“Art isn’t about who is a good artist or who is a bad artist. It’s about luck,” Rolán Gastell, the Uber driver who picked me up at Art Basel on Wednesday afternoon, tells me in Spanish as we progress inchmeal down a congested Collins Avenue. “Sometimes, a bad painter with better luck gets famous.” He says he studied agricultural engineering in Cuba and arrived in Miami just a few months ago, and that his uncle is artist Jesús Gastell Soto, whose paintings have been shown in and outside Cuba; Rolán wishes they were on view at Art Basel. I ask him if he plans on visiting the show or any of the other events taking place this week.
“I work 12-hour shifts,” he responds. “When would I go to the fair?”
In many ways, Art Basel Miami Beach this year is an ordinary affair. Nearly 300 galleries from all over the world gather at the drab and uninspiring Miami Beach Convention Center (more exhibitors than ever before, on the occasion of the show’s 20th anniversary) to display art that is mostly drab and uninspiring. But on the first two days of the fair, a time usually defined by a mad rush of collectors competing for paintings by Anna Weyant (who happens to be dating the influential art dealer Larry Gagosian) or whatever else the market thinks is hot, I sensed an uncharacteristic quiet. “If galleries didn’t pre-sell before the fair, collectors would be trampling over each other,” Francesco Longenecker, a director at Petzel Gallery, reminded me.
The slower pace this year left room to reflect on what the fever pitch often drowns out — like the workers who make the fair possible. A cleaner mopping up someone’s spilled drink told me, in Spanish, that he worked from 8pm to 4am the night before to prepare the floor for fair guests, and they were back at 7am that morning. He wasn’t complaining, he clarified — he was grateful for the work — but, he admitted, he was “exhausted.”
And speaking of Spanish, I noticed that both of the printed pamphlets that Art Basel offers to visitors (a floor plan and a show program) were not bilingual. In Miami-Dade County, which includes Miami Beach, two-thirds of the population speaks Spanish. Even Art Basel’s website appears to be only in English, French, and Chinese. If the high costs of an Art Basel ticket (the cheapest regular day pass is $70, with a reduced $55 pass for students and seniors) isn’t already driving away Latino Miamians, the most common ethnic group living below the poverty line in the city, I can imagine the absence of bilingual material doesn’t help. Most of the fair workers I approached during my visit — who gave me the WiFi password, pointed out the restrooms, and politely explained that I was not invited into the VIP lounge — spoke Spanish, a jarring realization that makes me think the on-the-ground staff makeup of the fair is different from the audience it seeks to welcome.
I pondered this unbelievable oversight while looking at Do Ho Suh’s “Inverted Monument” (2022), a sculpture that literally turns the traditional format of a traditional heroizing statue on its head with an upside-down figure based on the “ideal” Western monument. All the cynicism of this piece being shown in the context of a commercial art fair aside, it’s a powerful visual representation of the arbitrariness of commemoration. Why do we memorialize some, and forget others?
By contrast, an installation by the Brooklyn art collective MSCHF epitomized the worst of art fair gimmick: an ATM retrofitted with a screen that displays users’ account balances when they swipe their debit cards. It was presumably conceived as commentary on wealth disparity, but instead comes off as pretentious and reductive. I’m sorry, but we don’t need an art installation to know that some people have $2M in their checking account and others have $4.50.
Barbara Ess’s dark and haunting photographs at the booth of the New York gallery Magenta Plains provided a welcome respite from all the obvious, trying-too-hard gallery displays. I chuckled at Jonathas de Andrade’s “Lost and Found [Achados e Perdidos] (2020–2022), a sculptural grouping of 25 clay butts wearing tight, multi-patterned swimming shorts inspired by the forgotten bathing suits left behind in the changing rooms of Recife’s swim clubs in Brazil. And Meredith Rosen Gallery’s incredible contribution to the fair is a re-staging of Guillaume Bijl’s 1984 “Casino,” one of the Belgian artist’s so-called “transformation installations,” complete with functional blackjack and roulette tables. (When it was first exhibited at the S.M.A.K. art museum, Bijl’s piece reportedly invited a visit from police officers who thought it was an illegal operation.)
I asked the croupier working the roulette table if there was money to be made. “We’re just playing for fun,” he clarified. “It would probably take us 20 years to get a casino license.”
“Who plays roulette for fun?” I replied.
At the booth of David Lewis Gallery, I asked Sales Assistant Will Whitney for his thoughts on this year’s Art Basel. “The best part of the fair so far is that no one has mentioned the word NFT,” Whitney answered. David Lewis, the gallery’s founder, weighed in with his favorite thing about Miami: Twist, the iconic South Beach gay bar and nightclub known for epic dancing nights and drag performances.
Another high point was María José Arjona’s durational performance “Chair,” in which the artist gently moves her arms and legs while reclining on a horizontal wooden chair suspended from the ceiling.
“My question about this is, how do you put it in your house?” said Steven Scheck, a visitor who donned a US soccer jersey to the Tuesday VIP opening, when I asked him for his impressions on the piece. “And how does one buy it? Does the person come with the chair, or do you have to buy them separately?” A crowd formed around the work, with fairgoers gazing confusingly at Arjona’s hypnotic, Feldenkrais-like motions.
It struck me that the art world would probably scold Steven for his pragmatic question. Doesn’t he know we’re not supposed to talk about art being sold, even (and especially) at an art fair, and definitely not about such art being placed in people’s homes? If we do, it might immediately lose its conceptual je ne sais quoi and become dreary and mundane, or worse — decorative. (Shudder.) And then what would we do?!
Finally, when I could no longer stand the gusts of air conditioning blowing on my bare legs, a biting, inescapable cold that is normal for indoor spaces in this city but that to me — a Miami native who left over a decade ago — felt like roughly 35 °F [2 °C], I removed my press badge and started making my way out of the Convention Center. My buttocks were numb from the uncomfortably thin cushions that line the benches in the fair’s coffee shop; my dreams crushed by the $30 I shelled out for two mini sandwiches. I pushed open the heavy door and the muggy, dense air of Miami hit my face. It felt like a hug — I was home.