Art Basel Miami Beach: Day 4

On the fair's last day, I hunt for my own piece of the frenzy.

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I woke up and said to my wife (her friends call her Shuffy), I said “Shuffy, since we’re walking around these fairs thinking about it as a market, a county fair, and since…” She cut me off. She said, “You want to buy something today.” We don’t have any money, of course, but that didn’t seem the point. The point is to buy something anyway.

   2007 Art Basel Miami

So we headed back inland to the bigger art fairs. They have the feel of Art Basel without the premium pricing. You can tell the difference between the secondary fairs in the prevalence of rugs. The more rugs, the more they wish they were Art Basel. We ended up at Pulse, which has rugs but not as many as Art Miami. There is a tension involved in walking into these giant fairs and it is heightened when you think you could spend real money here, however small the amount. Everyone is watching you, suddenly, and you’re watching everyone else. The larger fairs are essentially giant warehouses cut up into office-like cubicles with only the barest separation. Were it not for all the pigment you’d expect it to be a telemarketing outfit, but then again I suppose it sort of is. Each cubicle, or booth, presents a handful of works that have been chosen by the gallery or dealer as likely to spark the interest of buyers milling around in the corridors outside the booths. You enter and you can either walk down the corridors, spying, or you can take the plunge. The plunge is a real commitment. There is a person inside the booth and there is art and that art is for sale. Anytime you walk into a booth you are presenting yourself as a potential buyer. How do you act? What do you say? What’s the relationship? There is no set of rules and unless you’ve done it a million times, or are the type who never bothers to worry about such things, you have to make it up as you go along.

It’s weirdly intimate once you take the plunge. The point is, you either buy something or you don’t. You can pretend it doesn’t matter but it does. The art sellers only have a couple of days and they want to sell things; they need to. A business is going on and the clock is ticking. At the same time it is all about art and art isn’t supposed to be constrained in that way. So something of a game takes place, a giant pretending. The booths attempt to create a welcoming aura even in the context of thinly veiled financial desperation and the public pretends that it’s just another museum.

I take to wandering. I walk into one booth and then my eye will catch something across the way, down another corridor. I suddenly must get closer. Sometimes I realize it’s just something shiny or with interesting colors. Sometimes I am attracted to a work simply because it’s moving around, like a picture that’s actually a video or a sculpture that dances when you crank it like a hurdy gurdy. I am a sucker for movement, I realize, gimmicks. And then a sculpture made of piles of huge sheets of crumpled paper catches my eye and I’m off to explore that. I like big writing.

Shuffy and I play the game of mutual excitement. Should we go into this booth? Why do you want to go there? I like these pieces of paper stitched with thread and portraying household objects, do you? No. But don’t you like this pile of cardboard? It looks solid from one angle and then from another you see it as a delicate and transparent cross section of tiny cardboard strips. Is this a pile of poop in a box? Hey look, it’s a Gerhard Richter, an old photograph smeared with paint. I ask the dealer how much it is. A mere $37,000, he tells me. I ask him if I can take it on a payment plan. He half-smiles at me like he just smelled something unpleasant and off we go again.

Tucked in a far corner of Pulse we found the booth for Frederieke Taylor Gallery. It was more cluttered than most of the other booths. A dizzying array of oil paintings in different styles filled every inch of wall space, and a table in the middle of the room was piled high with art objects, things in cases, a small alligator head. Jeff Koons-like inflatable silver bunnies were strung across the middle of the booth. This was the way to do it. A market. Wares to be sold. But unfortunately no wares for us. Even the alligator was more money than we would make that month combined, and it was the cheapest item. We wanted our absurdly small amount of money to translate into that one indefinable thing. But was that thing? An alligator head, even if we could afford it? This was the question.

The afternoon was wearing on and all of Miami had the feel of a giant exhale. The fairs were ending. The collective excitement to get in was transforming into the collective desire to get the hell out. Nobody wants to be the one left to turn out the lights at the end of the party.

