It’s midnight in Miami and everything is fucked. This is a city known as a tropical paradise, and the weather is frigid. This is Art Basel, the pinnacle of style and sophistication, and I’m wearing socks with sandals.
I’ve just been turned away from a dinner for not being on the list and as I shuffle away, embracing the very particular shame of “denied-at-the-door,” I step in a puddle. I feel my socks (thrown on in an attempt to warm up my beachy outfit) absorb the liquid and I look down to see the puddle is actually a stream of raw sewage, oozing from the entrails of a super lux hotel.
Guess it makes sense. When people have asked how my Art Basel is going, I’ve been replying with two words: shit show.
The disillusionment I felt at Art Basel is surely my fault. That’s how disillusionment works. I had expectations, and they weren’t met. I was enchanted by Art Basel before I ever even arrived. An annual contemporary art fair held in Basel, Switzerland, Miami Beach and Hong Kong, it had been described to me like a Sofia Coppola wet dream. Art world glitterati by day, swanky soirees by night, champagne with painters, yacht parties with sheiks, discussing contemporary art with Important People who live Important Lives.
Instead, my Art Basel was pretty blah-sel — a gilded spring break for vainglorious millennials and hashtag-y PR people. It was endless peacocking at brand “activations” disguised as parties, made worse by the fact that I knew there were edgy, intriguing art experiences nearby… if only I could find them. Instead, I was trapped in the bourgeoisie apocalypse.
In short: “I Went To Art Basel And Didn’t See Any Of The Cool Stuff.”
This is a story of high expectations being the death of authentic experience. And the feeling of attending an event where stimulating, fresh art is being shared but you keep missing it because you’re stuck wading through a garbage heap of swag. A tale of realizing that the cool kids are somewhere else and you’re stuck with self-styled marketing gurus and Snapchat whiz kids.
Maybe it’s the story of me discovering that flashy events like Art Basel don’t actually appeal to me anymore, but my FOMO-dominated ego hasn’t caught up with my spiritually evolving soul. Even re-reading how I come across in the opening paragraph of this piece makes me cringe. My big problem in life is not getting into a famous party and wearing the wrong thing? How am I any better than the people I’m mocking? To be honest, I think I would’ve had a better time in Miami writing about how the city is sinking into the sea and the erosion of good beach sand has reached such critical levels that the county is making a deal to ship it in from the Bahamas. But that story doesn’t pay the bills.
Perhaps this story is actually a rumination on what it means to be part of the “art world” or the “in crowd.” I’m reminded of the land in Gulliver’s Travels where children play ball with rubies and toilets are made out of gold because precious gems hold no worth. If value is subjective, how do you put a price tag on a good time, on an artistic expression – especially when you’re outside, looking in?
To be fair, maybe it’s way simpler: This story may just be a cautionary tale about not judging a city or subculture based on one weekend.
Whatever the angle, the truth is, other than boasting pre-Basel that I was going to Basel (back when I thought it would be glamorous and exciting), stepping in the puddle of shit was the most compelling thing that happened to me all weekend.
My flight lands at 4:45pm but I don’t leave the airport until 7:30pm because two Ubers cancel on me and the hotel shuttle never shows up. When I ask an airport security guard for advice, he throws up his hands in that charming Cuban way and says “It’s Art Basel, good luck.” I don’t know what this means, but I do remember something from before we had smart phones: taxi cabs. I flag one down and within minutes am on my way.
The journey from the airport to South Beach takes an extra hour and a half than what I’m told is normal. The taxi driver keeps laying on his horn and muttering “Art Basel comemierda!” This makes me nervous so I put on make-up, something I do when I’m not sure what else to do.
I check-in, quickly change and hurry to the first event I’m excited about, StoryBooked — a short-form documentary series featuring different artists traveling the world for inspiration. But after the traffic madness I’ve missed the short films, so I just roam around trying not to let the wind knock me over. The wind is so strong that I Google “Hurricane season Miami.”
