Vizcaya Museum and Gardens on Biscayne Bay in Miami is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about early 20th-century architectural Modernism, yet it turns out to be a more than suitable vehicle for Josiah McElheny to explore his ongoing fascination with its fraught Utopian projects. Built by industrialist James Deering, Vizcaya was his winter residence from 1916 until his death in 1925; it is named to commemorate an early Spaniard, whose surname is actually Vizcaíno. The architecture is a pastiche of Cuban limestone work and Florida coral, the garden a hybrid of Italian and French styles. The grandiosity of the estate – which originally stretched to over 180 acres – is often likened to publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst’s castle in California.
McElheny’s Light Club at Vizcaya: A Women’s Picture (2012) is a 30-minute film that comprises archival stills and contemporary moving images of the estate. The work re-imagines its history through the most unlikely of sources, an obscure short story titled ‘Light Club of Bataria’. Written in 1912 by the German author Paul Scheerbart, it focuses on a group of women who meet at a hotel in Jakarta to build a spa entirely out of Tiffany glass to bathe in light. The story reflects Scheebart’s belief that glass architecture can realize fantasies and dreams and even has the potential to change the world. It is in this way that the story meshes with Deering’s own ambitious project. McElheny’s film explores whether Vizcaya’s opulence was merely a ruse to deflect attention from something literally more palatial: a glass palace of light hidden under the grotto.
The film’s script is written by poet Rachel Zolf and told from the viewpoint of the supposed great-grandniece of Mattie Edwards Hewitt, the photographer who documented much of Vizcaya’s building project. McElheny intersperses these photographs from the museum’s archives in the film; watching the film feels more like turning the pages of someone’s photo album. The participation of photographer Zoe Leonard as the voice of Hewitt’s descendent is particularly appropriate given Leonard’s earlier collaboration with filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, in which she produced an intimate album of staged photos documenting the life of the fictitious actress Fae Richards.
Hewitt’s great-grandniece describes her investigation into what might have been Vizcaya’s clandestine light club for Hewitt and her coterie of female friends. She even suggests that the present-day White Party, a circuit party held at the Vizcaya as a fundraiser for HIV/AIDS research every year from 1985 to 2010, might be the contemporary manifestation of a light club. She describes the crowd dressed in white as bathing in the light of the moon and also notes that the parties are grand affairs of narcissism – a reference to the partygoers whose hyper-muscular physiques could be said to approximate the Aryan ideal. Indeed, displays of excess can veer towards a dark side – much like those of the project of Modernism itself.
Nonetheless, rather than eschew excess or jettison Modernism’s Utopian impulses wholesale, McElheny – in the paraphrased words of Wolff – urges us to reject Utopia as a blueprint but preserve it as a dream. Indeed, the fact that McElheny’s work on a narrative level is infused with an explicitly gendered and queer presence re-imagines the male-driven and implicitly heterosexual Utopian ideals of Modernism. Though not explored in the film, it is worth noting that Hattie was in a same-sex relationship and Deering was known to have dalliances with men. McElheny’s work suggests the dictum of Modernist architecture – a better world follows better architecture – might not be entirely far-fetched.