A trip through the mirage of Art Basel into the scarred face of Miami
At this year's Art Basel, the glitz was, of course, played down, what with the global economic collapse and Art Basel's main corporate sponsor, top Swiss bank UBS, now the subject of an FBI probe on charges of helping billionaire clients evade taxes. In the weeks before the opening of the fair, it was announced that the legendary UBS free caviar tent would not be open this year. One could not help but notice that the ice sculptures on the beach itself, hallmarks of the recent boom, were gone, already as fabled as the lost city of Atlantis.
Still, the epic "Arts and Power" issue of Miami magazine hit the stands on time, luxurious full-color spreads on oversize glossy pages. Press from all over the world wrote a month's worth of previews leading up to the event, and on the day of the VIP vernissage, TV news reporters from all continents were there to dutifully record the arrivals of billionaires, celebrities, and fashion models at the Miami Beach Convention Center. As Art Basel Miami Beach 2009 opened, the floor of the convention center was eerily quiet, with hardly a sound except a hushed, determined whisper a bit like paper money being rubbed together. It seemed to me like everyone was doing her or his part, as if the whole art fair was a sort of performance art piece demonstrating the vigor of the free market in dark times.
This murmur ceased completely, and the air filled with the muted clicking of camera shutters, as Sylvester Stallone passed me on the convention floor. Stallone, too, was stoic, his expression hidden by dark sunglasses at mid-day. He stopped next to me and began to talk to TV news cameras about his own paintings on display, presented by the gallery Gmurzynska. Close-up and in person, clumps of the actor's face, now just inches from mine, seemed to lay inert and dead like the unfortunate globs of oil paint he had arranged on his own canvasses. Pieces of puffy cheek hung limp and jowly under taut eyebrow skin, Botox and facelifts fighting age for control. For a paparazzi flashbulb moment, I thought I saw in Rambo's sagging face a metaphor for the doomed efforts to prop up a whole failing way of life.
The Miami Beach Convention Center's 500,000 square feet had been blocked out into booths and concourses that comprised a pseudo-city of art. As a city, it most resembled some parts of the new Manhattan — crowded yet curiously hollowed out and lifeless, under relentless surveillance, full of nostalgia for its former, more vital self. Groundbreaking art that once had the power to shock, move, or startle — Rauschenberg's collages, Richard Prince's Marlboro men, Barbara Krueger's text block barrages — were presented here as high-priced real estate. In the city of art, time stood still; Matisse, de Kooning, and Duchamp had all retired to the same street. A sailor portrayed in a 2009 life-size portrait by David Hockney seemed to gaze wistfully across the hall toward a 1981 silk-screened print of a dollar sign by Andy Warhol. The life-size portraits by Kehinde Wiley felt just like the city in summer, how the radio of every passing car seems to be blasting the same song. A print of a photo of Warhol and Basquiat together in SoHo stood catty-corner to a 1985 Warhol paining of the text, "Someone Wants To Buy Your Apartment Building."
I wondered if this city of art offered clues as to the kind of city that developers imagined Miami might become.
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