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Big Walls to Fill
Art's Cutting -- and Moneyed -- Edge Makes a Splash at Art Basel Miami Beach

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.

"I tell them not to go so big, but it's Art Basel, so everybody pulls out the stops, the biggest stops, and they just go big," says Brook Dorsch, a gallery owner over on the mainland who is exhibiting 85-year-old Arnold Mesches, who took his black-and-white drawing, "By the Rivers of Babylon," and decided, heck, why not, and turned it into a billboard.

Knowing a lot about the contemporary art scene might be considered a plus here, but trust us, there is just something wonderful about not knowing a darn thing, because the learning curve is so deliciously steep it can give a culturenaut vertigo. Dilettantes, blast off!

Seriously. You have no idea. Behold a medicine cabinet. Containing medicines. Peer at the label. The 1992 piece is called "untitled aaaaa" (sort of cute), by Damien Hirst, but only upon asking the gallerina (and thank you, artnet.com) does one begin to comprehend the following:

1. Damien Hirst is/was a blazing nuclear art explosion and a founding member of the YBAs, or Young British Artists, made famously fabulous in shows staged by the Saatchi Gallery in London.

2. Damien Hirst is the dude who put a whole dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde and called it "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living."

3. One of his previous medicine chests went for $19 million, not as thick as his $100 million diamond-encrusted human skull, but not Kmart.

Also In: Paul McCarthy's disturbing Chocolate Santas. Also, seemingly, sneakers. Not one pair of Nikes, but an installation of rare special-edition sneakers arranged by British "filmmakers" Nick Relph and Oliver Payne, who stuck bottles of Chateau Latour into the shoes, and from the necks of the wine bottles draped cheap plastic sports watches. It's multi-hyphenate mash. Get it? Trust us, you do. It's not that hard.

"It's a portrait of themselves," explains Kelly Taylor of Gavin Brown gallery in New York. "It's where they are, where we are at, now, literally, here." Taylor waves an arm around the convention hall, buzzing with the chic gobbling up seven-digit art like cucumber canapes at a homeless shelter. So they're making fun of us and they're selling the whole series for $200,000? Genius. What if you just wanted one sneaker? Nothing doing. "This has to go to a museum," Taylor says. "Just look at it."

Maybe you're thinking now, holy cow, what will these artists think of next? Why not just hang a frame around your expense report and call it art? Excuse me. It's been done by Christoph Buechel, whose "Made by MASS Moca" appears to be pages from a lawsuit behind glass.

Art, art, everywhere, this weekend in Miami. Over at the Raleigh Hotel, beside the valet parking line, they've erected the Paper Tent, sponsored by hip Paper magazine. We're nodding, yes, of course, exactly, here's a painting of Paris Hilton, very now, very ironic, funny yet sad, and as we're digging it, we say hello to David Hershkovits, publisher of Paper, who asks, "You know what's going on, right?"

Rarely. It appears the Paper Tent is exhibiting the works of mentally and physically challenged people -- and not the ironic kind. They are members of the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. They're special, seriously. And what they've done is have a special artist like Kim Clark rework and interpret Karen Kilimnik's original portrait of Paris. And you know what? We love what Kim has done -- she's given Paris duck lips, and it's a steal for $1,200, for a good cause. "I like art scenes, not art markets," says Hershkovits, "but that's a whole different topic."

On Collins Avenue, the look: women with chopsticks in their hair eating Hebrew National frankfurters next to hydrogen-powered BMW sedans (talk about art cars) brought to you by UBS, "the wealth management specialists" and Art Basel sponsors. On the beach, there's a performance art piece by James Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop. (By the way, he's still alive.) The prince of punk, whose hit "Lust for Life" now accompanies Carnival Cruise Lines' TV spots, doesn't waste any time ripping his shirt off. He sure is a wiggler. "If they say you're dirt, you're dirt," he shouts, "but at least you're down to earth." The crowd mills, dressed in black, like shellshocked ravens from some kind of Helen Verhoeven painting. See? This is a trick we picked up. Refer to obscure artists. A lot.

