Big Walls to Fill

Art commerce is alive and well at Art Basel Miami Beach -- the biggest, craziest art bazaar in the world. Contemporary art in all shapes and sizes took over the Miami Beach Convention Center (and surrounding venues) last weekend.
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007

MIAMI BEACH -- Moooo out of the way, Francois, it's a stampede! It's Art Basel Miami Beach, the biggest, craziest art bazaar in the world -- five days, four nights of hundreds of galleries selling thousands of artists to an insatiable herd of 40,000 of the trendiest, skinniest people on Earth, many of them dressed in black, like the hippest funeral ever, just hungry for the now, starving for the wow. It's Artzilla. Baselrama. An art swap for people who own islands.

Punch the PAUSE: This is the state of contemporary art. In: neon, words, irony, toys, celebrity, video, self-loathing and the Chinese. Also, coils of chains on the floor. Ditto, genitalia. Titillation. Installation. Arbitration. All very Photoshoppy. Very democratic in its way. The art is aggressive, transgressive, politically dull (war, bad). But, oh my, isn't it BIG. Gotta be big. Why? Real estate, people. Second homes.

Overheard: "He's got some big walls."

Spotted: There's a guy called Earth Man walking around the fair in a space suit breathing through a hose connected to a potted plant. There's a girl in a dress made of clothespins. There's Lance Armstrong in the Florida Room.

Bubble? What bubble? The only pop here is the sound of corks from the trolling carts of Perrier Jouet champagne, $14 a flute. Question: Excuse me, ma'am, isn't the economy getting the wobblies? Does not the subprime-mortgage, tightening-capital-market, real-estate-crash thingie mean anything to these people? Next question.

What we wanted to buy at the fair: a bench made of glass, called "Chair That Disappears in the Rain," by Tokujin Yoshioka, for $280,000. A mobile of giant lava rocks by Robert Chambers for $30,000. A "400% cotton" hand-dyed T-shirt, titled "Pimp," by Dutch artist HuskMitNavn, for $60 (snagged it). And there's Ralph Provisero's "Earthramp," two yards of pounded Everglades topsoil, and it's not even for sale. It will just . . . compost.

It's a Clever Contest. It's easy to mock. But it's really -- what is the word, we have forgotten -- oh, right, it is fun. We are not too proud to say it: Art Basel is fun. After all (bummer), it's not our money. Or as New York wheeler-dealer Jeffrey Deitch nicely puts it: "Buoyant. That's the feeling I get. People really want to be here. Sales have just been fantastic and I've brought enough for three shows."

As in: "We sold so much we had to re-install."

It's like Cannes, without the burden of Quentin Tarantino. All the usual suspects: the cool hunters and perfectly accessorized gallerinas, the sheiks of Dubai and the hedge fund boys from Connecticut, the lap dogs and top dogs, the Net Jet setters (there are reportedly more private planes here than at the Super Bowl), the museum donors egged on by their curatorial shock troops, the Houston whales, serious savvy collectors, the young & fun in their little black dresses, the speculators, entire graduating classes of MFA programs, art punks cadging free drinks, assorted blood-sucking ticks, and the simply stunned.

Tom Wolfe in his cream-colored suit is here on opening day, and it's like his "Bonfire of the Vanities" New York of the go-go 1980s is back before his very eyes. "This is the end of capitalism as we know it," he tells the Art Newspaper, watching herds of millionaires "waiting for the doors to open like some half-off sale at Macy's."

Opening night, Art Basel: the main event, "the blue chip art," what is now referred to as "the big fair," as opposed to the 26 other fairs that have glommed onto the Art Basel juggernaut this weekend, like Pulse, Art Miami, Scope, NADA, Design Miami, Red Dot, Aipad, Aqua, and the hotel fairs where the works are hung in faintly moist guest rooms, sometimes still with the beds. The big fair takes place in the Miami Beach Convention Center, enter through Hall D. There are 200 galleries from every art capital. It is December, but there is so much spa tan that people actually give off a faint orange glow, like walking Cheetos.

Couples stroll, speaking Spanish, Mandarin, Farsi, French. Oh, my fellow Americans, the euro, she is the cruelest currency. (Why is it called Art Basel? After the town in Switzerland where the original, more stodgy affair is held each year.) For the price of a $30 ticket, what can you see? How about a woman with a swan? A tricycle covered in jewels? A reproduction of a Shanghai market selling empty bags and bottles of American pops, chips, cookies. And we weren't kidding: Size matters. Check out a sequined banner by Frances Goodman proclaiming "The Bigger the Better," which sold, immediately, for $5,500.

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