Picking through and around Art Basel Miami Beach

Carts of Champagne wheeled through endless aisles. An on-site spa featuring massages and facial treatments. A cigar lounge.

And that was just part of the floor plan making up Art Basel Miami Beach, let alone the dozens of satellite fairs and events simultaneously occurring throughout the city.

In its eighth year, the American version of the longtime Swiss art festival has become a wintertime go-to destination for dealers, collectors and enthusiasts seeking the next big thing in contemporary art. It’s become so popular that art takes hold of the main hub, the Miami Beach Convention Center, and beyond, much like music takes over a certain Quebec city when the Montreal Jazz Festival hits town: you can’t escape it, because it’s everywhere.

Art Basel Miami Beach, what with its Champagne carts, is dizzying enough. With 2,000 artists representing 250 galleries from 33 countries, the works seem to multiply in front of one’s eyes. The highlights were numerous, but one that particularly stood out was Farhad Moshiri’s oil, acrylic and glitter piece on canvas, “Run Like Hell,” that spelled out the title in orange sticking out of a glazed red lumpy background. A closer examination, to the delight of a photographer and myself, revealed that the orange color poked out of the handles of knives stabbed into the canvas, the delightful 3-D discovery suddenly launching mental images of a zany chase and pursuit, running in an endless loop.

However, the real gems were found in the satellite fairs, mostly occurring in nearby Art Deco hotels, the Wynwood Art District just across the causeway and even a docked yacht. That yacht, the SeaFair, hosted “Rock the Boat,” a weeklong triple-deck exhibit of photography, jewelry and art, accented with more Champagne (sense a trend?) and a live band. In terms of sheer uniqueness, Eostone’s fascinating fossil art included a framed, 49-inch fossilized turtle dating back 50 million years, priced to the tune of US$300,000.

Back on land, large tents dominated otherwise barren parking lots and concrete patches, while nondescript warehouses doubled as museums, the fairs all capitalizing on the location: Photo Miami. Art Asia Miami. Geisai Miami. At Photo Miami, one of the more striking exhibits was propelled by a particularly poignant topic – the border towns between the U.S. and Mexico. The U.S. premiere of Jeffrey Aaronson’s “Borderland” included simultaneously serene, stirring and haunting images ranging from carnival scenes to traveling religion buses. “To live in the borderland is to live at the end of the country, the last place before another place starts,” Aaronson wrote on his Web site. “In this work, I pursued the vernacular, the original, creating visual folktales that mirror a collective longing for a home and cultural identity.”

Art Asia Miami rang of identity as well, particularly when it came to the scores of contemporary Chinese art portraying a rapidly changing society penetrated by commercialization while clinging to tradition. Symbols of fast food and commercial logos mixed with Buddhas, scrolls and Chinese calligraphy were plentiful, and judging from the number of red dots affixed to the descriptions of the works – a red dot indicates a sale – others appreciated the juxtaposition. “Welcome Welcome,” a fiberglass sculpture by the Luo Brothers, featured a quartet of small Chinese children, normally depicted crawling on a Buddha’s giant belly, parading a giant Big Mac, while a McDonald’s burger was portrayed, literally, as a heavy burden for a Chinese man in Didik Nurhadi’s “Burger in China,” an acrylic work on canvas.

Geisai Miami also featured thought-provoking Asian art. Run by Takashi Murakami, the Miami version is based off the Louis Vuitton collaborator’s much-larger annual affair in Tokyo. Unlike that festival – a gargantuan first-come, first-serve event – a jury handpicked 21 artists from 501 applications for Geisai Miami. One of these artists was coppi. In her debut exhibition, and in what she calls “Tokyo situation comedy,” coppi’s tongue-in-cheek paintings revealed a humorous, refreshing take on everyday occurrences in Japan’s crowded capital, such as jam-packed trains and the corporate rat race.

Fellow Geisai artist Susan Lee-Chun – a Seoul-born, Chicago-raised Miami resident – stood out with her simple wooden bar and booth. While assessing her past works, Lee-Chun noticed that the majority of her performance art pieces often had a shelf life: perform the piece, catalog it and refer to the notes when necessary. Therefore, she said she wanted to create an experience of “authenticity” and “identity” that would last over time with “The Suz Tea Bar.”

As I sipped on a cup of oolong tea adorned with the bar’s logo – the artist as Su (a ganguro girl type), Sue (herself) and Sioux (a character that could pass for Chun-Li’s sister) – Lee-Chun explained that spectators like myself would enter in and out of the exhibit, each carrying our own authentic experiences of The Suz with us, whether through a beverage or a conversation, while seeking refuge in what she described in her menu as “a haven for the faux real.” Vaguely disoriented by drinking tea in a bar that wasn’t really a bar, I listened to the – faux? real? – possibilities of becoming a Suz franchisee or enrolling in related aerobics classes in Chicago. Real or not, the experience certainly was authentic – much like the opportunity to soak in the variety of visual stimuli in an art-soaked Miami in December.

Photo Gallery: Art Basel Miami Beach 2008
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine