This is pretty much why I went to the University of Miami:
RSMAS, the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
Fantasies fueled by Jacques Cousteau’s Underwater World led me to this place for college. Unfortunately, during the time I was in school, RSMAS was really only for graduate studies. If it had been otherwise, I probably would never have switched into art so early on. I really am that shallow. Most things I do in life are often met with the question – “Is this something I could do at the beach?”
Here is the research vessel, the Walton Smith, UM’s “Calypso” if you will:
RSMAS also has a bar. A great bar. It’s got that feeling of some old biological lab with all its attendant flotsam, giving the place such a great atmosphere. You walk past mounted sharks on the way into the bar. I got incredibly drunk at this bar on my 19th birthday.
Here’s a view of the Walton Smith from the bar:
However, there was plenty about the art buildings to hook me. They may not have been at the beach, but they were like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson:
Especially if the Robinsons were heavy drinkers with a dim understanding of combustible fluids. The buildings were old barracks and were in fact the oldest structures on campus. They eventually got condemned, which is probably a good thing. Wood construction soaked for half a century in turpentine, with absent-minded students smoking all over the place; it was more or less one step away from this scene in Zoolander:
But I did often get out to RSMAS, or rather, where RSMAS is, which is on Virginia Key. Rode my bike out there a few times before I got a car. It was actually a lot like riding out to Ft Tilden from Brooklyn, being a similar distance with a big bridge to cross towards the end. Great views from Rickenbacker Causeway.
Virginia Key is an interesting place that gets overlooked for the larger Key Biscayne. There’s an old marine stadium there covered in graffiti, and there are some nooks and crannies with bits of “Old Florida” in them. Jimbo’s was one of these places:
Separated from Key Biscayne by Bear Cut, Virginia Key itself used to be connected to Fishers Island until a hurricane blew through in 1938 and created Norris Cut. Interesting to think about this in light of Hurricane Sandy and the new inlets created in the ever-changing barrier islands.
I wanted to toss a bottle into Bear Cut for a few reasons. There is a very swift and strong current there. Despite this, I always liked swimming there. That current holds promise as well as threat. Many different creatures come through the cut and with the RSMAS research vessel docked right there, a feeling of exploration and potential is palpable. To me at least. In years past, I’ve been lucky enough to accompany my friend Brian Teare out into Biscayne Bay to watch (and help a bit) him do his field tech work.
The Bay can be as clear as an aquarium.
And come to think of it, this exact spot was in fact an exploratory departure point for me. There are almost always cormorants on the pilings and lines here. I’ve always loved them. I had a photo of a cormorant from these very pilings. He was stretching his neck out and was a moment away from taking off. I don’t know where that photo is now, but I’ve seen cormorants in all sorts of situations and predicaments. Not sure exactly why I’m drawn to these guys. They seem kind of dumb, sometimes wise. Klutzy and graceful. And prehistoric.
I can’t remember now if I took the photo in college or afterwards on a visit, but I do remember that when I had finished up my thesis work for grad school I was compelled to do a drawing of this cormorant. Nothing but this cormorant, in red ink. Right before that I had been doing work like this:
And right after school it became this:
I don’t have an image of that first red cormorant drawing, but its the thing that started all the work I’m doing now.
OK. Back to the plot – I swam the bottle out a bit, just beyond the pier, and tossed it. It had a sooty tern in it.
After tossing the bottle I walked along the shore towards the southwest. As you head in this direction, you are taken right behind the Seaquarium, Miami’s version of SeaWorld. Like SeaWorld, it’s a completely fake environment and doesn’t necessarily feature native species. Although I guess you really can’t train a manatee to do anything exciting. Unless eating lettuce is exciting.
It’s funny and/or ironic that RSMAS and the Seaquarium are right next to each other. It’s not as though the two places are exact opposites, with completely different goals… but kind of they are. A reductive view of it would have RSMAS trying to explore and save nature and the Seaquarium exploiting it. There is much to say about animals in captivity. I’m of the opinion that in general people anthropomorphize animals too much, and assume they are unhappy in zoos. I think for the most part that isn’t true. Hell, I live in New York and a lot of humans here are in small little compartments. It is too much to assume that the concept of “freedom” is present in an animal – or stronger than a desire for food, warmth and security. Most animals do live longer in captivity, and today zoos do so much for endangered species and are sometimes the last habitats for these species. A last refuge from the abyss, and a possible salvation. And many institutions, notably the WCS, support conservation efforts in the field, helping to ensure that these species can persist in their native habitats.
However in the case of animals with very complex social lives and high levels of intelligence, I feel differently. Animals like elephants, and killer whales. (Chimpanzees are perhaps so similar to us that it sometimes seems as though they don’t mind sitting around watching TV and having a cigarette.) Killer whales have incredibly complicated family structures, with up to four generations living together in pods. They also have – it can be argued – culture. And they live much shorter lives in captivity. The thought of these huge animals set adrift in these little pools in random areas of the planet, as though left behind by some massive retreating glacier, is unsettling. And lonesome.
I google mapped the Seaquarium and then zoomed in:
I then repeated it with SeaWorld in San Diego and San Antonio:
To be able to see this animal, this individual, alone in its pool, seemed miraculous, intrusive, revelatory, and just too intimate. If I was more of a purely conceptual artist I can imagine doing something with these photos. Perhaps I will at some point.
Between the Seaquarium and the ocean is a thin strip of limestone, mangroves, Australian pines, and sand. There are usually pelicans roosting, and I’ve seen a few different heron and egret species fishing here. It feels forgotten and wild. A good haunt for raccoons.
It is interesting to be right between something so manufactured and something so wild. The presence of mangroves, and their smell, assists in this feeling of wilderness. The wilderness of odor is one of the last bastions of wilderness. I’m not saying I hear a wolf howl when someone farts on the subway, but it is nice to be reminded of the fact that we are animals. And the smell of the mangroves at low tide reminds me of all that is living and dying and being born, and the constant transformation of living things into the tissues and processes of other living things. This is where I found the paper nautilus.
It was not far from the empty shell of something I also recognized. I’m pretty sure this is all that’s left of the hull of a little boat that served as the reference for a boat in the background of one of my pieces:
As I was walking behind the Seaquarium, a dolphin show was in progress. I didn’t realize it, but softly the sound of the Beach Boys drifted in. I thought I was imagining it, and then the chipper, hyper cheerful voice of the trainer piped in over a loudspeaker. Disassociated from the imagery it was so strange and eerie. I was seeing pelicans, and the sea, and the backs of buildings that looked abandoned. Yet the Beach Boys, and this cheerful American voice was all around me. I could see NO people by the way. Nothing from the stadium, and I could not even hear applause. It felt like some sort of post apocalyptic movie. Or something out of a dream.
Some of my work used to seem, and was described as, “post-apocalyptic”. I never meant it that way. I always felt that the stuff I was painting was totally possible now, or even in the past, as well as the future. Lord knows you don’t have to go far, even in the States to see things that would fit the bill as “post-apocalyptic”. There has been a lot of rumination on the Apocalypse these days in art, movies, and books. Some people say it could stem from the fear of ecological disaster, and our anxiety about the environment. Climate change is such a huge thing to face, too big it seems, and perhaps this is how we’re expressing that feeling.
But I think there’s a part of this focus on the apocalyptic future that is actually a kind of “looking back”. By looking forward into a wrecked world where our existence is reduced back to basics, it’s as though we’re trying to understand what we are at our core. Maybe this focus is a desire for a simplification of our world. Or in this future we’re trying to see our past, and what we are, where we are, when we are, here in the 21st century. On the shore of Biscayne Bay.
Or maybe it was Utah.