I usually love going to big experiences alone, but I’m relieved when I hear from my friend Ian, who’s also in town. We make a plan to meet at the 1 Hotel for a rooftop party. I arrive first and the line is of Six Flags proportions, so I use my usual cut-the-line trick:
Go up to someone near the front of the line, give them a hug and say “Hello! I can’t believe I’m seeing you again! We met at (insert somewhere hip that they’d want to be at and makes you look cool that you were there – in this case I used ‘Sundance’) with (insert two names, an exotic name and a name everyone knows – in this case I used ‘Whitefox’ and ‘Jonathan’).”
While they’re trying to remember you, compliment something they’re wearing and ask where they got it. At this point you’ve infiltrated the line in position with them. I know, I know, this technique is insufferable. But it wasn’t the buffet line or the movies. When all you’re trying to get into is a party, all bets are off.
This new “old friend” was a gallery owner from New York, and when I told him it was my first Art Basel and I was there to write about it, he told me this verbatim:
“You should’ve come before the market crashed. The parties were unbelievable, you’d walk in and there’s Iggy Pop performing, you wouldn’t leave until the next morning, smelling like mojitos. Now it’s some Brooklyn DJ and art dealers with 22 year-old girlfriends. I don’t pay to watch C-list celebrities standing around a pool. And I go to these parties and am shocked by the plastic surgery. I keep thinking I’m looking at burn victims, then I realize it’s elective surgery. But, Miami is cool because there’s a bit of the Vegas sin but with natural ocean beauty.”
I don’t really know how to respond. Luckily, Ian arrives so I don’t have to. Before long we’re at the rooftop party. And it’s just people looking at C-list celebrities around a pool so we leave after 20 minutes to walk along the beach to a dome in the distance where another “great” party is happening.
The wind has died down and I meander in the ocean froth, soothed by nature, as always. The stars shine like fresh diamonds (or cubic zirconias, depending on your investment portfolio). Ian makes for great company. He’s a writer based in Key West and has done many Art Basels and has an impressive sea captain’s beard. He tells me about a talk he recently went to about how selfies are empowering women to take back the male gaze.
Our conversation is so enriching I’m disappointed when we reach the dome party and another looooong line.
Stalling, we check out an installation on the beach right next to the party, a house made out of neon lights, air plants and crystals by landscape artist Lily Kwong. We take out Ian’s phone and play “Once In a Lifetime” by Talking Heads (“You may find yourself in a beautiful house,” etc).
As we take photos in the house, I observe a couple try to sneak into the party, and a security guard catching them. In other words, the security guard is distracted. “Ian,” I say urgently. “Follow me.”
I have a talent for sneaking into things. Even when I have a ticket, I like to try and sneak in. For the thrill, for the challenge. This is an easy sneak, a hop over the fence while the security guard looks the other way. The music is good (the funny / oddly named Thugfucker). The sneaking in and the music should be enough to make the party fun, but there’s just no soul to it. Not a bad vibe, just lack-of-vibe. The crowd is younger than I expected. Lots of boob jobs and man buns. I overhear people talking intermittently about art they’ve seen, but it sounds more like they read the gallery’s description on the wall then actually interpreted the art themselves.
At one point, something goes haywire with the AV system and the video projection mirrors Thugfucker’s desktop. For a while, you can watch him mixing in real time, a million sound bytes borrowed and massaged. I try to catch a glimpse of the other folders on the desktop, the modern equivalent to reading someone’s diary. The funny thing is, no one else seems to notice this peek behind the wizard’s curtain. The muns and boobies keep ogling each other, keep dancing on.
We leave after not too long, and check out the Damien Hirst $18 million dollar sculpture “Gone But Not Forgotten,” a 9-foot wooly mammoth coated in 24-karat gold outside the Faena Hotel. It strikes me as something Donald Trump would have as a pet. The Faena is the hotel that Baz Luhrmann and his wife interior designed, every floor has it’s own butler, and rooms start at $700 a night. Argentine hotelier Alan Faena is known for his all-white outfits, top hats, and desire to make South Beach “Futopia.” That’s Faena + utopia.
