But the most provocative element in the exhibit was "Window Shopping Series," a group of eight color photo portraits of Miami prostitutes taken on the streets. Artist Zach Balber told me that he intended the photos as a commentary on how artists are exploited by galleries. Balber paid each of them women $10 to pose, with the condition that if their portrait sold in the show, Balber would split the money with the woman and her pimp. "I wanted to flip the script on the collectors because I feel prostituted as an artist."
Seen in this context, the photos were something of a cheap, sexist, juvenile prank. It would be impossible for any viewer to equate the 26-year-old white artist's privileged suffering at the hands of art galleries to the degradation of life on the streets faced by the gaunt, toothless, and likely drug-addicted women Balber photographed. But the photos had a life of their own beyond the artist's limited conception. They were perhaps the most haunting artwork I saw during the entire art fair. Balber had inadvertently invited the real world of Miami's streets — the real favela — into the city of art. Despite their haggard appearance, the women had composed themselves with a certain quiet dignity for the camera, and the effect was to transfer the sense of voyeuristic shame that Balber should have felt onto the viewer, presumably a collector, who is roaming Miami's shantytown streets only for the weekend. As they stared into the camera and, in turn, into Balber's eyes, I saw the city of Miami itself looking back at the art world and asking, "Who really benefits from all this?"
In the end, artists that attempt to subvert Art Basel often simply add to its spectacle. On the last night of the fair, Brooklyn-based artist Molly Crabapple staged a hit-and-run event that promised "a guerilla live-drawing insurrection in South Beach". Her Twitter communiqué announced a bold takeover of the Art Basel streets. "At exactly 8 p.m., a limo will disgorge a cavalcade of depraved performers — burlesque queens, dominatrixes, midgets — on the streets for you to draw."
Crabapple is the accomplished illustrator and performer behind the highly successful Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, a series of live events/drawing classes usually held in bars or clubs, where burlesque dancers perform and are drawn by the audience. When I met up with her that night around 6 p.m. at the Art Whino fair, though, Crabapple was distraught and texting. Several of the performers had already canceled, and she was looking for a new location in Wynwood, having decided against taking on the upscale art world on South Beach. Finally, Crabapple rounded up four burlesque performers in colorful, spangle-y underwear, big wigs, and six-inch heels. They were joined by a dreadlocked fire dancer and the promised midget, who — with his cut-off sleeves, black hair hanging over his eyes, and excessive eye makeup — looked like a tiny Alice Cooper. The unlikely team looked like something out of an '80s hair metal or wrestling video. Sadly, at the last minute, they were unable to rent a limo and had to settle for a rented SUV to take them to the event.
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