Xavier Cortada’s Art: Inspired by Science, and Uniquely Miami

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Arts & Culture

November 26, 2014

By Erin Marcus, M.D.

It had all the trappings of a typical Miami funeral. The eulogists, stifling their tears. The aria, Handel’s mournful Piangero la Sorte Mia. The loud lamentations of the black laced lloradera.

In the center of it all stood a glazed green urn and a shrouded portrait of the deceased, just 16 when he met his premature demise.

Granted, the painting was of the modernist school, but the dearly departed had a decidedly blue-green hue, jagged teeth, and a whopping curlicue of a tail. In a macabre touch, the portrait depicted the cause of his death: a triptych of tremendous triangles, meant to represent the predatory invasion that ultimately killed him.

The Unveiling.

The deceased was a minor South Florida celebrity, a twelve and a half foot, 400-plus pound American crocodile named Poncho. Tagged in infancy by state wildlife officials, Poncho was well-known to the residents of Gables by the Sea, an affluent community that juts into the waters of Biscayne Bay, a few miles north of Biscayne National Park. His death, which occurred when state wildlife agents tried to move him to another location, motivated artist Xavier Cortada to stage the funeral – or, as he preferred to call it, a celebration of life – as a piece of performance art.

“A lot of what I do is strange,” Cortada said. “By doing pieces like this, I hope to make people take notice.” Poncho, he added, symbolized all the native animals destroyed by the relentless development of South Florida. “He just happened to be a charismatic creature in the ecosystem we call home.”

Cortada, 50, is artist in residence at Florida International University’s College of Architecture and the Arts. His work focuses on the relationship between humans and nature, and he says science is his muse. He has worked closely with physicists, population and molecular geneticists, and field ecologists to convey the significance and meaning of scientific data. Much of his work is imbued with a quasi-religious hue.

In 2013, Cortada and physicist Pete Markowitz travelled to CERN’s large hadron collider to install five banners commemorating the research of scientists seeking to establish the existence of the Higgs Boson particle. The banners, which hang at the entrance of a tunnel leading to the collider, incorporate pages from 383 scientific articles published by more than 4000 physicists, engineers, and technologists who collaborated on the particle’s discovery. Each banner represents the experiments conducted to demonstrate the particle’s existence and depicts the photons, bosons, quarks and leptons into which the particle was predicted to decay. One banner is reminiscent of stained glass; another, of fire and light.

“Like art, science allows us to see beyond ourselves,” Cortada said. “It allows us to see the interconnectedness of things and to better understand not just our place in this world but this world and this universe.”

In 2006, Cortada received a National Science Foundation Antarctic Artist grant that allowed him to create several works of art at the South Pole. He used sea water to create an ice replica of a mangrove seed, which he buried in an ice sheet that is slowly moving toward the Weddell Sea. Another installation incorporated 24 shoes in a circle around the Pole; each was separated by inches, and represented a person affected by climate change in the earth’s different time zones. He used sea ice, sediment and glacier samples to create “ice paintings,” which he later presented to the governors of Florida and California at a global climate change summit. Some of his Antarctic works travelled to more than a dozen museums within the U.S. and internationally.

In a subsequent work, Cortada created portraits representing the nucleotides adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, the constituents of DNA. He invited visitors to Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum to attach postcards of the portraits to a wall, and then, with the help of molecular biologist Kalai Mathee, used the postcard pattern as a map to synthesize a sequence of DNA. In an essay in the journal Science, he described the strand as resembling a section of human chromosome 3.

“More of us need to realize that we came about in the same way that all other life did – we share the same biology,” he wrote. “May we use the knowledge we develop to act as best we can to sustain life for all species sharing this planet.”

Cortada incorporates didactic scientific education into many of his works. He invited three biology graduate students to speak about their research during Poncho’s funeral. On the opening night of his DNA project, he and Mathee gave visitors a two page article explaining DNA.

“It was an opportunity to communicate who we are and what we are,” Mathee said. “It was an amazing experience to demystify the concept of ‘what is DNA’ to non-scientists.”

Much of Cortada’s recent work has focused on the catastrophic effect of ecological degradation in his backyard of South Florida, the area of the U.S. that is among those most threatened by sea level rise. The celebration of Poncho’s life coincided with the closing reception of “littoral creatures,” an exhibit of Cortada’s paintings of sea grass-dwelling animals at Miami’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, which hosts more than 5000 local school children each year.

Cortada saw the crocodile’s death as an opportunity to engage local residents with their environment. Miami is a city with a paucity of green space, and the crocodile’s home, Gables by the Sea, is an area that some argue should never have been developed. It is surrounded by parkland and nature preserves, and residents are accustomed to seeing crocodiles, bull sharks, and other animals swimming in its canals; yellow signs warn visitors about crocodiles’ presence. American Crocodile attacks are extremely rare; wildlife biologists say the animals are reclusive and do not strike humans unless provoked.

“I’m more scared of the teeth made out of the development of the wetlands than crocodile teeth,” Cortada said.

State wildlife officials were compelled to remove Poncho from the area because they believed he had bitten two people who had jumped into a canal early one morning after attending a party at a waterfront home. The wildlife agents noted that he was distressed, and assume he died due to “capture stress,” according to Lindsey Hord, a biologist who coordinates the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Crocodile Response team. Several agents knew the animal and were “very upset” by his death, she added. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services classifies the American Crocodile as “threatened” in Florida and “endangered” elsewhere.

Neighborhood residents differed in their opinions. Some were relieved to have the crocodile gone, since he had eaten several pets over the years. But others said they had admired him and blamed the people who jumped in the water.

“He clearly wasn’t after” the injured humans, said Jan Falk, a neighborhood resident who noted that Poncho had returned to the area twice in the past after being removed. “If you’re going to live in South Florida, you have to accept the nature that’s here. Learn what’s in your own back yard and then you’re not afraid of it.”

Cortada revisited the theme of DNA at the end of the celebration of Poncho’s life. After leading a procession of mourners singing “Shall We Gather at the River,” he waded into the waters of Biscayne Bay at dusk, clad in black jeans and a weathered pair of leather shoes. As he shook a dust of ashes into the sea, he reminded the audience that the nucleotides that coded for the creation of Poncho were the same as those that code for all life on earth.

“Somehow we forget that we share the same biology,” he said. “By worrying about Poncho’s future, by protecting his habitat, we take care of our own. Unless we begin to problem solve, we will suffer.”

The Eulogy.

The closing reception for “Littoral Creatures.”

Scattering Ashes into Biscayne Bay.