Magic was in the air. I could feel it all the way up to Northeast Tennessee where I was making last minute preparations to go to the "Emerald (Art) City" of Mecca, of Babylon, of Fable. I was going to Art Basel Miami Beach.
"Is that South Beach -- The South Beach?" co-workers ask.
"It will be the highest concentration of illegal money in the United States that weekend," my friend in England says. "Maybe it is most weekends, anyway!"
"You think illegal money likes art?" I ask.
"It is the traditional laundry of large amounts of funds, my dear," he assures me.
Art Basel Miami Beach is the largest contemporary art event in the world. More than 700 international galleries exhibit at the combined main venues. More than 1400 international journalists cover the event. Between $200-400 million dollars reportedly changes hands at Art Basel and an additional $30-40 million at the satellite fairs. Rumor has it moving to Los Angeles, but it will remain in Miami at least one more year.
I specifically came to Art Basel to see what was being done with digital imagery/movies/video. My part-time job at East Tennessee State University in the Department of Art and Design involves my keeping up-to-date with new technologies, and I wanted to see what else was being done with them. The giant pre-paid catalogue arrived about two weeks before the opening and was just a teaser. It had been a decade since I lived and participated in the New York City art scene, and now I was hungry for art and out-of-touch with the cutting edge.
Almost every booth had at least one video/digital screen playing. The problem I quickly realized with this new medium is the time that it takes to experience it. You have to understand -- there are a thousand or so galleries represented in all the venues. People are jogging through warehouses of art, glancing across walls.
Ninety-nine percent of the digital art I saw was bad -- like a "C" grade movie! I became very annoyed at all those hundreds of grey-noise screens wasting my time, offending my ears and eyes while I was trying to absorb other work. They were so annoying that I started "screening them out" -- the very thing I had come all this way to see!
However, the half dozen that were great really knocked my socks off! There was a reason they had to be digital/video. That simple. They fell into two categories: flat screen and projection.
For projection, there was a purpose for the projection. The best single piece of art in all of Art Basel Miami Beach was at Scope where a new media-holograph projection/installation titled "Between Life and Death" by The Sanchez Brothers (Carlos and Jason), as a Special Project presented by Christopher Cutts Gallery of Toronto, Canada, wowed intimate audiences with a 3.5-minute loop tape that could change your life. A violently crashed passenger bus had a mini-theater built into the rear. Figures projected were eerily translucent with the wreckage of the inner bus showing through. I won't give the details away in case you ever get to see it, but you leave feeling pretty good about dying, if you can believe that!
Also at Scope, Shirley Shor at Moti Hasson Gallery in New York City exhibited a walk-in black box where a fantastic three-dimensional landscape was being ever-rewritten in bands of color. It was like a screen saver being projected from above onto a sculpted sandpit below.
Another artist projected giant blinking eyes and moving mouth onto an organic sculpture appropriately shaped to receive the images. One convention center gallery projected into a fish tank. An artist at Aqua I projected downward onto a "moving" screen. One of the hotel rooms projected down into the watery, dripping shower stall a movie of someone swimming, complete with soundtrack.
There was both good and predictable at the Art Video Lounge (projections). Nam June Paik still rules. How they were able to successfully show so many different screens at once with the sound "domes" directing down was also very impressive.
Flat screen-Jeffers Egan at Bridge had gorgeous digital paintings that morphed -- a series of eight for about $2,000. Check out his website (www.jeffersegan.com).
Another artist in the convention hall had self-contained, small, intimate, digital, moving artworks displayed beautifully at eye level. They suspended time with dramatic slow-motion images. The "pioneer" flat-screen artist had a new edition of angst ridden dramatic slow-motion filmatic series for sale.
At NADA, artist Marc Aschenbrenner at Galerie Olaf Stuber, Berlin made a captivating video performance of textures, landscapes, and implied narration of a figure trying to muck about in this life-it was mesmerizing!
My thoughts become as fragmented as the art. Typical Miami Convention Center gallery checklist:
1) Digital screen video something in painfully slow motion, grainy black-and-white, with obnoxious loud soundtrack
2) Either young female or young male (but not both) bigger than life
3) Something offensive or absurd
"This is easy (running through galleries) to pick the good art, I mean. It grabs you or it doesn't. Wait a minute, is that any way to judge art? What grabs you at a canter? So, now Sensational Art rules? Can this be good?" I ask.
The strong movements that jumped out to me were Photography, Fibers, and Drawing, especially as mixed media sculptures. Large format photography had to be 30" x 40" minimum. "Tiling" of full sheets of paper to make a bigger image was popular. Layering. Lots of layering. Occasionally I would be struck by an artwork that embodied tranquility. Perhaps it was a rest from the "circus," perhaps just because these pieces were so different, but these were mostly sold.
Precision-cut paper art. The flattening and/or elimination of much of the background of an image to call focus to a dimensional subject. Large portraits. Figures in water, above and below, and both. Slow-motion. Things dripping, things smeared, things blurred. Things tilted or skewed. I could count all the ceramics on one hand and all the bronzes on the other. Some convention center galleries actually changed their shows out every day!
I found it to be invigorating! Ideas I have been working on in my head for a couple of years found solutions to presentation problems I had not quite been able to formulate. Remember painters through the ages have gone to Salon shows and were so moved by another artist's work that they changed their style.
It is actually possible to get tired of the glossy art magazine type convention center art. Go immediately to any of the other big venues to see fresh, new art that isn't mainstream (yet). NADA especially rocked (or did I just take more time there?), as did Scope and Pulse. Aqua and Bridge both had many great surprises. Photo Miami charged a fee, but was worth it. Perry Hoberman at Fringe Exhibitions, Los Angeles, made me finger my wallet for "Keep Calm," a photo print of a manipulated Windows Computer System warning screen that drove home the intrusion of Big Brother. I don't know anybody who could find DiVA. Fountain Miami was tiny but worth the effort.
The invitation-only opening of Art Positions, the Container Show was a "free for all." In retrospect, it felt like an old-time circus, with sweaty crowds rubbing flesh, standing in lines, pushing past to see the next "tent show" of something unbelievable. I was desperate to start marking things off the list of things to see, and I wanted to "be" at the parties and openings, but I wondered how the same art would look to me on a regular day.
The official word I heard was that Art Basel Miami Beach considerably passed attendance of the Swiss Art Basel parent event, making it the biggest contemporary art event in the world. This was a very satisfying "Full Emersion" art fair. The tremendous variety of exhibitions and venues gives a whole other range of experiences. You can meet people, talk to people from all walks of art-life. I have been to SOFA Chicago, and at the time, thought it was "the cat's pajamas." Now, however, that would seem cold and sterile compared to the life and range of virtually 24-hour art across the world spectrum, up close and personal in Miami.
TIPS: Meet somebody! People are friendly and approachable, probably because they are wondering who you are. Wear very comfortable walking shoes. Using the shuttle buses from the convention center to the Wynwood District can be frustrating and a time drain. Grab a cab and split it with the other folks waiting on the bus. Carrying anything at all can be a drag, but consider a bottle of water. My best experiences were traveling loosely with a small group, no expectations of waiting on each other or scheduling.
New Art! Some hits, some misses, some won't be understood for a decade. Isn't it great? Brush up on your foreign language, somebody here speaks it. Wait until you can drop the catalogue off at your room to purchase it.
This year I arrived two days early (Tuesday-Sunday) and almost, almost saw all of the major shows. Next year I'll come three days early with my jogging shoes on.