Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A report from Stuart Shepherd on the Basel art fair in Miami.

Art Basel Miami 2007

It's a nice challenge to try to sum up the experience of Art Basel Miami 2007, and a further challenge to consider what that experience might really mean.

My particular experience came filtered by a cocktail of pseudoephedrine, chinese herbal pills and copious courtesy coladas (the latter provided by the various “cross marketing” stalls of the fair). I was fighting a N.Y. winter flu amped up by the hot/cold of air conditioning, but I was determined to get my N.Z. dollars worth and see everything. There was a lot to see. Art Basel comprises about 20 separate art fairs, design, photography, print, all with attendant openings and special events; Iggy Pop and the Stooges opened the fair with a terrific free concert on the beach; I was there, body aching eyes streaming, courageous...sick...contagious.

Not only by my state, this art fair deserves to be further contextualized by its own state: Florida, U.S.A. It is BIG…bigger than from Cape Rienga to Upper Hutt. It has a backdrop of thousands of mega hotels lining the dumb beach and thousands of miles of freeways and overpasses to connect them. Traffic jams and palm trees. Big hotels and freeways are symptoms of a big economy and the key reason why this art fair exists. Other draw cards must be the established fashion scene of Miami’s South Beach, its promise of underdeveloped real estate and the further promise of a tropical getaway... particularly for collectors, curators and dealers from Europe, all high on a flattering exchange rate.

Meanwhile, aesthetically and culturally, something else happens down here, down on the latitude of Cuban salsa....Versace, hi-healed sandals, inflated breasts, Ferraris and bling, all become perfectly sensible when wrapped in the cashmere warmth of the evening air...and viewed, with cocktail in hand, from any one of the gorgeous foyers of any one the deco hotels that make up the worlds best collection. Even with my antipodean reserve, even with my flu, I could feel that inclination/obligation to... indulge; and to throw my hard won and puny N.Z. dollars at something.

And so to the fair. If you are a dealer representing art of a certain level of established credibility, you will be allowed, even invited, to take space in the main convention center. It will cost you around $US.10.000 per day for the four day event, and there will be contractual restrictions on how often you may replace the work as it sells off the prefab walls. The organizers do not want this scene to look like a garage sale. (Of course it actually IS a gigantic garage sale but art always needs to preserve its air of magic, cultural purpose, even divinity, especially when it comes down to haggling with a great white punter dressed in Bermuda shorts and armed with a pocket full of investment funds).

Then comes the art. And it is comes with a Lichtenstein ”POW”.

Yes there are the shallow waves of post-Koons pop, breaking onto the shores of the post-anime, and washing up the mutant and the uber-cute. There are acres of inventive recycling and the collaging of materials, and products, and positions. The grunge and the grotesque, the big manipulated photos, and the Chinese pop like B bursary art on steroids. But in and amongst all that are gems, and it was a treat to see seminal 20th C. works rub up against the very latest: a beautiful gouache by an unknown Latin surrealist next to clever painterly hybrids from London, sensational video work by Gary Hill next to industrial German kinetic stuff, Yves Klein’s blue bodies next to Anish Kapoor’s reflected distortions.

The effect of stacking one art experience on top of another is the experience of Art Basel. It’s unreasonable to expect any one thing to get fully digested. It’s like drinking a 6-gallon smoothy, all the tasty bits get blended, and you get bloated and hold your stomach and you don’t want to know about individual flavours.

Nevertheless, the blue chip galleries (with their gorgeously groomed staff) try to retain their distinct flavour with superior framing, lighting and more space allocated to the work. Lesser galleries aim for some kind of standout spectacle or signature effect designed to hook the cruising eye.

The competition to register a splash, to get press, is not a kind competition for quieter more reflective work. Nevertheless there is probably more art world democracy here in this pinnacle of late capitalism, than anywhere else. Every work on show here has a similar shot at recognition and sales. Given all that, a personal favorite work was the Paul McCarthy chocolate Santa with butt plug, cast in an unlimited edition...for the greatest consumer society on the eve of the greatest retail season ( Xmas) the artist was offering the masses a product to satisfy (or to stuff) the lust for food, sex, art and investment all at once. Good value at $100.00 a piece (contact me, I can get you one... add 35% plus freight...I’m serious)

Does this kind of big art fair have relevance for art in N.Z?

Yes…as an art lover this is where one gets to see the rip-tide current of ideas, moods and techniques of the day, and these are universal and relevant.
No... because this scale of market is not possible in N.Z. and maybe the work that is most relevant to the circumstances, audience, community of N.Z, would not have relevance here. (Although there would be no harm in slapping some big photos on plexiglas and hoping some German CEO on his way to snap up Warhols might, on a whim, drop 20 grand at your feet.)

Does this kind of fair do any good?

Yes. On the final day of the fair, a Sunday, a reported 220 private jets flew in to Miami to score, on last minute advice, whoever was hot. This was the most successful art fair ever in America.

Sales and visitor numbers were up 15 - 20% on last year. The type of visitor was interesting: it was not just those with the jets; there were family groups with children; people who hadn’t been advised as to what was cool but who responded to what was fun. And the whole thing was fun: it was a new popular sport, an alternative to the mall, the beach and college football. Not a bad thing... Art In America...a populist experience ...who would have guessed? It might even be significant.

Does this kind of fair do any harm?

Some artists and dealers whine about the inability for work to generate its true mojo in such a circus, and the damage done by the market in secondary sales to the credibility and visibility of hot contemporary work: art that is stalled in its ascendency
when retired matrons make investment purchases of work they hate on the advice of someone’s personal consultant, and the work sits brooding and scalding on a beige wall 18 floors up looking down on its owner out on the golf course, while she looks back, waiting for its value to double and while the Cuban gardener gets his own back by unnecessarily revving the leaf blower and destroying the retirement peace for around 14 holes.

And then another image comes back to me... back on South Beach on the opening night of the fair, drenched in adulation and bottled water, Iggy Pop, draping his arthritic hand over the microphone and rasping, ”Oh baby, these art fairs can get sooo lonely.”

Photographs by Stuart Shepherd


Ridiculoid said...

Go Stuart! What a lovely piece of writing. Should we look forward to New York updates from you?

John Hurrell said...

I imagine you fantasized about a stall of your own in Miami, Stuart, with some of the artists you regularly promote here in NZ. Too bad some of our top dealer galleries didn't get there. Be great to see stuff like Hammond or Apple or Lye on display in such a context.