking about the history of Florida and Ponce de Leon. From the start, Florida was colonized by a group of people on their quest for the exotic, the possible, and perhaps the mystical. They were taking a gamble to realize their dreams of a better life, one without death. This seems like a story that repeats itself in Florida. Like Fresco, and so many others, people go to Florida reaching for paradise, and perhaps continue reaching once they arrive.

We spent about a year and a half being tourists in our own state searching for examples of this idyllic sentiment. From the Panhandle to the Keys we visited places like Ponce de Leon Springs Park, the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Cassadaga, the psychic capital of the world, the nudist beach in Haulover Park, and the mysterious Coral Castle.

In the end we had so much material it was overwhelming. We knew that we had an exhibition scheduled for September of 2016 at the artist-run gallery, The Front. A former corner store grocery, The Front has a four-room floor plan that allows for many curatorial possibilities. We decided that each room would be assigned a loose theme. This helped make our selection process much easier. Organizing the exhibition by theme would also outline major environments for the viewer and allow for the experience to shift from room to room. We arrived at the following:

Room 1: The Gothic

From the street, a neon hue cast the whole room a shade of pink. Viewers were greeted by the buzzing exhibition signage—a script glowing, “Sad Tropics”.

The sound of steel drums infused the gallery, and upon further investigation, viewers would notice the music was coming from our stop motion animation Florida Man and Florida Woman.  Inspired by news headlines that begin with, “Florida Man…” the video depicts the main protagonists engaging in ridiculous crimes and activities. Vignettes such as “Florida Man charged with throwing alligator into Wendy’s,” and “Florida Woman marries Ferris wheel” were brought to life by paper-cut versions of ourselves clad in tropical clothing.

Catty corner from Florida Man and Florida Woman, a viewer could see two images stacked on top of one another—a detail of a work truck with white spray paint covering the word “Native” and a water tower almost obscured by palms hovering in the foreground.

On the largest continuous wall in the room, a floor-to-ceiling vinyl piece of Arecas loomed over viewers like 1970’s wall paper. Rather than the plump and hydrated palms pictured on tourist brochures, this scene referenced the oppressive Floridian heat, where even trees get a little sunburned.

Room 2: The Aquatic

If it wasn’t clear that Florida Man and Florida Woman were hosting the show, the idea was reinforced when viewers entered the next room.  A larger than life double portrait of Jonathan and myself was plastered against the far wall. Covered in sand and completely nude except for small images obscuring our respective parts, our figures referenced a set of Botticellian offspring, potentially spawned by the sea.

An undertone of the masculine and the feminine permeated throughout this room. Adjacent from the double portrait one could see an angular hot rod with an idyllic beach scene covering its rear window. The hot rod’s counterpart, a conch shell fountain emerging from the center of the frame in all of its fleshy pink majesty.

Other images alluded to the ocean without actually showing it: a carefully constructed highway text that read “Beach”, several vessels suspended in the air of a boatyard, a photo of a photo depicting a sandy respite while construction went on behind it.

Opposite the double portrait, a flickering video of sea life creatures looped continuously. While on the road, we noticed a theme. Many seafood restaurants and local businesses paid homage to the seascape by commissioning artists to paint aquatic scenes on the side of their building.  Often the focal point is a creature with a wide dilated gaze, one that an animal may give before being boiled for some meal. For our own sea mural rendition, we compiled all the imagery and connected the critters by their anxious eyeball.

Below the projection were small light boxes with fragmented scenes, almost like the collection of imagery one would see after a long day of swimming.

Room 3: Idyllic Structure and Architecture

Over the top of a pimply teal wallpaper piece, we placed small black and white photographs of Jacque Fresco’s compound buildings. The framed photographs followed the design of the background, where each image was placed on a ray of light emanating from the top of the mural, creating a semicircle on the wall. While designing this piece, we were thinking of bridging the high and the low, and the idea that pure form is thought to come from some divine inspiration. The decision of choosing a monochromatic palette for the images reinforced a sense of nostalgia embedded in these structures.

If Fresco’s idealism stands for efficiency and high style, then a counterpart idealism could be seen in the rest of the room. A tricked out limousine with the inscription “Big Daddy’s Caddy” flanked an image of an equally flamboyant swamp cart that proclaimed, “Expensive Taste.”

A cinderblock building with a watermelon wrapped around its edges was paired by an equally bleak building with a lone, thin palm tree being surveilled by a camera above.

Room 4: Myths and Gift Shop

The name Florida translates to “Feast of Flowers.” While Florida is more swamp than it is teaming with blooms, this depiction was one of the very first tales spun by Ponce de Leon while claiming a new home for his Spanish patrons. The very idea that our home state was founded on wishful longing of eternal youth, and an inaccurate description of its landscape, was an inspiration. The images chosen for this room alluded to the many settlers of Florida who migrated there in search of the miraculous.

A triptych from Cassadaga, a town comprised of spiritualist mediums, could be seen upon entering the space. A quad featuring a Ponce de Leon water tower, a mysterious stalactite cave, the Fountain of Youth, and a shell-crowned David surrounded a video of a slow swaying Cross of Burgundy—Florida’s first imperial flag. An eroded map pointing to a cryptic Lost Lake was shown above a similarly crumbling image of a citrus decal.

Of course no show about Florida would be complete without a gift shop, our final tongue and cheek homage to the aesthetics of Floridian entertainment and commerce.  Flags with close up details of banana plants, fake oranges, sea foam, fossilized coral, and refracted light hung overhead in a half moon shape. Life-sized cut outs of a faceless Florida Man and Florida Woman encouraged visitors to embody the spirit of these characters. T-shirts with patterns derived from our images were for sale and on display. Claude Levi Strauss’s first line of Sad Tropics, “I hate traveling and explorers.” was printed onto shop totes. Postcards from our road trips were on display on wavy shelves while an orange sun hung overhead and read “A Gamble Just Beyond.” This last proposal was inspired by gambling laws in Florida that allow cruise ships to gamble once they are beyond the horizon line—a seemingly impossible location. The text also references the position of immigrants to Florida. Many of them took a risk and entered uncharted territory to actualize their wildest dreams.


The exhibition Sad Tropics will be traveling to the Polk County Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida and to the Galveston Art Center in the Summer and Fall of 2018.