ART : Monumental Marriage : Miss Liberty and a statue of Christopher Columbus will wed in Las Vegas in a symbolic ceremony laced more with art than politics

Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

Is this any way to start a marriage? The groom refuses to leave Barcelona, the bride is wedded to New York, and Valentine's Day nuptials this week in Las Vegas are awash in excess.

Then again, the Statue of Liberty and Barcelona's Christopher Columbus monument have been courting too long to turn back now. The couple's engagement was officially announced back in 1986 by then-New York Mayor Edward Koch--who admitted he "didn't even know they were dating"--and the partying hasn't stopped since.

So what if the bride is more than three times the size of the groom? Who cares that both members of the larger-than-life couple are on the dark side of 100 years old? We're talking the Honeymoon Miralda Project, a six-year-long ceremonial art event that has swept in thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars from all over the world.

Their prenuptial agreement ensures that Miss Liberty will keep her maiden name and, should the couple separate, all the extravagant wedding gifts currently wending their way to Las Vegas. Barcelona-born artist Antoni Miralda--a recognized pied piper of kitsch-- has inspired exhibitions, happenings and processions of those gifts everywhere from Philadelphia and New York to Tokyo and Paris.

All of it leads up to what may be the most bizarre public wedding since Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki tied the knot on "The Tonight Show" some 20 years ago.

The Miralda event obviously capitalizes on and contributes to the international fervor surrounding the 500th anniversary of Columbus' journey to the New World. But its participants clearly consider it more artwork than political statement, and its focus is as much the ritual of marriage as it is the blending of two cultures.

"I was fascinated by monuments," explains the 49-year-old Miralda, "and I (wanted) a piece that relates to what I'm doing and what I believe. I am from Barcelona and live in New York. It is like bringing together two families for me."

This union is definitely monumental. Should all go according to plan, an international procession will wind past 30 identical white Cadillac limousines and two giant pelvis-shaped sculptures situated at the fountains at Caesars Palace. The two-hour ceremony at dusk Friday will feature several enormous images of the bride and groom projected onto the facade of Caesars' three buildings, as well as ceremonial music and a satellite feed to Europe.

Limousine trunks will serve as buffet tables for exotic foods carted in from around the world and prepared by casino kitchens, under Miralda's supervision, for invited guests. The 297-foot-long wedding dress will be on display in the valet parking area, while an oversized necklace from France will be out by the pool.

And that's just the start. Enough jet-setters and outsize wedding gifts are being trucked, shipped or flown to Las Vegas from around the world to fill the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria. Liberty's 935-pound polyester wedding gown, gondola-size wedding shoe and other trousseau items built to scale will be exhibited all over the nation's wedding capital. A bridal tea party, replete with a 29-foot-high teapot and 110-pound spoons, is set for McCarran International Airport on Thursday.

"What appeals to me is its giant pageantry," says Adolfo Nodal, general manager of Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department and a member of the project's International Committee. "He's one of those artists like Robert Wilson or Christo who thinks big. It's a multinational project, getting cities all over the world involved in this conceptual celebration of a sort of unlikely event."

Miralda is, after all, the man who pulled off Breadline, an event at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum that included, among other things, a 200-foot-long wall of colored bread. The low-key, soft-spoken artist also created "Mona a Barcelona" in that city's Galeria Joan Prats, which featured a miniature Barcelona sculpted in chocolate.

Miralda's reputation obviously preceded him. Financial or other support for this project has come in from every government office one can think of in Nevada, not to mention the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia and corporate sponsors ranging from Iberia Airlines to Burlington Industries. Honeymoon Miralda Project represented Spain at the 1990 Venice Biennale.

The project kicked off in 1986 at New York's Jacob Javits Convention Center, plugging into that city's festivities for the Statue of Liberty's centennial. Her 100-foot-high engagement dress was on display, as was her large but tacky engagement ring. Columbus' 678-pound gift to Miss Liberty has as its stone a Mitsubishi TV monitor--which plays a video about the bride and groom--and a band of recycled Coca-Cola cans featuring "Liberty Facts."

