Miami Somewhere deep into day three of last week's Art Basel Miami Beach, the blue-chip international art fair that seizes Miami for four days everyDecember, I had a moment when everything gelled. I was visiting a crowded Chinese faux convenience store, ShanghART Supermarket an art project by the artist Xu Zhen and I was scouring the picked-over contents on the shelves. Here, packages of chewing gum, chips, cans of soda pop and bags of cookies were offered for sale all presented for the consumer in their shiny bright wrapping, as if fresh from the factory.
But there was a hitch. Though they were pristine and sealed, the packages were also empty, plumped full of air. "This is the perfect Miami statement," I said to the well-heeled Californian lady rubbing shoulders with me in the back aisle, one of the more than 43,000 visitors who converged on the city for the event. "Yeah," she laughed, "It's full of art and it's totally empty."
If Art Basel Miami Beach is emblematic of anything, it is the global stampede of art tourism, and the weirdness of what happens to art in that carnivalesque context of all that buying and selling. I was a Miami virgin.
I am no more.
Of course, Art Basel Miami Beach pretty kid sister to the more prestigious Art Basel fair, which takes place in Switzerland every June is full of art that is far from empty, and this is why everyone in the art world feels they have to be there.
Strolling the aisles, you encounter museum-quality paintings by Modigliani, Kandinsky and Klee (in the booth of Montreal gallerist Robert Landau), Picassos and Pollocks and works by Peter Doig (including one painting of an abandoned house and pool, offered at $2.5-million all prices U.S. and promptly sold). You could see sculptures by Franz West, Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, Marcel Duchamp (a readymade titled Bilboquet) and Lee Bontecou (a crop of small biomorphic sculptures at New York's Knoedler gallery). On the photography front, there was Rodney Graham's Three Musicians, being sold by Chicago dealer Donald Young. (The gargantuan three-panel backlit work was reputedly sold for $400,000.) There were rain forests shot by Thomas Struth and a monumental disco picture by Andreas Gursky and fresh produce from the studio of Jeff Wall. (Presented at the booth of New York dealer Marian Goodman, his new work, titled Church, Carolina Street, Vancouver, Winter, pictures a clapboard building blanketed in gritty urban snow. It sold for $580,000.) Spend a few days in this labyrinth of desire, however, and even these works start to feel like postcards in a museum gift-shop rack, emptied of meaning like Xu Zhen's perky packages.
At night, gathering around the dark, heavily cruised reflecting pools of the Setai Hotel and The Shore Club, art collectors, artists, dealers, critics and assorted art-world roadies kick back to the cocaine-sympatico techno beat and sigh about the banalization of art, only to cross-examine each other about which of the 20 ancillary fairs they have attended or plan to attend tomorrow: Scope, Pulse, Aqua, NADA, Photo Miami the list seems endless. "What have you seen that you've liked?" is the universal antler-rubbing greeting, but no one seems able to answer the question.
Walking the aisles of these myriad smaller fairs by day, you find yourself retooled with an arsenal of fresh information, which will no doubt be processed later, but you also grow leg-weary and profoundly numb. Dealers rise from their tiny booths to meet your gaze as you walk by, hoping for a live one, rushing to write down your e-mail address at the slightest indication of interest. Perhaps you will be able to see the artist's upcoming exhibition in San Paulo in May? The sensation is akin to touring the dog pound, with all those puppy-dog eyes looking out through the bars. Except you're not taking anyone home.
At the main fair, though, the atmosphere is less makeshift, more about power and seduction. More than $400-million worth of art changes hands in four days most of it by the end of day one. Girls pushing champagne trolleys go up and down the aisles to lubricate sales, and on the opening night, tiny women in backless dresses circulate slowly like little Mako sharks. Here, you can always distinguish the gallery owners from the attendants by the studied blankness of their stare, unless, of course, a treasured client comes into view. A couple haggle over a Louise Bourgeois bronze, perfect for beside the pool. An elderly man with a stroller and oxygen tanks struggles to keep pace with his fortysomething wife, her features pulled tight as Handi-Wrap across the shrill armature of her skull. A small black and gold Warhol self-portrait, priced at $1.9-million, gazes out from beside a giant plastic toadstool by Takashi Murakami ($875,000), the subject of this season's Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art retrospective. The L.A. museum is just one of dozens of international museums with board delegations attending the fair, the patrons led by museum directors and curators. Increasingly, this is the foreplay behind major acquisitions. Apparently it works.