Tristes Tropiques

tristes tropiques imageby Dominic Frost

While driving from New Orleans to their native Florida, Jonathan Traviesa and Christina Molina – partners in both artistic endeavor and life – stop along their coastal route to photograph kitschy Florida ephemera. “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,” Molina says in a retrospective of her recent project for New Media Caucus. While the character of the state may not be so easily reduced to the obvious visual language of pinks, blues, and oranges associated with tropical fruit, beachside motels, or some commercial paradise, the curated aesthetic exposes a pattern. Inextricably tied to this pattern or representation, one can also observe strange headlines in crime blotters and editorial columns; Florida man arrested for throwing alligator through drive-thru window at Wendy’s; Jacque Fresco abandons society to found utopia in South Central region of Florida.

In an exhibition entitled Sad Tropics, after Claude Levi Strauss’s anthropological travel study Tristes Tropiques, Molina and Traviesa explore the psyche and zeitgeist of their home state as an attempt to better understand and articulate the unique culture it has birthed. As they discover, or perhaps knew all along, much of Florida’s character exists because of what Traviesa calls “a certain aspiration, and maybe even desperation” to reconcile a difficult reality with the looming idealism of the American dream and the promise of paradise. “Personifying the essence of an entire state is never easy, but this piece comes close,” says D. Eric Bookhardt of the New Orleans Advocate.

In the exhibit, which has shown at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, The Front, and its current place of residence at Tempus Projects, the viewer encounters an imposing wall-sized photograph of palm leaves under the neon pink light of a sign bearing the words, ‘Sad Tropics’. There are no breaks of sky in the mural, so one may imagine the picture to have unknown depth. Molina and Traviesa use the image “because it connects Florida to the Southern Gothic.” “When you think of palm trees, you think of the tropics and resort and leisure” but they treat the palms “in a way that [is] more menacing and intimidating, that sort of represents this consumptive, scary landscape.” By repurposing imagery that one might find in tourist advertisements, Molina and Traviesa tell the viewer that things are not as they are presented. Unlike the postcards and advertisements that would have travellers or residents see the palm tree as a symbol of paradise, the artists use the palms to conjure an unknowable wild.

Deeper into the exhibit, the viewer encounters a video display, which loops an animation accompanied by steel drums that Traviesa accredits mostly to Molina. The animation, titled Florida Man/ Florida Woman, irreverently illustrates various odd crimes reported in Florida. One might ask, “what makes crimes in Florida particularly noteworthy?” yet a quick Google search of the term “Florida man” yields a bounty of colorful results: Florida man breaks into Burger King and drinks gallons of deep frying oil; Florida man breaks into jail to hang out with friends; Florida man sexually assaults pink flamingo at Tampa Zoo. Perhaps something strange is afoot in the Sunshine State.

Florida Man/ Florida Woman introduces a thematic that one begins to notice while navigating the rest of the exhibition. Photographs of futuristic architecture, tricked out cars, banana trees, resorts, and other hallmark Florida idiosyncrasies pepper the walls and offer an arguably delusional picture of grandeur – wherein regular folk have taken it into their own hands to create a fantasy through which to escape a harsh reality. The images are fun, but next to threatening scenes of vast landscapes, decay, and persecution, they find new meaning. The disparity conjures an absurdity, a picture of man’s futile attempt to reclaim agency in an indifferent world.

Various other murals, like the wall of palm leaves, cover broad surfaces that demand the viewers attention. Two such murals show Traviesa and Molina, nearly nude – these may be the only obviously staged photographs in the exhibit. In one, the couple floats on orange slices in what one must presume to be the Gulf, as a wave looms, threatening to overtake them. In the other, the couple stands on a beach like Adam and Eve, covered in sand, with photographs of Jacque Fresco’s futurist architecture covering the explicit regions of their nude forms. Both affect a sort of otherworldly feeling, wherein the artists’ bodies become representations of those who live along the disintegrating Gulf Coast. Next to the sublime forces of nature, they appear unaware, disempowered.

The imagery, taken from Florida or media advertising Florida, presents an idyllic paradise, made sinister by decay or irresolution. “One of the things that has preoccupied me and my wife Christina in our project is representation itself. Florida, and this is not unique to Florida, does such a thorough job of representing the tropical fantasy. There’s signage everywhere, photographs of palm trees everywhere,” Traviesa says. But the reality of life in Florida does not live up to the tropical garden of eden of pandering advertisements; this misinformation is perhaps what Traviesa refers to when he mentions the Southern Gothic, a genre defined by characters’ inability to combat both the physical landscape and the irrational scenes of their own minds.

