MIAMI BEACH — One of the things I find hardest about art fairs — particularly those held in convention centers and large exhibition halls — is their aesthetic. Bright, clinical white everywhere, with temporary walls set at perfect right angles and the gridwork of pipes and rafters floating high above. It’s hygienic enough to make you swoon over even the most banal abstraction.
This is part of why I find myself gravitating toward immersive installations, booths where galleries have ceded their small space to an artist or two and let them do something different. A weirder and more welcoming haven within the sterile structure of the art fair feels like a relief.
I found a few examples of artists creating this type of space at Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) yesterday, to varying degrees. The most immersive and hardest-to-miss was the booth of São Paulo gallery Mendes Wood, which artist Cibelle Cavalli Bastos has turned into the post-apocalyptic hotel and resort Las Venas (with a handful of paintings by Patricia Leite). The vibe is tacky Miami meets net art AFK meets psychedelia.
You can sign up for a time slot to go behind the curtain and meet the proprietress, Bastos’s alter ego, Sonja Khalecallon, who has more than two breasts under her flower-print leotard and lounges in the Day-glo of her chaotic one-room establishment. When we visited, she spoke for a while about the “fold” happening between different dimensions and then sang us a song in Portuguese, translating as she went. It wasn’t the best performance I’ve seen, but there was something earnestly and inspiringly weird about it. Funny, too — on the way out she explained that in the future Mars has become a hotspot for bio food, cargo pants, and Crocs, while those who like flannel shirts and complicated coffee have congregated on Neptune.
Not far from Mendes Wood, also in the fair’s Nova section, is not a booth but a bar that artist Naomi Fisher has transformed into what she calls the “Dancarchy Refuge” (a project similar to what she did at the fair last year). Its entrance lined with a big, luscious plants, the refuge lived up to its name when I visited: It offered a surprisingly quiet and calm sanctuary from the goings-on nearby (and a place to buy a drink, which never hurts). Inside, apart from the bar and a few benches, Fisher has lined the walls with loose, tie-dyed-looking paintings of female dancers and their bodies. Five of the six have barres attached, and in the late afternoon, two ballerinas took to the paintings to perform some short routines. I didn’t see a grand show, but hearing the ticking of the metronome and watching the women work their way through the steps gave me a strange sense of peace.
In the Positions section, where each booth is devoted to only one artist and one project, I found pretty much the opposite of peace at Carroll/Fletcher’s booth. The gallery has brought “The Censored Internet” (2014), an installation by Constant Dullaart, the artist who once famously gave away the password to his Facebook account and more recently purchased Instagram followers for various art-worlders. Dullaart has lined the walls of the booth with flags from 19 countries listed by Reporters Without Borders as “enemies of the internet,” along with blurred portrait photographs of people who may have sold spyware to governments during the Arab Spring and pulsing LED lights. In the rear of the booth, a video monitor plays a captivating commercial for a “remote control system” called Galileo and designed to help governments spy on their citizens; “is passive monitoring enough?” the voiceover asks, and it’s creepy because it feels so plausible. Also, although I regrettably missed it, “The Censored Internet” apparently includes a local network device that offers free wi-fi (unlike ABMB) — except every character that passes through it becomes an X.
The other installations I encountered throughout the fair were far less immersive but still enlivening in their own ways. Travesía Cuatro has given over its booth to artists Sarah Crowner, who contributes a handful of playful paintings of a repeating shape, and Milena Muzquiz, whose creations take colorful ceramic vases to their bizarre extremes (eyeballs are a particularly good motif). The floor of the booth is also ceramic, with a geometric pattern of zigzagging lines that gives it a wonderfully wobbly sense of depth.
At Kavi Gupta’s booth, Mickalene Thomas has created one of her signature home installations, where bright, mismatching patterns come together to riotous effect. Thomas excels at furnishing these spaces with the touches and details that make them feel like someone’s home — here there are small curios, framed pictures, wood paneling on the walls and floors, and a series of cast bronze clothing items, all former possessions of her mother. The TV set plays Thomas’s moving film about her mother, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” offering a back story that gives the initially silly pair of shining Crocs a new emotional heft.
Thomas’s installation resonated somehow when I visited Y++ Wada Fine Arts’ booth, in the fair’s Survey section. Y++ is highlighting the Japanese painter Tetsuya Ishida, whose paintings show life in Japan as deeply and hauntingly surreal. The front of the booth includes a re-creation of the artist’s studio, from balled-up mattress and clothing to a kettle and roll of toilet paper. Although the installation — which is not meant to be entered (one woman did anyway, to take a photo with her cell phone, perilously stretching the mats on the floor) — does not by itself tell us too much about the artist, it works in tandem with the Kafkaesque paintings, and the knowledge that the artist died at only 31, to create a tangible sense of loneliness. It’s not necessarily a good feeling, but it is nice to feel something besides overwhelmed and numb at an art fair.
Art Basel Miami Beach 2014 continues at the Miami Beach Convention Center (1901 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach) through December 7.