Seawater-filled wedding rings were presented at the 1989 International Jewelry Fair in Valencia, Spain. (Liberty's gift to her guy contains samples of the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean.) Her built-to-scale, 800-pound nightgown was exhibited at Miami's Dade Community College, wedding dress at New York's World Financial Center and stockings at Tokyo's Seibu Department Store.

Seibu also sponsored a design contest for Columbus' wedding costume, while design students at Paris' Ecole Esmod created the wedding dress. More than 100 Parisian pastry chefs and art students helped make a huge wedding cake prototype a few years ago, and a Catalonian business association sponsored a nuptial bedspread that was carried down 5th Avenue by 100 people in New York's 1989 Columbus Day Parade.

Two major gifts for Lady Liberty are coming from Los Angeles: huge eyeglasses from l.a. Eyeworks--recently on display at the firm's store on Melrose--and a necklace of recycled traffic signals made by artist Sheila Klein at her Inglewood studio.

Klein, who says she's paid for everything herself that wasn't donated, calls it "a labor of love. This whole thing is about exchange and shared resources. I think (Miralda's) trying to uncover the miraculous, and I think he tends to get people inspired by his vision. You'll see."

The man is charming. Children at Los Angeles' Junior Arts Center in Barnsdall Park have been working for weeks on an oversized pinata and wedding gifts, for instance, and Miralda was in town recently to conduct a master class with them. Whether actually working on the pinata with the children or talking wedding ritual with faculty and staff, he wore a sort-of beatific smile along with his trendy clothes and braided ponytail.

Children and adults bombarded him with questions--from the practical to the absurd--and he responded with patience as well as bemusement. The Old World couple did not live together first, Miralda told one volunteer worker, adding that plans for a bachelor party got so "wild" that he dropped the idea altogether.

A busload of children and parents leaves from the Junior Arts Center early Saturday for Las Vegas. Despite published reports of disagreement among staff members on Miralda's interpretation of history, participating artist-teacher Gayle Gale calls his "a no-fail project" artwise. "It's not just one person but thousands of people coming together, which is what art is about."

In Philadelphia alone, more than 1,000 people helped make a Liberty Belle Bridal Cape, so named because it was in the shape of the famous symbol. Dozens carried the 60x100-foot cape in the 1990 Mummers' Day parade, and another 30,000 or so stopped by to see it exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "He has taken a process that may have become routine and by just shifting it here and there, changing colors or scale, made it magical," says Philip Yenawine, director of education at New York's Museum of Modern Art and a member of the project's International Committee. "Most artists work exclusively for an art audience, but he's more aware of the importance of the whole environment."

Miralda told one reporter that he was an artist, not a historian, and he has largely begged off the controversy surrounding Columbus' voyage to America 500 years ago. Yet he points with obvious pleasure to a chapter in his reference book--a revised, Spanish-language U.S. history text--called "The Indians--the Discoverers of America." He also says that he regrets there haven't been more American Indians and other ethnic groups involved in his project.

"We expected some controversy for the obvious reasons," says Bill Fox, executive director of the Nevada State Council on the Arts in Reno, "but because Miralda is not dealing--determinedly not dealing--with the discovery of America but with the nature of monuments, it hasn't happened."

One reason for the lack of controversy, however, might be that based on calls by The Times to several key individuals and organizations, Americans Indians in Nevada don't seem to know about the project.

"The Las Vegas area has a significant Native American population and active organizations," says Constance James-Espinoza, of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. "Once again, it's a situation of Native Americans being excluded. We have very strong feelings about the Quincentenary and maybe those feelings would conflict with the festivities. And that's the shame of it."

Based on letters reprinted in Miralda's trilingual Honeymoon News, traditional Columbus organizations have also given the project mixed reviews. A representative of the federally appointed Quincentenary Jubilee Commission found Miralda's marriage plan "tasteless and opportunistic," for instance, seeking notoriety at Columbus' expense.