We wade through more gridlock traffic, eat sandwiches, go to a dive bar everyone is excited about because you can smoke cigarettes inside, evade the bouncer who tries to sell us “something to sniff or smoke,” try to get an Uber, have the Uber cancel, and end the night.
I walk into the Miami Beach Convention Center the next day determined to find the heart of Art Basel. There has to be more to this than people throwing out terms like “post-modern” and girls with good thigh gap.
This is the big show, where 268 galleries from around the world come for big sales and big buzz. I’ve been told by now I should’ve arrived in Miami earlier in the week, before the show was open to the public. I’ve been told that’s when the “best people” are here, that’s when Art Basel is pure magic. My inner self recoils at such elitism, but I remind myself that I’m a guest in a foreign land, and I should respect the customs of this place. Or maybe I’m just annoyed I didn’t come earlier.
I remember how I kept an open mind and open heart when I worked a NASCAR event in Alabama as a car model a few years back. The culture was incredibly foreign to me, but I ended up having an amazing time. Then I remember Alabama was the first time I heard about Art Basel — one of the other models kept extolling how chic and wonderful it was. Her name was Sandra but insisted we call her Sloane, would instantly apply hand sanitizer if a NASCAR attendee touched her, and kept sending back salads if even one piece of lettuce was wilted.
The final thing I remember: That girl sucked.
The convention center is cold, bright, and smells like expensive champagne. The first art piece that makes an impression on me is a light-up sign that reads, “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.” I take a picture of people taking a picture, happy to see people connecting with the message (has #MeToo infiltrated the art world?).
The next gallery displays remote controlled cars stuffed with doll hair. This is, after all, the contemporary art world, and absurdity is par for the course. I know contemporary art is less concerned with beauty than it is with provoking a feeling, be it disdain, dismay, or disgust. I know this from an Understanding Contemporary Art class I took when I first moved to LA, one of my attempts to design a cosmopolitan new life and shake the Reno away (didn’t work, see NASCAR above).
Thus, I can appreciate the outrageousness of the hair cars, even if I don’t “get it.”
An attendee asks if I like the hair cars, and I tell him the thing about contemporary art provoking a feeling, excited to speak the local language, excited to fit in. In response, he asks if I’ve had my lips augmented. He’s a plastic surgeon in Palm Beach, and he says I have the best lip job he’s ever seen. I tell him my lips are real, and he’s shocked. I feel a strange mix of being both offended and flattered. He says he recently had fat from his buttocks transferred to his under eyes “For a more youthful look.” I’m curious if he performed the procedure on himself, and am pondering the complexity of the process, when I spot an older gentleman wearing a tie that twists up into the air.
A perfect excuse to leave, I dart over and ask the man if I can take his photo. He nods yes and strikes a pose. He says he’s an artist and he made the tie himself from the remnants left on the ground from a sculpture. Then a woman walks by in a head-to-toe orange outfit. I take her photo too.
People watching! Delightful! As I look around, I realize the people are art themselves. Creative costumes abound, and it’s a diverse crowd, not just the WASP-y upper crust one might expect. I’m feeling more at ease with this whole thing.
I wander into a VIP area on accident and watch a group of people as they watch a diamond polishing demonstration. Nearby, a tiny fluffy dog charms everyone. I order a glass of champagne. When it’s brought to me and I’m told a single glass is $22.00, I back away in shock – and step right on the tiny dog. The dog does a whole show of being injured (faker, I barely stepped on it), and I lean down to comfort it. It’s the type of dog that gets shampooed weekly and probably has more followers than me on Instagram. The dog’s owner comes over. She’s a beautifully groomed woman who could be age 35 or 55. She even smells rich. She laughs the whole thing off, a high lilting laugh, a high-society laugh, a Great Gatsby laugh.
I escape back to the main floor and see many attendees taking photos with the artwork, as one would take a photo with a celebrity. I find a photography piece that features poetry and a hairy armpit. I stand under the armpit and have my photo taken. Seems fitting.
I decide to take a break from the convention center and walk around. I liked a lot of the art, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something better out there. I tell myself that’s the root feeling of all modern discontentment, and I should just appreciate the experience for what it is.