We dashed over to the smaller art fairs inside the hotels along Collins Avenue in South Beach. Aqua, Red Dot, Flow, Bridge. These fairs take the social awkwardness of the booths and raise it one more level. Instead of what are basically fancy office cubicles, the art is displayed in hotel rooms. If you decide to go into one of the rooms you’ve entered into a very intimate space and now everybody has to decide what to do about it. Given that it is late Sunday afternoon, the niceties are no longer so much in play. The bloom is off the rose. The art sellers are tired and they gravitate between simply wanting everyone to go away and desperately needing that one last sale. They are as close as they will get to being genuinely dangerous. People are thrusting things toward my face, photographs of clowns. But that one special indefinable thing is not jumping out at us, even with the more modest collections of smaller paintings, drawings on various kinds and sizes of paper, objects constructed from other objects, framed photographs, and other such stuff propped up around hotel rooms in every manner conceivable. Someone has a room filled only with paintings of ice cream trucks. There is ice cream in there. It is melting. Shuffy and I stay on the move, working up the avenue hotel after hotel.

Until, finally, we’re out of hotels. We have one last shot and everything is really closing down. But there is still Art Positions, a collection of orange shipping containers dropped onto the beach that have become mini gallery spaces for the occasion. It works. There is something satisfying about walking into a shipping container and finding a different aesthetic world inside each one. We finally step into the container for Vitamin Creative Space, which is showing a virtual world project. Looking through the written material it seems that a Chinese artist named Cao Fei has created a persona in the online world of Second Life called China Tracy, and China Tracy has founded a city in Second Life called RMB City. The room has no art in it that we can see, only a bunch of crazy videos that are a hodgepodge of funny pointy buildings and statues of Mao. On the dealer’s table lay a bunch of signed hardhats wrapped clumsily in plastic. This is our room. We know it, feel it. A sign inside the shipping container says, “A great real estate opportunity in Second Life, a unique investment possibility in First Life.” On a shelf is a booklet for the project that explains “the units of RMB City will be sold (details please refer to sales instruction of special units in Second Life) to the collectors/investors, and all sales profit will contribute to RMB City Foundation for further construction, operation and development of the City in coming 2 years.”

Perhaps it was the Manifesto for the city that sold us. Paragraph two of the manifesto reads, in part:

“The sea above the city is reflected on the shattering white night; fire from the chimney pokes through the cloud, burning the flag red; sky-elevator is ascending towards the sun, trembling; a missile flies a trajectory of no return; the river flows through the secret tunnel in the palace and warms up the buildings along its banks; a lonely knight strolls across the stretched-out villages; angels and madmen are having a duel among the ruins of collapsed buildings and the abandoned fields; the astute businessmen are busying on the container dock; a batwoman is contemplating in the air between skyscrapers; the kind beast has its desire for love realized.”

We purchased the RMB City booklet and two hardhats signed by Cao Fei (China Tracy) that have written on the side, “My City is Yours.” We’re getting in on the ground floor of something great, something greater than the expensive alligator head, something that’s not shiny but still of the future: RMB City. An artwork that’s nowhere.

There’s a little bit of money left so we trudge back over to the Queen Bee. The trucks and forklifts are already arriving to begin dismantling Art Positions. The Miami art fairs are going away. At the Queen Bee, Rodney has made a collection of small paintings. They’re done in a childlike manner on scraps of multi-colored paper. They depict bombers and tanks and dead bodies and whores. Shuffy and I are both immediately drawn to one with bombers. It has a lot of colors. Now it is ours.

There are a lot of people making art in the world today. More than ever before. The overall quality is, thus, lower than it has ever been. But that is what you get with a market, a mass of wares. Everyone can make them and everyone can sell them. Everyone. For a long time, a long time ago, it was different. There were centuries during which art was created solely for the purpose of religion. Unbelievably beautiful and powerful works were created. That is what happened. Caring about that art does not mean submitting to religion or, necessarily, having any position about religion at all. Today, art is created out of the market. The market rules. It is hard to call it a good or a bad thing because the market doesn’t create good or bad art — it creates all art. Even art that explicitly opposes the market or that questions the values of contemporary culture is being defined and given its condition of possibility by that which it is opposing. The claim that the general situation of art was better during time X or Y is nonsensical. That’s a category mistake; it is too big a claim. There are good and bad things about all general situations. More interesting than railing for or against general situations, tilting at the proverbial windmills, is finding out more about them. There is territory to be explored here, things to be discovered. So let us discover them.

Today, the Miami art fairs have ended. But they haven’t ended really. They govern everything that’s happening. The big crazy market. You’re either wandering about in its corridors or you’re nowhere at all. • 10 December 2007 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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