On view now: Group exhibitions at ICA Miami and Primary Projects

The first encounter with Andra Ursuta’s installation, one of the inaugural shows at the new Institute of Contemporary Art Miami in the Design District, is of a woman’s corpse lying on the ground floor, splattered with wax. When you look up from the life-size dummy, you see ragged-edged drywall and wooden platforms placed in sections of the three stories above, in the magnificent Zaha Hadid-designed Moore Building that houses the museum.
The impression is that she fell or was pushed from the ceiling and smashed through all the floors — the title of the exhibit is “As I Lay Drying.” Some of the platforms above contain Ursuta’s strange sculptural creatures, made of patchwork quilts and comforters.
The Moore Building itself is an essential part of the installation. The way the various pieces are molded into the architecture, the uncommon vertical orientation of the exhibit, make the viewing experience atypical for a museum setting. That “Drying” is a little unnerving seems to be intentional. The Romanian-born artist, currently based in New York, infuses a darkness and sense of displacement in her works, which have been exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale and last spring at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum.
It’s a somewhat difficult installation to wrap your head around, but looking at it from such a variety of angles from all four floors makes it far more interactive and intriguing than that first encounter might suggest.
Interactive is the entire basis for the second exhibit at ICA.
Pedro Reyes’ “Sanatorium” is art mixed with therapy sessions and philosophy, really one large performance piece that stars you, the visitor. This is great stuff, but it needs some effort and time so make sure you’ve allotted more than 10 minutes.
The Mexican artist has had this installation, called a “transient clinic,” on the road since 2011, and it changes after each stop. The participatory aspect started even before the opening, which coincided with Art Basel Miami Beach. The museum asked for volunteers and roped in a large group of interns to be guides, or “therapists,” for the six rooms on the second floor that make up the exhibit.
One room contains a collection of small figurines, which you place in a maquette of a museum space. You pick out the pieces that fit you or your mood, and put them in the miniature spaces to create your own exhibit. The figures themselves are wonderful in the old drug-store variety.
In another room you pop a balloon that you have identified as something that has recently angered you. On this particular visit, an FIU student volunteer was the therapist (dressed in white smock) who would lead the session that involved writing out a hope or question, which you tack to a wall, and then she would roll one of the giant dice that have philosophical phrases on them — one has quotes from German philosophers, another sayings from Eastern religious texts. It should answer your question in an existential way.
And there is a room in which you decorate a voodoo doll (again with small objects that Reyes has found), but to express the life, not death, of someone you love.
Initially there seems to be little relationship between these two exhibits, which announce the arrival on the local museum scene of ICA, formed by a group that splintered from the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami last year. But Reyes, like Ursuta, is really working with space (he was trained as an architect) as it relates to our own internal workings.
In both cases, the artists are asking us to question how we see, and feel, the world around us.

PRIMARY PROJECTS
There are many sensory and cerebral aspects to the fascinating group show at Primary Projects, called “International Friendship Exhibition.”
First off, what about that name? What about that burning smell? And the electrical sound of the mechanized chair moving up and down the wall? In this eclectic exhibit of mostly local artists, they all do tie together, but you have to pay close attention.
The name is taken from a pavilion in North Korea that houses various gifts and artifacts given to the dear leaders of that bizarre, ultra-authoritarian state through the years.
The founder of Primary Projects, Books Bischof, doesn’t know what’s actually in that pavilion — few do — but guesses that it is filled with an eerie combination of kitsch and propaganda. Long before the very odd controversy over the movie The Interview erupted, when North Korea objected so strongly and possibly hacked distributor Sony Pictures’ site to make Sony pull the movie, Bischof and the other directors of Primary had thought that the contradictions so apparent in this Friendship Pavilion would be an interesting foundation for a show.
“This is not an overtly political show,” Bischof says. “There’s no George Bush on a stick type of thing.” But the tension between patriotism and protest, between propaganda and kitsch, were intriguing ideas. “Things are not always what they seem on the surface.”
Like the rainbow sculpture from Gavin Perry. A centerpiece of the show, it might strike some as a little too happy coming from this artist. But the rainbow turns into a black bow in the adjoining room.
Next to it is a heap of 94 burnt American flags from Cole Sternberg — that is the work that has created the smell. The noise comes from a chair lift created by Reed Van Brunschot. A nondescript, tan chair moves up a track on the wall, stops and comes down again. It has a Kafka-esque feeling to it, a monotonous seat where creativity and dialogue have been crushed, and we only go through the motions.
Look up to the high ceiling, and there is another faux-joyful piece, painted by Jim Drain. Its colorful lettering includes peace signs and religious symbols, but it spells out “Exorcist.”
The photographs from Zachary Balber are heart wrenching. One is a series of small snapshots of a lovely girl, maybe from a modeling shoot — a form of commercialized propaganda especially of the female form. She was Balber’s sister, who died of an overdose.
One of Miami’s most interesting emerging artists, Jessie Laino, has created sculptures that can go unnoticed at first. They are car mufflers, painted and spruced up, like an authoritarian country trying to make the ugly underbelly presentable.
Beatriz Monteavaro introduces the exhibit with a corner in the front of the space filled with pure kitsch and humor, while also poking a finger at terror mechanisms. She has set up a house of horrors, walls and two little rooms plastered with comic-book fright imagery, bathed in black light. Like North Korea itself, it is filled with the absurd; but repetitive images of skulls are scary too.
These are just some of the works from the 19 artists in the show, which has taken a risk with all its layers that is ultimately successful.

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