Framing video – in a collection

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The best video ever that we saw in Miami was not at the fairs but at the Margulies Collection.

Isaac Julien’s 3-channel projection Western Union: Small Boats, 2007, is a poetical/political piece with watery realms of extreme sensuality and earthly realms both sensual and haunting. Julien works with dancers and here, he’s poised sinuous bodies in and around boats, sea cliffs and a baroque colonial mansion in North Africa. Without the use of a clear narrative thread you are immersed in a realm of suggestion.

Isaac Julien, landscape in North Africa
Isaac Julien, surreal landscape in North Africa

Scenes tumble from one screen to another, sometimes showing men adrift at sea in small boats; other times, shots of gorgeous sea cliffs, people staring longingly out to sea; and bodies tumbling in what look like death throes either underwater or on marble floors of the mansion.

Isaac Julien.  Water was a big part of the video.  It was benign, as here; or a destructive force.
Isaac Julien. Water was a big part of the video. It was benign, as here; or a destructive force.

Julien says the work is about economic migrants who leave North Africa seeking better lives in Europe. They head out to sea hoping to make it to Sicily and some never do. We read into the piece any humans desperate enough for a better life that they will risk all to get there.

Isaac Julien, water as a force to be reckoned with.  Tumbling bodies thrash around in underwater ballet.
Isaac Julien, water as a force to be reckoned with. Tumbling bodies thrash around in underwater ballet.

The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse is one of a number of contemporary art collections in private museums in Miami’s design district. We were lucky enough to visit with Andrea, who grew up in Miami and knows Mr. Margulies himself. She introduced us to the collector and to collection Curator Katherine Hinds. We talked briefly about the University of Pennsylvania art students who came down to Miami to the collection and selected works for a show at Penn (in fall, 2008, at Charles Adams Fine Art Gallery). Margulies — a Penn grad — was most impressed with the faculty and students for their smart curating from his collection. That show was the second Miami collection show in Philadelphia. Earlier,  in Feb. 2008, Moore College’s Lorie Mertes curated a show from the Debra and Dennis Scholl collection for Moore’s Paley and Levy Galleries.

The phenomenon of private museums of contemporary art collections impressed us mightily. Miami has five such collection museums — Margulies, the Scholl Collection’s World Class Boxing, the Rubell Family Collection, Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation and the Rosa de la Cruz Collection. The preponderance of contemporary art collectors, especially ones who share their collections with the public, is amazing, outstanding, and fills us with jealousy. Philadelphia has the Barnes Foundation, which is like the Miami museum collections only in that it is a private collection that opens its doors to the public. We also have the West Collection in Oaks (yes, we claim them), housed on the corporate campus of SEI.

Philadelphia doesn’t have the financial base that Miami does; but another issue is that we need to grow a culture of contemporary art collecting because it’s just not happening here the way it could/should.  (We hear this all the time from gallerists who do better at the art fairs out of town than they do selling work in Philadelphia).

But the very first thing we need to grow is a culture that likes contemporary art. Without that art-friendly climate, nothing much is going to happen.

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