Tropical Inspiration and Collaboration: An Interview with Florida-raised Artists
Cristina Molina and Jonathan Traviesa’s collaboration embraces Florida’s imperfections, embodies its luscious textures, and explores its tropical history through their exhibition Sad Tropics. The presentation of this mixed-media body of work is currently on view at The Polk Museum’s Melvin and Burks Galleries on Florida Southern College’s campus. If you are further west, you can also visit Tempus Projects in Tampa, FL to experience a more concentrated showing of this compelling exhibition.
I met Miami native, Cristina Molina, in graduate school at the University of Florida. Even after nine years, Molina’s artistic practice continues to have a lasting impact on the way I interpret contemporary art. She once described the creative process to me as “problem-solving the means to communicate an idea or feeling.” As a budding art history graduate student, this definition broadened my horizons but also challenged the way I previously approached artwork.
Similar to Molina, Jonathan Traviesa is also a Florida transplant residing in New Orleans. I met him at an exhibition at the non-profit/artist-run space, The Front. Both Molina and Traviesa are part of this New-Orleans based collective that is bound by their mutual commitment to fostering contemporary art in the city through their grassroots efforts. Molina and Traviesa’s Florida roots are key to the empathetic lens from which they portray Florida’s rich landscapes and urban development. The duo tackles the tropical stereotypes and the kitsch reality of the southern peninsula through video, photography, textile, prints, animation, painting, and sculpture. The interview below illustrates Molina and Traviesa’s collaborative purpose and process. Sad Tropics will be on view at both Florida Southern College’s campus and Tempus Projects until November 2, 2018.
What inspired Sad Tropics?
Our exhibition title was inspired by Tristes Tropiques a memoir written by Claude Levi Strauss about his travels to the tropics and beyond. Throughout the book, Levi Strauss is highly critical of the quest for the “exotic,” and that is apparent from the very first line of the book, “I hate traveling and explorers.” There is a sense of irony and self-consciousness throughout the memoir because he is participating in the very thing that he was critiquing. This type of layered perspective is what guides us with this project.
The pilgrimage to the tropics and journey towards the exotic is something that we feel is embedded in Florida mythology. From the very start of Florida’s colonial inception Ponce de Leon, credited with being the first European colonizer to reach Florida, described the peninsula to the Spanish monarchs as a place bursting in blooms. Florida actually means “feast of flowers.” Of course, we know that what Ponce de Leon was describing is a fantasy and not the reality of the swampy Florida landscape; it is this bait and switch of tropical advertising that has always permeated Florida’s advertising, and that is the very thing that obsesses us. Historically we see many examples of communities gravitating toward Florida as a place to re-invent themselves or establish their vision of Utopia. Men such as George P. Colby who founded the spiritualist camp Cassadaga, or Jacque Fresco a modernist who created his compound of geodesic buildings in Venus, FL are examples of this regenerating mission. The more we studied these histories, the more we realized that this Floridian aspiration was not only seen in individual or collective ambitions, but also in the state’s architecture and landscape.
How did both of you collaborate to create this exhibition?
Our process is a balance between an instinctual gathering of images to develop an archive and then a dedicated design/production for each exhibition venue. Since we are both from Florida originally and now live in New Orleans, we often road trip back home for the holidays. For about two years we took a slow way home, on the lookout for anything that instinctually seemed so Florida. We would also plan to stop in these various communities like Cassadaga and Fresco’s compound so that we could photograph and make notes. So much of the work comes from images we made on the road. For some of the newer pieces, we carefully planned and staged the images, making them either on-site or in the studio. Our piece Florida Natives, for example, required us to visit plant nurseries and buy plants that were native to Florida. We then photographed the pieces in an asphalt parking lot in some strip mall in North Miami Beach. We then took the plants and vacuum sealed them in Ziploc bags. The most calculated effort was making the animations Florida Man + Florida Woman which are all based on actual news headlines that begin with “Florida Man.” The works included in the video are all paper-cut stop motions, so it involves set design, puppet making, voice acting, and of course animating frame by frame. We then had to decide how to parse through our material and make exhibitions that seemed cohesive.
Are there any other artists or writers inform your practice or that sparked Sad Tropics?
Claude Levi Strauss was a reference, we also read Oh Florida! by Craig Pittman who was interesting because he describes how Florida is an influencer for the rest of the United States. Books like Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and Miami by Joan Didion were on our reading list during the project. Also, the legacy of writer Carl Hiassen’s storylines inspired figures like Florida Man + Florida Woman in our work.
How do physical places and spaces affect your work? Did the fact that the exhibition is in Florida influence your artwork?
For each of our shows, the physical space is fundamental to our exhibition design. We take into account the architecture of each site and design photo murals that fit the exact specs for many of the walls. We think of the murals as the “anchors” for the show and then organize visual themes around those larger images. All of the individual artworks and components can stand on their own, but we take on the architecture of the space and consider it to be an artwork as well. Having the exhibitions in Florida felt like a homecoming. Our first semblance of Sad Tropics was in New Orleans. Even though there are many crossovers between the two states, it feels most appropriate for the work to be in Florida because the exhibition is so specific to place and site, and our audience correlates directly with the place we are describing.
Does Sad Tropics touch upon any contemporary issues happening today?
Because our work is informed by Florida history, much of that visual research coincides with some specific issues related to Florida tourism and agriculture. For example, in one of our exhibitions, Sad Tropics at The Polk Museum in Lakeland, and at the satellite Melvin and Burks gallery on Florida Southern’s campus we designed a Florida themed gift shop complete with t-shirts, postcards, and cardboard cutouts for visitors to snap photos of themselves. Tourism is one of Florida’s leading economies, and in many ways can be thought of as having colonialist tendencies of pioneering and conquering. With our gift shops, we allude to the consumer desire of “capturing” paradise by creating the same kind of merchandise that many themed attractions have. Another major part of Florida’s economy comes from agriculture, and that is a significant theme in Sad Tropics at Tempus Projects.
Most of the show depicts Florida flora like banana plants, Florida native plants, and a giant image of us floating on orange slices in the middle of a dark ocean. Our ominous reference to Florida agriculture was directly citing dwindling numbers in the production and harvesting of citrus. Where the citrus industry was once a huge draw to Northerners (a get rich quick scheme), we now see a massive decline in the number of prosperous orange groves because of climate change and citrus-related diseases. Our piece, Florida Natives (mentioned earlier), used the asphalt parking lot and the method of Ziploc asphyxiation to allude the overdevelopment of the Florida landscape which only continues to get more zealous over the decades. As a result, the urban projects completely changed the look and feel of the native landscape as well as putting the natural habitat at risk. Our animation Florida Man + Florida Woman also touches on more contemporary exaggerated personalities, the sort of social outcasts, provocateurs, and daredevils that make up Florida’s colorful population.
What do you hope visitors take away from the exhibition?
We hope to offer a sort of geo-psychosis in which the viewer questions what the idea of tropicalia and paradise is, and begin to see its dark currents. We also hope that viewers can see that we are both celebrating and critiquing the mythology embedded within the Florida landscape and culture. Hopefully, they find the work engaging and fun.
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