Absence of Place

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Miami Herald

January 15, 2006

The landscape changes, but the memories persist: An artist invites the public to collaborate on a work to remember a vanished past.

By Ana Mendez. amendez@herald.com

Watson Island used to be the place to go for fresh fish, and that’s the picture I still have of it in my mind: a handful of weathered shacks animated by equally weathered fishermen, each assuring us that the other guy’s fish were at least a day old.

It was the early ’90s, I had just moved to South Beach and I was in love. Everything in those years was colored by the state I was in. I’d never had such tasty fish, seen such deep sunsets, wandered into such a marvelous place. On Sunday afternoons, my love and I would drive to Watson Island to buy our fish. He’d worked on a fishing boat as a kid and loved to regale me with stories as we cruised the shacks. Once, he told me of how he’d been hastily scaling a customer’s fish when his knife slipped and he cut his finger nearly to the bone. Without hesitating, he’d taken off his T-shirt, wrapped his bleeding finger and finished the job. The customer never even knew, he bragged, and I learned a little of all he was willing to conceal. Today, of course, the Watson Island fish shacks are no more. And their disappearance points to other, deeper losses. Time, relentless, irrevocable, moves us constantly forward.

Last year, I returned to Miami after 10 years away. In some ways, the city hadn’t changed. In others, it was almost unrecognizable. The rhetoric was still the same; the problems remained familiar. But many of the old landmarks were gone or altered. Coral Way, in particular, seemed stripped and cleaned of all its history. South Beach had sprouted giant glass buildings.

Somewhere along the way, Watson Island had been spruced up and made respectable. There’s a museum there now, and parking. In the strange way that memory (or at least my memory) works, I can’t be sure where exactly the fishing shacks stood. I have half a feeling that if someone were to make a good case that they never existed, I could be persuaded to doubt my own recollection.

More and more I’ve come to understand that when we mourn what a place used to be, we are also mourning what we used to be.

Flea Market at Bird Road-s

Charlie would buy bootleg 8-tracks of the Beatles’ Greatest Hits at this outdoor flea market.
(Bird Road and the Palmetto)



The image and caption above, and those on Page 6L, are from ‘‘Absence of Place,’‘ an art installation by Xavier Cortada shown during Art Basel in Miami last year. The work featured 180 snapshots of places across Miami where memories were created during his four decades of living here. Brief captions scrawled on the wall accompanied each.

• In the caption above, the artist wrote this about his older brother: ‘Charlie bought bootleg 8-tracks of the Beatles’ Greatest Hits at this outdoor flea market. (Bird Road & the Palmetto.)”

• Cortada will create an exhibit similar to this when he receives readers’ photos.

Maybe this is why I was so drawn to Xavier Cortada’s recent installation at OMNIart. ‘Absence of Place‘, which ran during Art Basel, was not so much a tribute to a lost city as it was an artist’s way of remembering a vanished self.

”Marcelino and I played kick ball in this baseball diamond,” reads the caption beneath a photograph of new homes on SW Fourth Avenue and Fourth Street.

”Nuns taught me to read at this (Gesu Catholic) school,” it says under a photo of a car-park on Northeast First Avenue and Second Street.

Beneath a shot of a construction site on Northeast 18th Street and Bayshore Drive: “Mo and I pounded drinks at this (The 1800 Club) bar.”

In photo after photo — 180 in total — Cortada juxtaposed what used to be with what now stands in its place. It all added up to a powerful argument for the persistence (and necessity) of memory in a transitory place like Miami.

”History,” Xavier points out, “is composed of individual stories.”

After I wrote about the installation — which was designed to be temporary, a fleeting commentary set in a downtown building that may also soon be lost — I suggested to Xavier that he expand his project by inviting others to submit their own photo-memories. He, in turn, suggested that we open it up to Herald readers.

So here we are. This is your chance to be part of a collaborative community art project that will be unveiled this summer. The steps are simple:

• Remember a place in South Florida that no longer exists, except in memory

• Take a photo of whatever has been built in its place

• Write a caption that reflects what was there before, and your memory of it.

• Send the whole thing to us. See the box accompanying this article to see how.

We’ll post the photos online as we receive them. This summer, Xavier and The Miami Herald will sponsor an exhibition of the photos at One Herald Plaza.

To start it all off, here is my submission:

“In 1994, Dex and I used to buy red snapper from these fishermen on Watson Island near Downtown Miami. The fish never disappointed.”