It’s freakishly cold out and I’m chilled to the bone. This is where I go put on socks with my sandals, get turned away from the dinner, and step in the poop puddle. My next move is to return to the Faena Hotel across the street, ready to spend a shit ton of money if I must for a morsel of food. The gorgeous hostess at Pao restaurant responds to my request to sit at the bar with an apologetic “We’re booked with reservations for the next two months.”
As I shuffle from the restaurant, I see Damian Hirst’s giant golden wooly mammoth skeleton out the window. I wonder if this is what it was like when the dinos went extinct. Food so close, but so far away.
I go to the lobby-level bathroom. No one is there. It’s my first moment without a crowd since I’ve been in South Beach. I hoist my foot up and wash off my sewage-y sock and sandal. It’s an immature revenge, but I’m pleased all the same. As the stuff drains down the silver onyx sink, I wonder if Alan Faena would have me arrested for this, and what I would say if he burst into the bathroom in one his impeccable white ensembles.
Everyone I know is at a party or a dinner, so I schlep over to the strip of Art Deco hotels Miami is famous for. I consult a map of South Beach and notice that the front cover features an illustration of a flamingo taking a selfie. I wonder if the flamingo feels empowered?
I follow the map down Collins Ave and am indeed impressed. The hotels are gorgeous in that romantic, melancholy Art Deco way. I see mannequins in shop windows with giant fake breasts and the aesthetic of the whole place feels like I’m in a movie. There are surely better references, but what comes to mind is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (incidentally, the most expensive movie ever made at the time).
I walk into a hotel lobby bar and order a martini. Martini drinking will be part of this fantasy, goddammit. As I’m chewing an olive, I notice how pretty the candles look scattered around the lobby. I look closer and realize they’re battery operated. Even the candles are fake.
I leave to meet with Ian and friends at a show called DeXtinction. The show features two real dinosaur skeletons and incredible gems and crystals (dinos seem to be a theme this year). It’s more akin to visiting a natural history museum than contemporary art, but it’s the first thing I’ve seen that really knocks my (sandaled) socks off. There are huge gemstones cut by world-renowned faceter Victor Tuzlukov (what a cool job!), accompanied by short parables he channeled while working with each stone. I love a small piece of amber with a feather trapped in it, proof dinosaurs had feathers and weren’t just scaly overgrown reptiles. As always, I’m most impressed by creations from the natural world.
Says the DeXtinction wall description:
Today’s art world is a frenetic celebration of human creativity – a field where styles change and evolve constantly. The artists and galleries who capture the zeitgeist reap tremendous financial rewards. We tend to forget that all of this creative ferment we call Modern Art has taken place in a micro-millisecond when we compare it to the eons of time it took for our planet’s minerals and crystals to form and for life to reach its present level of complexity.
I’m feeling somewhat more positive about this whole experience now that I saw something worth writing home about, and now that I have a crew of friends. Any experience is better if you have a good posse.
At one point I slip off a flight of stairs and Ian magically catches me before I crash onto a table of fancy musical instruments. My ankle hurts like hell, but I think of that Anaïs Nin quote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
I vow to walk it off. I’ll be less grumpy, less judgmental and finally figure out the mystique of Art Basel.
Then I start hearing accounts of what other people have been experiencing.
“I was at a Bjork DJ set the other night, it was everything.”
“I saw a feminist performance piece with several actresses standing in front of car headlights for an hour, Selma Blair included. So powerful.”
“I walked into a thing last night and Duran Duran was playing!”
“I saw hundreds of drones create a moving sculpture in the air.”
At the risk of sounding like a spoiled brat… why wasn’t I at any of that cool stuff?!
I limp back to my hotel, but not before getting a brownie and ice cream to-go from Sweet Liberty. I eat the dessert in bed, my attempt to satiate FOMO with sugar.
I’m walking into Untitled, an art fair on the beach that happens in tandem with Art Basel, when I see a boat out to sea flashing the words RESPECT EXISTENCE OR EXPECT RESISTANCE.
Is this an advertisement? An art piece? Moments later, this catchy call-to-action is subsumed when a cruise ship passes behind the boat, dwarfing it, nearly blocking out the sun. The irony is too much. I need a drink.