While the Southern Gothic that the artists invoke may appear through Sad Tropics in a new context, their iteration draws on a thematic that has characterized great works of art and culture as far back as the early 19th Century. Writers like Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner deploy similar devices in their prose: Irrationality, consumption, delusion, emptiness, threatening nature contrasted with the idea of paradise. In consideration of the tradition of the Southern Gothic, Traviesa reflects, “How do I personally digest these mythologies? It’s funny. Certain things happen in the South – like here in New Orleans, or in Florida – that could never happen in California or New York.” He does not smile or laugh when he says funny. Curious might be a better word, or even suspicious. The deviations from modern American values and ways of life that we glimpse through the Southern Gothic are uncomfortable, grotesque, macabre: Absurd like the deformed gargoyles that cling, childlike, to random buildings around New Orleans.

Traviesa believes that certain writers like Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor have, through writing, exposed the existence of certain “oddball characters” that demonstrate the cognitive dissonance that Molina and his work as well as the Southern Gothic suggest. He attributes the phenomenon to  an aspiration and desperation unique to regions like Florida, but also Louisiana and the South at large. Traviesa believes that such aspiration and desperation stem from epistemic violence, neglect, and denial.

“We all want the shortest path of least resistance, and it happens all over the world. But I think it’s expressed differently … where the gap between fantasy and reality are so great – more dramatically, sometimes comically, and sometimes tragically in places like the South, that are poor economically, and have a history of subjugating certain groups. And not that out West or up North or the Midwest don’t have similar issues, but they’re so strong down here on the surface.”

“The reason I think it happens down here is neglect. People just have to shoulder things on themselves, and invent some scratch and some traction. People need water, so I can sell it for whatever. People gotta eat, so I’ll hustle some barbecue. And you can say ‘oh, isn’t that a beautiful thing that happens in New Orleans’ – and it kind of is, because it doesn’t really happen like that anywhere else. But the root of why it happens is that people don’t have much. Corruption affects the worst off people and pushes them further down… The South is surreal and full of characters because in a weird twisted way, because of neglect and oppression, people have this strange freedom to exhibit and exert themselves in any little way they can, and sometimes those forms of expression are incredibly inventive. Are the roots of those expressions based in something just and fair? I would argue no.”

People give themselves permission to be very anti-establishment because the establishment has let them down. It is absent; or if it is present, its presence is one of violence and control. While the examples of selling water and barbecue are fairly benign, the same forces may very well drive the anomalous Florida man who blows up his mother’s home cooking meth, or the man who spends thousands of dollars making a monster truck style golf cart. These people are searching for paradise in a broken system.

“All of this stuff is a little bit abstracted from actual behavior – making meth in the backyard with mom, I mean come on. But there’s the fantasy; How do I escape. There’s the fantasy of partying forever, getting rich quick, but the reality is the awful world,” Traviesa says.

In a strange way, he does not seem nihilistic when he calls the world awful. Some very beautiful contributions to American culture have risen out of the veritable hell of slavery and other institutions of oppression such as the fruit industry. Traviesa points to blues as a prime example. Visually, Sad Tropics does not appear nihilistic either – which troubles an easy or reductive understanding of the work. In many ways, the photographs are celebrations of the ways that aspiration and desperation expose human ingenuity, though through an existential (and literal) lens.

There is the utilitarian dilemma, are people happier in their delusion than they would be if they were asked to try and pull themselves up by their bootstraps despite insufficient opportunity? Surely delusion follows the shortest path of least resistance, a human compulsion. Sad Tropics offers a glimpse of pain and creativity, iterated in Florida’s fashion, that asks the viewer to confront their conception of Florida and similar places with a burden of understanding, but it does not offer an answer. Traviesa himself certainly does not have the answer – which may explain the lack of an explicit political position expressed in his and Molina’s work.                                                                                                         

It is no coincidence that Sad Tropics has debuted at the present junction in history. “Maybe the South is becoming more like everywhere else. And the sick, twisted person, the opportunist artist in me is like ‘maybe that’s a shame – that were losing some of this interest, this culture and expression and wildness’ – but the other part of me, the real human part, thinks it is really good that the monuments are coming down.” Essentially, modernization, the digital age, or whatever we choose to call it may be slowly disassembling the power structure that has for so long caused the South to be such an anomaly in Western culture. Sad Tropics may therefore be seen as an impassioned retrospective as much as a criticism, for the same forces that engender humane concerns have arguably borne our greatest moments of expression. And so we are left with a dilemma: the undeniable relationship between rich culture and suffering, dejection, and insanity. Maybe, as Traviesa suggests, modernization will bring about change for the impoverished, but what about the man who can afford a lift kit for his limousine, and custom artwork for the side that reads “Big Daddy’s Caddy.” Surely that man, or people like Jacque Fresco (also featured in Sad Tropics) represent a breed that will not so easily succumb to the well-wishing charity of a newer time.

“The name Florida translates to ‘Feast of Flowers.’ While Florida is more swamp than it is teeming 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,” writes Molina. As her and Traviesa’s Sad Tropics clearly shows, mysticism, wonder, and despair accompany this wishful longing and inaccurate description in abundance. Whether or not the pipe dream of paradise is better than the difficulty of reality may not be so clear.


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