Visual Art

Four Days in Miami

The Big Show and Its Discontents

Alice Wheeler
The Gleeful Outsiders - Aqua Art Miami, a satellite event, was full of Seattle artists.

A windowed skyway over the Miami Beach Convention Center overlooks the booths of Art Basel Miami Beach, which roll out endlessly toward the horizon. From the skyway, you can tell yourself you have some perspective on the situation, on the avalanche of art and commerce below, but this, like many ideas about control that we receive looking through glass, is an illusion.

Miami Basel is an international art fair frequently referred to over the course of its four days as "the big show"—as though this were Hollywood, or national politics. "The big show" differentiates Miami Basel from the smaller satellite events created by and featuring those who, for whatever reason, didn't make it into Miami Basel, or didn't want to be in Miami Basel, but wanted to be in Miami while Miami Basel transpired—satellite events with names such as Pulse, Scope, NADA, and Aqua. Tens of thousands of people and hundreds of journalists arrive in Miami Beach to spend the better part of four days working these fairs; art dealers from all over the world come hoping to attract important collectors, museum curators, other less explicable kinds of attention. At any given moment, you hear German, Portuguese, Italian, French; people arrive from grayer places such as New York City and Seattle, blinking and somewhat shocked in the bright December sun.

It is a lot of art. One afternoon strolling through the big show, I noted at least five of Tony Oursler's muttering troll-like clusters of lips and eyes, each seeming somewhat less surreal than the last. The appearance of a bathroom, by the end, would have seemed more exotic. It is all work and no context, so that gradually you might forget what art is for, that these objects have meaning. The University of Washington's Michael Van Horn noted astutely, if wearily, when I ran into him at the big show, that it was something if you emerged from Miami Basel without having come to hate art entirely. The best defense was to focus on the details, for example, on the taste of adrenaline, as inspired by a Jenny Holzer work, created by a flavor company for Visionaire magazine and offered in those little bits of paper that melt on your tongue and usually contain breath freshener. The human contact and easy transaction of Rirkrit Tiravanija's social-pudding installation, in which you get on an assembly line, glue together a pudding box, and then eat some pudding, was a fine antidote to the fair's more provisional conversations, in which status and intent were divined through means both straightforward and not.

Last year there were only two Seattle artists represented in all of the Miami fairs. That was one of the many unverifiable facts I kept hearing and found myself repeating. The sense of being overwhelmed came out in such conversations; so did opinions whose provenance was unclear, may even have been your own—opinions that, even as you said them, you no longer knew if you held. These items formed their own fractured narrative of four days in Miami Beach: SOIL looks impressively professional. SOIL looks too professional. SOIL sold $10,000 worth of work. There's nearly nothing good at Pulse. Jim Harris hates art fairs. The containers are a madhouse. The containers are a disappointment. Frank Benson's human statue is the only thing worth seeing at the containers. You missed a Vanessa Beecroft performance. There may be another Vanessa Beecroft performance, but there's no way to find out if this is true. The party is by invitation only. You can get in. Scott Lawrimore has various institutions interested in his artists and he hasn't even opened his gallery yet. NADA has a lot of good work. Did you see the old man head? Did you get a White Columns tote bag? Did you see the giant bunny suit? There were 500 people and two bartenders. It was a 20-minute wait to get in. All the art this year seems to be made out of dollar bills. Ben Beres is wearing a cat costume. Ben Beres's cat costume is too eerie, and features some kind of prosthetic lip that makes it necessary for him to drink with a straw. (Such commitment prompted a friend to quip, on observing an unusually large cat padding across the cracked flagstones of our pink stucco courtyard one morning, that now Ben Beres had gone too far.)

Aqua Art Miami, a satellite festival organized by Seattle artists Dirk Park and Jaq Chartier, is where a lot of the work from Seattle could be found in Miami, and it provided considerable relief from the big show's ongoing rush of unreliable information. Aqua Art Miami was founded largely to address the kind of situation that leads to only two Seattle artists in all of Miami. What this situation is and why West Coast representation is so relatively scant are still more questions shot through with rumor and uncertainty as well as probably a good deal of truth: ask, and you will hear about selection committees, a New York bias, the staggering cost of renting a booth even if one is chosen to be in the big show. In the Aqua Hotel, at any rate, over 30 galleries—from Seattle as well as Houston, Boston, Columbus, and Europe—were installed in white, lightly modern hotel rooms set around a courtyard themed in chlorine blue. The galleries were largely of a piece: such as Seattle's Howard House, James Harris Gallery, Platform (of which Park is a co-owner), the artists were generally accomplished and largely, as the uncertain parlance goes, emerging (uncertain because depending on who you ask, an artist can find herself emerging for years). It was, compared to the scrimmage of so much of what was going on in Miami Beach, uncommonly pleasant, and the mood was buoyant, even gleeful. In contrast to the weary Saturday-afternoon pallor of nearly every other gallery owner in Miami, Lawrimore radiated kooky serenity. Optimism and exhilaration, rather than cynicism and exhausted resignation, were the rule.

The respite—the realness—provided by Aqua was palpable, but whether the serious collectors gave Seattle artists their close attention is something that I could not determine, even through innuendo and rumor, since for all the people I met I did not meet a single collector. (I began to suspect they were wafted cosmically from event to secret event.) Aqua was a bid to be taken seriously in the art world, and it was a good bid, but what it takes for a small West Coast city to leap into real prominence was not addressed by the circular and suspect answers the big show provided.

I did not sleep much over the four nights I spent in Miami; every time I shut my eyes a parade of images—Oursler's trolls, the living statue, ghosts of Vanessa Beecroft—flashed past. When I slept, I slept badly, and on the last night I awoke at 4:00 a.m. from a dream in which a woman in a windbreaker whispered to me the names of the next two cities that would change contemporary art. And as I woke, I forgot what they were.

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