The next few hours pass by in a blur of weird, provocative contemporary art. I particularly like a series of feathers painted with satirical cowboy and Native American images, and derisive paintings by Eric Yahnker mocking pop culture icons.
Two pieces have me scratching my head – a sculpture that’s basically a white star puking a horse tail, and a giant brown sweater on a hanger. I’m reminded of my childhood friend Beva taking me to the contemporary art museum Pompidou in Paris when I was studying abroad. She was living in Paris and was (and still is) impossibly cool, elegant and wise. We were looking at a modern art piece — I think it was a shoe in a garbage can — and I said, “I could do that.”
And she said something like, “But will you? Will you actually leave here and make that? And learn how to get it in a gallery or museum, and dedicate your life to putting shoes in garbage cans and calling it art?”
Now I see what she means. Perhaps the object itself isn’t the art. It’s the art of the follow through.
Eventually, I start following people around the show, curious what others find interesting here. First, I follow two women in matching micro dresses, sunglasses and heels — prancing about with their own personal photographer. They’re just posing with the art and don’t seem to actually be engaging with it, so I get bored and move on. Next, I eavesdrop on a woman with a tiny girl voice and her boyfriend discussing a drawing of Ulysses by James Joyce.
Woman: So this is like, a book?
Gallerist: It’s a representation of it. The artist drew the pages.
Woman: So it’s not the actual book? But like, why?
Gallerist: The artist wanted to represent a different way to look at time, and time in the book. The story takes place in one day.
Woman: I didn’t know that. I’ve never read it.
Woman’s Boyfriend: It’s one of the most famous books of all time.
Woman: Did you read it?
The next experience worth mentioning is my first interaction with an “immaterial” art gallery, called Galerie and based nowhere but everywhere. Because it’s immaterial.
Their booth has blank walls, and when I ask the young man in charge – rumpled suit, Danish accent – what the deal is, he explains the mission of Galerie is to “Support and promote immaterial objecthood, works that cannot be reduced to material objects or the documentation of an action.” He asks if I’d like to “experience” one of the art pieces.
This is so post-modern it hurts. I say yes.
He has me follow him outside as the sun dips below one of the brightly painted South Beach lifeguard towers. He smokes a cigarette and tells me the artwork we will experience is called “Political Therapy” by Valentina Desideri, and “what problem did you have in your life that needs reconciling?”
I say something like “Facing toxic obstacles.”
I was trying to sound cool. He absorbs this, very seriously. I feel edgy. The RESPECT EXISTENCE boat bobs by once more. Now he has me follow him to the front entrance of Untitled. He opens a secret door and we’re in a utility hallway. It’s dusty and random and for a moment I worry that this whole thing is terribly sketchy. He has me lay down on a yoga mat, then displays a deck of tarot cards made by the artist. He says I should close my eyes and think about the problem that we’re using political therapy to solve. I do so, and I’m pretty sure he starts pulling cards to relate to my problem. I don’t really know. Within moments of laying there, I fall asleep.
I have a deep, lovely nap before he gently shakes me awake. We discuss the cards he pulled. I’m no stranger to tarot cards and therapy on yoga mats – I live in California after all – so I confirm that this immaterial art experience has been both unique and stimulating. And I have certainly enjoyed it, probably because it’s always more engaging to be a participant rather than merely a spectator. As far as the art, I don’t get it. But I’m used to that feeling by now.
My last stop at Untitled is the “What Is The Art World?” piece I’ve been quoting throughout this story. Then I walk into the chilly night, craving more immaterial napping. I call around and find a massage, my favorite way to get a deep snooze on-the-go.
I should’ve known a cheap massage in South Beach would come with some quirks. The masseuse plays music that might be called “Massage Electro House,” techno remixes of Sade, Enya and the like. I’m so tired I still nearly fall asleep, but the owner’s French bulldog curled up next to the massage table has a snoring problem so severe his every breath makes the walls rattle. As I’m checking out, the owner hints that all paintings in the place are for sale, and were all created by a local artist. I look closer and see that the paintings – every single one – are portraits of Miss Piggy from the Muppets in various erotic poses. I stuff a handful of free peppermints into my mouth and flee.
