Visions of 200-Foot Bread Walls Dance in the Head of Antoni Miralda, Who Creates Food for Thought
When pressed to explain just what his wildly exhibitionistic works mean, the ponytailed artist, dressed in a turquoise shirt and purple pants, turns elusive, even prickly. "My work is very personal," he retorts in heavily accented English. "It needs only to be consumed, to be shared. It is the work that should talk, not me." The work doesn't do that yet, but Miralda's fans are happy to fill in. Says James Harithas, former head of Houston's Contemporary Art Museum: "In the art world we tend to appreciate something that is rare and private. Miralda has come up with something that is rare and public, for the benefit of everyone."
That is stretching it a bit. Miralda's works are striking, inventive and outgoing in an exuberant, childlike way, but many have been created for special occasions that sometimes have a limited guest list, such as the 1984 New York banquet he put on for fashion designer Willi Smith. On top of three tables shaped like a jumpsuit, T-shirt and pair of pants, Miralda slathered gallons of mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup, dotted each table with little mirrors and watched as the chic guests, as he puts it, "dressed themselves" while they downed asparagus tips and shrimp they had dipped into the brightly colored goo. As big a hit as most of these fantasies are, some have also produced bellyaches. In 1978 he whipped together a tricky cake in the shape of a 53-foot-tall phallus, surrounded by a meringue chapel, for the Hotel Orient in Barcelona. The high point occurred when a stripteaser slid down the structure, coating herself in meringue. After that one, feminists were ready to claw out Miralda's eyes.
Miralda traces his love of ritual and food to his childhood in Catalonia. "I am very much marked by my origins," he says. "I always loved seeing my city in a holiday moment when the people promenaded and covered the street with flowers." For all the pageantry, he felt stifled by the strict atmosphere of Franco's Spain. "I didn't like to be taken by society and told to do this and this and that, just following what everyone was doing." Nonetheless he dutifully studied fabric design (his father was a designer) at the School of Textiles in Terrassa and served as a reserve officer in the army. There, inspired by the tin cans his foods came in, he made his first true oeuvre: The General, a seven-foot-high sculpture with a penis of sardine and clam tins.
Miralda left for France in 1962. "There was no way to stay in Spain," he says. "It was asphyxiating." In Paris he struggled to launch himself into the avant-garde scene as a colorist caterer, producing meringue landscapes and gardenlike pastries. After a visit to the U.S. in 1972 Miralda decided to move again. "There is a sense in Europe of waiting," he says. "Here you are confronted with reality very fast." With the help of artists Christo and Arman, who introduced him to the American art world, he slowly but flamboyantly made a name for himself. "I was well known in Europe," he says. "Here, I started from zero." Now that he has arrived, he may be making a play for somewhat greater longevity than his food art has enjoyed. Last spring Miralda performed a facelift for the popular Manhattan restaurant El Internacional. As the pièce de résistance, he hoisted onto the roof a steel, 1¼-ton replica of the Statue of Liberty's green crown—easily his longest-lasting work so far.
Today in Manhattan, Miralda resides in a world largely of his own making. When visitors buzz his downstairs bell, they are tossed house keys on a ring of a plastic orange slice and an ear of corn. On the wall outside his upstairs door is a primate altar—half a dozen glowing plastic apes hang there in honor of Snowflake, the Barcelona Zoo's beloved gorilla. Inside, the loft walls are salmon pink, the window sashes turquoise, and purple net curtains hang at the windows. A beige chiffon scarf is tied around the television screen and serves, Miralda claims, to keep the energy of the image contained. Divorced, he shares his loft with fellow countrywoman Montse Guillen, 39, a master chef who now works with him.
Tilted at a jaunty angle on a '50s red plastic kitchen chair, Miralda talks about what's next on his plate: an extravaganza called Honeymoon. It will be a two-month festival in September and October honoring Barcelona's Christopher Columbus monument and Lady Liberty, and the festivities will take place on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the kitsch treats will be a Fifth Avenue parade celebrating the unusual pair, featuring a "just married" truck with a tail made of 100,000 Coca-Cola cans and the world's largest pair of jeans, with a 1,000-foot edible belt. "I am too lazy to make simple art," Miralda says—the closest he ever comes to explanation. "I always choose the most difficult and the most joyous way."