Head to St. Augustine, Florida, north of the Mission Nombre de Dios and south of the Vilano Bridge, and you’ll find it, as advertised—the Fountain of Youth. It’s open to the public from nine to six daily. Children’s admission is cheaper than senior citizens’, which seems cruel—what need have the young for more youth? T. D. Allman sets the scene in his illuminating history, Finding Florida:
You’ll know you’ve almost reached your destination when you find yourself peering up at an ancient-looking arch. Across the top you’ll see displayed, in Ye Olde English–type lettering, an inscription. It reads: FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH. The lettering is meant to evoke long-vanished times of chivalry and derring-do, but one detail marks it as indubitably Floridian: the sign is made of neon tubing. In the gathering subtropic twilight, the FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH sign glows and sputters like the VACANCY sign on a state highway motel. According to press releases provided by the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, which is what this venerable tourist attraction currently calls itself, this is the very spot where “Ponce de León landed in St. Augustine in 1513 searching for a Fountain of Youth.”
There is one minor hiccup, though. “Juan Ponce de León never visited and never could have visited St. Augustine: St. Augustine was not founded until forty-one years after his death, in 1565.”
As Allman has it, the park’s founder, Walter B. Fraser, knew that tourists “would pay by the millions to visit his fetid property … if he could convince them that this was the very sport where Ponce de León had first discovered Florida, then drunk from the Fountain of Youth.” And thus what purported to be a historical site came to presage the Disneyfication of Florida: “Visitors are told they’re getting a view of America’s origins; they actually are observing what developed into a harbinger of its future.”
The artist Michael Smith probes these ironies in a new exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery, called, as you might expect, “Excuse me!?! … I’m looking for the ‘Fountain of Youth.’ ” (Those tone quotes are essential.) And indeed, he’s looking hard. The centerpiece of the exhibition is an inspired photo-essay that finds Smith roving the Archaeological Park and sampling its oddities, which include bottled youth-giving water, commemorative mugs, signs for overflow parking and a cannon-firing demonstration, and an ominous disclaimer that NOT EVERY VOYAGE TO THE NEW WORLD WAS SUCCESSFUL—all of it achingly ersatz.
Smith’s work is animated by his acute, wry sense of tourism and mass culture, especially as they’ve metastasized under late capitalism. His photos reclaim the ridiculous, turning one form of spectacle into another. In this series, he poses as one of his avatars, Mike, “the quintessential Everyman who continually falls victim to trends outside his grasp,” and who has served as a Smith alter ego for decades. Not all who wander are lost, it’s said. But Mike is lost: his expression is variously pensive, bemused, flummoxed, and awestruck. Another series in Smith’s exhibition has photos of Mike wandering through one of many iterations of KidZania, a global chain of “mini-cities” where, as the Guardian puts it, “children are in charge.” He is lost there, too.
You could write all this off as mocking and mean-spirited—but it’s no more so than the profiteering revisionism that props up the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. As Allman reminds us, the park’s dim retelling of Florida history has become a kind of hypnosis: “When I asked one of the guides if every visitor believed Ponce de León had discovered the Fountain of Youth, he answered: ‘Ninety-five out of a hundred do. The other five tell us Christopher Columbus discovered St. Augustine.’ ”
As for the Fountain itself: it’s connected to St. Augustine’s municipal water works. Don’t tell Mike.
“Excuse me!?! … I’m looking for the ‘Fountain of Youth’” is at Greene Naftali Gallery through August 14. All images used with permission of the gallery. Photos by Michael Kirby Smith.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.