Friday, April 4, 2014

Two weekends of Florida strangeness

This is a post probably best told mostly with images. Two weekends in February, back to back, of unusual Florida sights. The first weekend we traveled to Dinosaur World. I had never set foot in Dinosaur World but often passed it on my way to Orlando off of I-4. Here are the pictures from that early February day
Here I would like to post a work that was published in Papermachete #1 which I contributed and was all about this stretch of I-4

   One of my interests since my childhood has been carnivorous plants. The early attempts to cultivate such plants were a huge disappointment because I had no way to seed or purchase the meat eaters. So, the obsession was fed by trips to the library looking at pictures of sundews, pitcher plants and lobster pot traps. Recently, the quest  led me to Parkesdale Farms off of I-4 to purchase a pitcher plant which was shown as a specimen at the Strawberry Festival in Plant City. Finally,I thought, an insectivorous plant that fits the old desire. Hopefully one that  i won't kill like the Venus Fly Traps that were all the rage in the 80's and available at most grocery stores. The excursion to Parkesdale Farms opened an entirely new avenue of inquiry; the nature of advertisements along the I-4 corridor and their relationship with the practice of making art.
   The particular stretch of I-4 that is closest to the exit to get to Parkesdale Farms is also inhabited by several larger than life roadside "structures" which could or could not be construed as advertisements for the businesses that they are born from. Like an all too predictable physical projection from our collective interests Dinosaur World looms with it's enormous, colorful and possibly anatomically incorrect reproductions of early reptiles. Claiming more than 150
full size dinosaur exhibits along the walking paths of the park, Dinosaur World is an important tangent in the winding path between advertisement and art.
   Talking with one of the artists that worked on the dinosaur attractions before the park opened, Spanky Hudas, shed a particularly lurid light on the origins and intentions of the displays. Spanky worked alongside a Polish sculptor and several Mexican laborers for the Swedish owner Christer Svennson. Mr. Svennson,
Spanky explained, was a Swedish carnival worker who gained traction making dinosaur displays in Europe. He purchased the real estate on which an older roadside attraction called Gator Jungle lay in ruins. Some of the aging denizens of Gator Jungle remained even as the crew began to sculpt the dinosaur exhibits, including an immense one eyed alligator and a bear. These animals met a brutal end at the hands of the new management. Spanky Hudas recalled the slaughter of the bear; the gator was hauled off to an uncertain end. A few of the exhibits were shipped from Sweden and the rest were carved on sight under huge carnival tents by Mr. Hudas and the Pole with no name. Spanky also recalled to me the horrible conditions that the wet land area offered for such a job. The crew worked without electrical equipment carving huge blocks of styrofoam into the primordial beasts using liquid nail to adhere the blocks together while their employer routinely dumped toxins like MEKP and waste resin unto the grounds. When asked if the giant lizards were intended as advertisement for the park or art Spanky replied " Well, they weren't put there to support the community spirit"
Spanky Hudas and Christer Svennson parted ways after a heated argument over how many T-rex teeth he had produced one afternoon. Dinosaur World opened to the public in November of 1998.
   The Tyrannosaurus Rex, which must be all of 40' high, turns it's face from the controversial roadside architecture called "Airstream Ranch" installed on the eastbound lane of I-4. The "Airstream Ranch" is the brainchild of businessman Frank Bates who owns the Bates RV Exchange also off the eastbound lane of I-4. Created as a tribute to "roadside architecture" and a more direct reference to the "Cadillac Ranch" off of I-66/I-40 in Texas, this ambitious work made of 8 half buried airstreams has come under fire by county officials as a violation of code. They say it is an advertisement for his RV business. Frank insists that
"Airstream Ranch" is art. Frank came to his inspiration by being aware of another very similar work of art. In 1974 the art group known as Ant Farm created Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Ant Farm was a conceptually driven group made up of three individuals; Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels. 
Ant Farm had a knack for creating seemingly whimsical time based works. In a way the Cadillac Ranch was a meditation on the evolution and decline of the cadillac signature tail fin. The group was also known for their time capsule work. Ant Farm buried a refrigerator with popular food products and medicine in 1972  which was opened  during a public ceremony at the Art Guys Museum in Houston Texas in 2000. The persistent ratcheting of cultural and design evolution issues from these works. It is no wonder the T-rex looks away.
Cadillac Ranch consists of 10 Cadillacs buried nose down at a precise angle all in a row. The installation is in a wheat field owned by helium tycoon Stanley Marsh off of interstate 66 (40) and has been moved once in it's 35 year history ( in 1997 ) to save it from the expansion of Amarillo.
It is interesting to note a few very important differences in the two "ranches".First, Cadillac Ranch was so loved that it was actually saved from destruction and secondly, Cadillac Ranch has an interactive element. For years the Cadillac Ranch has accumulated graffiti posted by visitors. The graffiti is encouraged by owner Marsh as an evolution of the project. On the other hand the Airstream Ranch is difficult to get to and tagging is not encouraged, oh and it is not beloved.
It is strange that the same sort of desire to celebrate the freedom of travel and love of the open road can have such different reactions from local governments.
I would be willing to bet that Cadillac Ranch outlives all of the car themed public art out there. Maybe it is that the cars are tilted at the angle of the The Great Pyramids of Giza that gives the installation it's longevity, allowing it to survive while works like Spindle by Dustin Shuler are vulnerable to the back-hoe in Berwyn, Illinois (demolished May 2nd, 2008). Perhaps it is a matter of context. The stark terrain of Amarillo complements the Cadillac Ranch. The glistening metal skin of the Airstream Ranch could be too bold for the lush green backdrop of rural Florida, it may be too bold a vision. The air may be too heavy with humidity and in the evening it may be more entertaining to imagine the ghosts of a huge one- eyed gator and a skinned bear looking endlessly through the wetlands for it's lost pelt.

The next weekend we traveled to the Florida State Fair

Centrifugal governers- Steam engines are one of my great interests.

This little automated puppet theatre caught my attention.

Works by Johnny Meah at the midway! Months before we had met our old friend Mr. Meah in Fort Myers where he had a one man show at HOWL Gallery.

Talkers and clown at the side show during the Florida State Fair.

Johnny Meah takes the audience on an incredible journey through the history of the sideshow at  HOWL Gallery.

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