“We’ve done this half, and that half. Is there another half?”
–Overheard, Art Basel Vernissage 2012
Art Basel: a beautiful hodgepodge of disheveled gallery assistants and even more disheveled millionaires. For those who have never been, Art Basel Miami Beach is one of the largest annual contemporary art fairs in the world. The main event and the countless satellite fairs around the city attract the rich and the hip from all over, who are in a constant incestuous competition to feel like they’re hanging out with one another. It’s a cultured and curated circle jerk, and hilariously overwhelming to the mind, body, and liver.
The Vernissage, French for “varnishing,” is the opening night event and initial showing of galleries and their offerings for serious collectors, VIPS, and press. This sounds exclusive, but basically everyone and their sea monkey collection gets a ticket. I am ArtSlant’s man on the street for the Vernissage, so I decided to dive in to the dipshit fray, hoping to break through at least some of the varnish.
Entrance to the Vernissage; Photo by Nathaniel Sandler.
The physicality of walking in the Vernissage is actually nerve-wracking. Thousands of people are funneled into three turnstiles. The poor old lady behind me was hugely concerned about getting trampled by the thick slough of bottlenecked schmoozers. I tried my best to calm her but the look of fretful terror as she pleaded with her god and her friends was impossible to soothe off her nervous face. I felt somewhat responsible given that my proximity was contributing to her anxiety. She looked past me the whole time I spoke to her and never acknowledged me. This is practice at Basel. Look past everything.
But even though the crowd was dense, everyone is not welcome, and a friend of mine – a three-tour Iraq War veteran – tried to get in and wasn’t allowed because he didn’t have Vernissage tickets or a VIP pass. So, this asshole in the polka dot cravat and the half moon glasses can get in, but the decorated Marine veteran can’t? Good on you Basel, you’ve inadvertently taken snooty behavior lower than the filthiest depths of an ocean trench.
The conduct of the patrons inside veers between the benign and the questionable. There are almost always groups of people photographing someone I don’t recognize. This may be an indictment on my star-fucking capability, but I’m also pretty sure that guy in the orange bowler hat isn’t actually famous. Everyone is milling about talking about something and nothing and constantly eyeing each other up. Inevitably, someone is dressed performatively in a shredded trash bag for a laugh.
As you continually move through the labyrinth of temporary walls and questionable art, you inevitably walk past the same thing over and over again. It takes the third glance at that frumpy male nude portrait on the toilet to realize that you have no idea how much of the show you have seen. You don’t have a map, because maps are for conquistadores, and you sir/madam are half drunk and beckoning slaughter. The labyrinth begins to consume you as you overhear some over jeweled socialite mention to her manpiece that “they make you walk everywhere." Good god. They do. This maze – this constant onslaught of almost bumping in to people – makes you wonder if we are all being led to the contemporary art minotaur. You, like the artist, are officially lost in this milieu.
Tavares Strachan, You Belong Here, 2012, Blocked out neon glasswork, Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Franciso; Photo by Nathaniel Sandler.
Do I belong here? Does anyone? One of the fallacies of Basel, and its surroundings, is that you always presume there is somewhere cooler to be. This place is boring. What party is Adrien Brody at?
As evidenced by You Belong Here by Tavares Strachan, Bahamian-born New York-based artist represented here by Anthony Meier Fine Arts, there is some actual art to be seen. It falls into a couple different categories. There’s a heavy inundation of ubiquitous contemporary art that you can barely muster up a blinking glance (not pictured cause who cares). Then there are pieces that catch your eye because it seems almost made to be photographed by schmucks at art fairs.
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Greedy Schmuck), 2012, L&M Arts; Photo by Schmuck Nathaniel Sandler.
Good art, if you can find it, is there, but finding it is like looking for a needle eye in a stack of camels. If you are lucky you will have a genuinely moving experience. And sure enough, I turned a nameless corner and ran right into Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed, 2011, by Puerto Rican artists Allora & Calzadilla, which showed at the illustrious entrance of the US pavilion of the Venice Biennale. It is quite plainly a statue in a fake bake and no lie, I literally uttered “Holy shit” when I saw it, which made someone nearby laugh. I hope they knew how beautifully the piece summed up that exact moment. It is absolutely stunning to behold.
Allora & Calzadilla, Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed, 2011; Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, Photo by Nathaniel Sandler.
This is why we, those who are not the upper crust of art collectors, are here. We are here to find a single piece of art that speaks to us. We all aspire to something, and Liberty here is telling us that sometimes those aspirations and wants are confused. The overall clunkiness of the piece brings the weight of misplaced intentions. The mix of a modern machine built for vanity with a traditional bronze sculpture of the symbol of freedom lying heavily is perfect. What we do with our freedom is ours, but it can be beautiful and ugly, like the crowd, like all of us, like you, and like myself.
Right before I left, I bumped into Miami artist Kevin Arrow and chatted about the overwhelming piles of art on display. Thoughtfully, he said, "after a while, for me, everything starts looking like a prop for a movie about contemporary art." Fair enough.
At Basel, we are all props in a movie about contemporary art. But we are in that movie. So play your part and understand that inanimate or not, we must be here.
(image at top: Art | Basel Miami Beach entrance; photo by Natalie Hegert.)