Next stop is checking into my hotel — the Courtyard Marriott in Downtown Miami. The room is spacious and clean, the bed so inviting, I’m tempted to just hide under the covers until I feel normal again. But I pull myself together to see the Wynwood Walls. Located in Miami proper — normally a short drive from South Beach but a hectic journey during the Basel — I haven’t been to Wynwood yet. I’m so fucking bummed when I finally arrive. Because it’s amazing.
Wynwood is an entire neighborhood filled with murals and graffiti art and minimalist cool galleries and shops. THIS is what I was missing on those chilly schleps around South Beach. THIS is the soul I was craving. Created by the late community revitalizer Tony Goldman, Wynwood is one of the largest permanent outdoor mural exhibits in the world. And I’m the nerd who missed it by a mile.
The streets are blocked off for pedestrians and there’s a good block party happening, bikers and muralists and locals all living it up. I putz around, pulling my jacket tight to stay warm, marveling at the murals, each more ingenious and colorful than the next. I love how the artists incorporate features of the wall into their paintings, like a ventilator thing painted gold so it becomes part of a woman’s necklace in “New World Water” by RK Crew. I’m amazed how they capture the scale of these giant paintings. Do they use a projector? Intuition? Magic?
Later, I’m wonder what my graffiti name would be – maybe E$ or Planet Granat – when two cute girls ask me to take their photo. They’re dressed in crop tops and sneakers, excited to be there, excited for life. They pose in front of a mural of a giant melting periwinkle face. I take the photo, our brief interaction forever captured by the great algorithm in the sky.
As they bound off toward the party, I wish I had a friend. Being in Wynwood is like that moment at a festival when your favorite artist is about to perform, you just got your phone a bit charged, and someone hands you a joint. In other words, everything is finally coming together. But it doesn’t mean shit unless you have friends to share it with.
I look down and realize I’m standing on a familiar face. Hat pulled low over sunglasses, trademark bandana and long hair, and the words YOU LOVE THE MAN. It’s Blakhat, the prolific person / project / something I’ve seen and stepped on all over LA. I see this mysterious face more than I see some of my family members. And now he / she / they have found me in Miami. If you’re ever in the mood to get weird, take a trip over to www.blakhat.tv.
I like Wynwood. A lot.
I take a photo of a flyer “STREET ART ADDICTION IS REAL! You are not alone. There is help!” Wonder if it’s in fact real (so hard to tell with these tongue-in-cheek street artists), eat yet another Cuban sandwich, twist my ankle yet again, and retreat to the Marriott to write this story.
If I had to express my concluding thoughts on Art Basel with a contemporary artwork, it would look like this:
In the middle is a woman with a sword, because if one more person tells me what an amazing time they had at Art Basel, and how could I have hated it when it’s THE BEST THING IN THE WORLD, I will slay them.
Two ships circle around the woman, always missing each other. One ship has a sign that reads ILLUMINATI, because they can always be blamed for stuff that has to do with wealth and privilege. The other ship has an animated Miss Piggy, twerking.
Bobbing in the ocean next to the ships are refugees, as a reminder that none of this really matters and if being disappointed by Art Basel is my big qualm in life, then I’m doing just fine.
Above the woman like a crown is the crescent moon of Black Rock City, because if you want to really experience art, Burning Man is the place to go (I promised myself I’d get through this story with mentioning Burning Man, but I NASCAR failed).
Heaven is depicted in the clouds above the woman. The clouds are covered in Wynwood street art. Champagne is free, people are warm, hydrated, rested.
Hell is depicted along the bottom of the piece. It’s people in party clothes waiting in long lines for a party that never materializes. The devil is a smart phone with huge fake tits, riding a golden dinosaur. Tiny dogs scamper about, barking in hashtags.
Something scatalogical, because in contemporary art, poop = profound.
My art piece is reasonably priced at $300,000. I take cash, but I prefer bitcoin.