On the other hand, at the New Jersey-based International Columbian Quincentenary Alliance, president Joseph Laufer wrote that while he was "initially incredulous," he had since come to appreciate the artist's "sense of history, of cultural interaction and, above all, art." Miralda laments, in fact, that people aren't taking him seriously enough. "They think it is entertainment," he says rather dejectedly. "People have readings of things in a very superficial way."

Hardly. The chair of the Honeymoon Las Vegas Steering Committee is also chair of the Nevada State Council on the Arts, and the artist has persuaded plenty of people to donate time, money or other resources. Not only are Los Angeles' Nodal and MOMA's Yenawine on his International Committee, but the project's 16-minute promotional video and press kit both are packed with testimonials from other museum and government officials--many of whose organizations also provided funding support.

Such credibility has obviously helped them raise much-needed funds. Project producer Steve Dunnington figures costs for the six-year project, including the wedding, will run $3 million to $5 million. (The Liberty Belle Bridal Cape, supported in large part by Philadelphia's Pew Charitable Trusts, cost $200,000 alone, Dunnington says.)

Junior Arts Center activity here drew on recycled Christmas wrapping, old phone books and Miralda's receipt of the JoAnne Stolaroff Cotsen Memorial Fellowship, a $2,000 award whose earlier recipients included David Hockney and Frank Gehry. The gondola-cum-wedding shoe was paid for by several Italian sponsors, and the papier-mache teapot and cups were paid for by Lieux Publics, the French workshop that made them. Money from government agencies in Las Vegas has been backed by what one state official pegs at "hundreds of thousands of dollars" of in-kind donations of rail, trucking, car and other services.

Isn't this a lot of expense for such ephemeral art, Yenawine is asked. "It's sort of like Christo," he replies. "People get awed by the money, because money has such an important value in our culture. But they don't even think twice about movies that cost $75 million. Your average forgettable Saturday night movie costs many, many times what Miralda's life works cost, but despite its temporal nature, you never forget a single glimpse of a Miralda project."

The Honeymoon Miralda Project has clearly been a logistical nightmare. The tea service, for instance, was made in Marseilles, shipped in seven huge containers to Long Beach, trucked to Union Station and sent by train to Las Vegas. Miralda made three visits to Paris just to talk wedding dress ideas with students at the Ecole Esmod.

He's been holed up in a Las Vegas apartment for a few weeks now, communicating by fax and telephone as he and associates spin out last-minute details. New York-based producer Dunnington couldn't head for Las Vegas, for instance, without first gathering up sufficient gallons of the Atlantic for the seawater wedding rings.

Consider that pinata, too. It will weigh 900 pounds and be 22-feet-high when fully assembled, and architect Tony Anella has led a sizable team of other Barnsdall volunteers who figured out just how to break it down into manageable chunks, build trap doors at its base and haul it to Las Vegas.

At least 18 major gifts should go on display at assorted sites around Las Vegas this week. Some exhibitions have already opened--including a show featuring hundreds of love letters penned by Spanish and American schoolchildren--everywhere from the University of Nevada's Las Vegas campus to library and mall sites.

Las Vegas, says Miralda, is more than just the wedding capital of the world. "It's another monumental place, a totally unreal spectacle in the middle of the desert," the artist explains. "I know it's a cliche for gambling, but I love the landscape of Las Vegas. I love the way the buildings look and the signs and the colors."

City workers at Las Vegas' Reed Whipple Cultural Center spray-painted a small theater "merry pink" as part of its transformation into a functioning wedding chapel over Valentine's weekend. A computer printout naming the 1 million people married in the city since 1984--a chunk of paper that filled 17 boxes at 40 pounds apiece--will cover the walls of the chapel. Reservations at $95 a couple (to cover costs) have been slow, concedes city visual arts specialist Nancy Deaner, but "we hope people make it spontaneous."

Liberty and Columbus' honeymoon, however, will be anything but spontaneous--no quick overnight in Niagara Falls for this couple. Festivities continue in Galveston over Mardi Gras later this month, and Dunnington says other cities are "probable" this year. A stop is planned for Trinidad in 1993.

And after that? Quips Barnsdall volunteer-elementary school teacher Janine Zone: "I said to Miralda I hope the next project won't be the divorce."

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