MIAMI — Puzzled. That’s a good word to describe my state of being for my first Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB). One of the primary things I learned is that art fairs can be fun — when you’re standing on the right side of the velvet rope and you have all the right RSVPs and a prepared partinerary printed out.
ABMB is a strange beast. It is where art world names are established and reputations lost: a place to climb that ladder and to reap its rewards.
Of course we all know how despicable art fairs can be; according to Holland Cotter, practically everyone who enters one suffers from Stockholm syndrome. In response to the first Frieze New York this year, Peter Schjeldahl noted that you think you can do without art fairs, but you can’t. They are seductive things peddling seductive objects made more seductive by money and leisure, hotels, champagne, vodka, and all the trappings of the luxury life.
Yet within this overtly commercial context, ABMB provides a space in which to explore a side of the visual arts that deals with materiality, both in terms of form and color and in terms of value. Then yet again, at an event like this, objects are overshadowed by the scale of the event itself and the networks it is designed to produce and encourage.
For Ben Davis of Artinfo, also observing Frieze New York in 2012, the art fair is the new “event-based” way we experience art and how art functions and relates to society. For Davis, background and foreground switch places at an art fair: objects become secondary to the social nature of the event itself. In the case of Miami, parties often take precedence over the art. It is a meat market of sorts, in a multitude of ways.
Soon enough, I suffered from “fair fatigue,” a commonly known AMBM affliction when alcohol begins to work like coffee, scheduling a party itinerary feels like a chore, and the simplest names and adjectives escape you. Suddenly, you are a hollow shell and life makes no sense. You begin to question your part in the whole spectacle.
Funny. The same thing happens when looking at objects in the fair space. Given the cacophony and sheer volume of art on view, this is essentially the art market’s most transparent moment. Here, the object is shown embedded in the networks of commerce that so often remain hidden.
Perhaps this is why the booths of Mexico City’s Galería OMR and Madrid’s Travesía Cuatro felt so soothing. Both spaces presented Mexican artist Jose Dávila, also showing at Art Public, with a conceptual approach interested in space, memory, and absence.
“In removing the objects from his images,” explained OMR director Jaime Riestra, “he highlights the object, by making it absent.” Similarly, Daniel Silver’s busts of bearded men perched on tree trunks (also at OMR) are white, as if the artist is inviting us to project a notion of what the work might mean onto its figurative yet abstract state.
Travesía Cuatro was highlighting a series of Davila’s black-and-white images in which the figure has been cut out. Here, the body is absent: a white void framed by a field of context, both specific and general, essentially offering a space for self-reflection. The series contemplates the role of such material bodies as buildings, objects, and humans in a given place, system, and context.
In light of Ben Davis’s reading of the art fair as a space where the object moves into the background, perhaps Art Basel Miami Beach is also a place where the spectators — those bodies in the space — step back into a seductive plume created by this gathering of art’s agents.
Fair fatigue happens for a reason. You are bearing full witness to the art world at work. Parties or no parties, this is an event that produces the value of art, dictated by those who can afford to affect it. Within this environment, the conflict of what it means to be a body in the art market system, implicated in those notorious, neoliberal/capitalist mechanisms, is ever present. And there’s free alcohol everywhere.
In the end, maybe there is reason to ABMB’s Bacchanalian rhyme. In the midst of it, you start to question who you are and what you stand for in relation to what you see. These questions have plagued human beings for millennia. Puzzled, indeed.