It is possible to see too much art? It is. We're stumbling through the NADA show one afternoon, and there's Jessica Simpson with a glob of red putty over her right eye? We're getting sleepy. More chains on the floor. A row of colored aprons? Warning: Do not operate heavy machinery. Then turn a corner and bang. Verhoeven's "The Walking," a big canvas by the young Dutch artist, what looks like crows or ducks moving in one direction, like war refugees, or the damned, across a ravaged landscape of blue. "It stops you," says Bonnie Clearwater, chief curator of the North Miami Museum of Contemporary Art, who stands before it, stopped. She asks Jane Hait of Wall Space Gallery in New York what kinds of shows Verhoeven has done, where she paints, whom she studied under. "I like her work a lot," Clearwater says. "It's fres-s-sh."

Over on the mainland, the art fairs and their wonderfulness have colonized neighborhoods formerly thought of as dangerous slums, and so 2,000 people head over to breakfast at the Rubell Family Collection in Wynwood, where the Bentleys and Benzes are double-parking in front of dirt yards filled with slumbering pit bulls.

The RFC is housed in a museum. Only it's a museum owned by a family, the Rubells, heirs to the Studio 54 fortune, who are one of the major Miami collectors. In the outdoor gallery space, Jennifer Rubell, our hostess, is asking guests to please don rubber latex gloves -- the kind your doctor snaps on to signal it's time to get down to business -- because there is the breakfast: three giant platters. One pyramid of croissants. One mountain of bacon. One sea of a thousand hard-boiled eggs (already peeled).

"The challenge," says Rubell, "was to serve 2,000 guests. So we went with a croisandwich? Only we sort of deconstructed it." And the gloves? No dishes to wash, no utensils to clean. "I think the latex gives it that hygienic sheen that's so important today," she says and smiles sweetly.

Guests are (literally) applauding the breakfast/conceptual art/eating thing, as videographers swirl about capturing the images. Egg. Glove. Bite. We are admiring a giant mobile inside. "Did you know those are Patriot missiles?" Rubell asks. "Well, not the whole missile."

In a back room at an auxiliary warehouse rented by the Yvon Lambert Gallery of New York, they are screening a video by the Mexican artist Carlos Amorales of what appears to be malevolent butterflies covering the walls of an apartment. Say what you will about video art, the ugly cousin of contemporary media, but the flat-screen TV may have saved the form. In the main room (the main garage) there's an LED piece by Jenny Holzer, the New York word artist. Remember? In: words. "I tickle you," goes the scroll in colored lights, "I breathe you."

"It sold Tuesday," says Rachel Vancelette of the gallery, and you have to ask. The Holzer went for $200,000, to an undisclosed East Coast museum.

In comes a busload of trustees from the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. There are dozens of so-called "museum groups" being squired through the fairs -- the VIPsters, the platinum donors, the whales, the ATMs with the deep pockets escorted around town by their knowledgeable curators and fundraisers from art institutes around the country. One marvelous matron in art glasses and wearing one of those pillowcases asks, "Where's the Serranos?"

That would be Andres Serrano, one of the infamous bad boys of modern art, the artist who just about gave Jesse Helms the fits back in the 1990s when Serrano placed a crucifix in urine. Judging from the transgressive, often aggressive art of today, those seem like milder, more innocent times -- when it might have actually been possible to be shocked. Anyway, the Serranos? Kind of hard to miss. Right behind her are the artist's Ku Klux Klan portraits. The fairs of Art Basel in Miami are a wonderful place to learn, explains Maiza Hixson, one of the curatorial assistants from Cincinnati; "it lets them get their feet wet."

What does it all mean? Over at the Wolfsonian, the research and exhibition facility, home to 100,000 decorative objects and architectural elements, they are having a party. Hanging from the building's facade are two 30-foot apes. The first monkey says, "Everybody thinks . . ." and the second banana says, "they are right." Inside, the typographic artist (words, again!) Stefan Sagmeister has spelled out, in gin fizz cocktail glasses and swizzle sticks, the truism, "Low expectations are a good strategy."

One morning, we're over at the lovely digs of Debra and Dennis Scholl, a couple of venture capitalists who have been collecting modern art for three decades -- and who each year stage an entirely new exhibit from their 500-piece private collection at their bayside home. And what did we tell you? Sneakers are hot. There's Brian Jungen's "Prototype for a new understanding #23," which looks like a tribal mask from the Pacific Northwest, until you look more closely. It's made of Air Jordans.

Why is contemporary art so hot right now? Dennis Scholl is not exactly sure, but he gives one of the best answers of the week. "Wealth," he says, "needs a place to go."

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