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MIAMI BEACH — Escape the overwhelming and crowded main art fairs this year — without forgoing the art experience — in an unexpected place: the derelict shell of a pharmacy in North Beach. The large and empty space, once home to a drugstore, is one of many venues the SATELLITE show has taken over during the 14th annual Art Basel Miami Beach to showcase new works by many emerging artists (other sites include a parking garage and a repurposed hotel). Conceived by artist Brian Whiteley and run in conjunction with Art on Paper Miami and Miami Project, SATELLITE offers a refreshing setting to view art that won’t make you feel like a lab mouse scurrying around a white-walled maze.
The projects at the Pharmacy seem especially bent on rejecting the conventions of the typical mega-fair. In one corner, JJ Brine has brought his “posthuman art”-filled, Satanist gallery we visited last year in Manhattan, which the proprietors claim functions in its own time zone. A gift shop lights up a dark, dystopian-esque area, hawking objects made exclusively by out-of-town artists who have imagined what a South Florida tourist shop would sell. The resulting wares are delightfully absurd, poking fun at beach and resort culture art fairgoers naturally revel in when in town. Ceramic mermaid-like sea beasts by Roxanne Jackson pose on a shelf like monstrous sunbathers while corked bottles by Ellie Dent hold not pretty stones, shells, or other sand treasures but fleshy, organ-like doodads. Bringing the necessary drug paraphernalia is Andrew Cornell Robinson, who has sculpted a floral bong and a crack pipe composed of a ceramic head. I wanted to buy it all, but nothing is actually officially for sale, and the unattended register just tauntingly flashes “80085” (“BOOBS,” if you missed that).
Most of the Pharmacy is vacant, but installed at the center of the main space is the virtual reality project “DiMoDA,” or “The Digital Museum of Digital Art,” presented by Brooklyn’s Transfer gallery. In the making by Alfredo Salazar-Caro and William James Robertson since 2013, “DiMoDA” is experienced via an Oculus Rift, standing as a digitally built structure users may enter to view creations by artists. This iteration features galleries devoted to four artists, but the museum will continue to expand by collecting more new media works.
“Our intentions are to utilize the capacity of virtual reality to its maximum potential, to forgo the physics of our reality,” Salazar-Caro told me, before setting me up with the Oculus Rift and “driving” me around the museum. The site of DiMoDA itself is stunningly gorgeous — the beauty of virtual reality is that little is off limits; build your world as you desire. Salazar-Caro chose to bathe his institution in a never-ending sunset on a waterfront setting, with chrome trees surrounding the glassy, geometric building. Its entrance is marked by a pediment “carved” with DiMoDA’s logo: three anonymous figures over an image of Quetzalcoatl, flanked by game controllers. Inside, a pool-lined atrium leads to galleries perched atop a row of steps like temples.
As I wandered through the space, the sound of footsteps filled the headphones Salazar-Caro had me wear, which was a thoughtful, surprising detail. Each room presented a jaw-dropping experience: massive flowers bloomed and wilted in a Yayoi-Kusama-on-acid room designed by Claudia Hart while creepy mannequins loomed above Jacolby Satterwhite’s galactic world. A giant, somehow adorable, luminescent snail greeted me when I landed on the dynamic planet created by Tim Berresheim; another slimy surprise emerged in the Oval Office-like room by Aquanet 2001 (the project of Mexico City-based artists Salvador Loza and Gibrann Morgado): an alien creature equipped with two selfie sticks who is, as Salazar-Caro told me, “the speculative son of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin.”
The Pharmacy does host one conventional type of art show, although it’s one that prides itself on exhibiting “work that is critical and reflective, not market-based, during Art Basel.” Occupying the front gallery is HIGH TIDE, a group exhibition curated by Jesse Firestone showing only South Florida artists who confront issues of local urban development and sustainability, presenting both problems and ways to fight back. The presence of the many, many malls in the region, for instance, is made clear by the collective TVGOV, who has designed maps plotting these commercial giants that visitors may take with them to consult as they navigate the city. On one wall, photographs by artist Laurencia Strauss document her efforts collecting dog feces in a Buenos Aires neighborhood then baking them into Mickey Mouse-shaped cookies and eventually mailing them to CEO Paul Singer, head of Elliott Management. The hedge fund made what Strauss describes as, “a predatory loan to Argentina” that she saw as American neo-colonialism disguised as business affairs.
As a gesture to counter the spread of urban development, Strauss has also set up a composting station consisting of plastic containers filled with shredded paper; locally grown persimmons, papayas, and avocados; and live worms. Boxes filed with compost line the storefront, ready for visitors to take with them before they leave. One may also contribute to the creation process by supplying paper to feed the shredder; as Firestone suggests, one good source is all the informational material you’ve amassed at Art Basel.