Sunday, December 9, 2007

Musings in the form of a rant from Art Basel/Miami Beach

I don't usually use this forum to rant. I think it's important to remain basically positive since so many blogs are used as a venting festival. But something about this place just makes my blood boil. It seems to be a magnet for what I call VSIPs - Very-Self-Important-People. To have so many people in one place who are each convinced that their objective is the highest priority in the world is a recipe for mass bad behavior. At any second one is in danger of being clotheslined by some gallerist/art advisor/rich person with a cell phone glued to one ear. They all go barreling down the aisles with the phone up to their ear and the elbow sticking out. God help you if YOU are not looking out for THEM. You will certainly get that elbow in your face. Any conversation can be interrupted. There is no "excuse me" or waiting for a conversation to be finished. Just a tap on the shoulder to ask what the price or edition size is of this or that. Whatever conversation that was occurring before this must-know-this-millisecond question was asked could not possibly be as important as MY question. Get outta' the way.

Plenty of other people have written about how bad art fairs are, and what a terrible place they are to see or appreciate art. This is old -but true- news. Fewer have spoken about what an awful place they are to just stand in. One is bumped, and shoved, and pushed, and spilled on, and whatever else can happen when the people around you could not care less about civil behavior. People were barking on cell phones, cutting in lines, barking claims for preferential treatment, and crowing about this or that fancy party invite. I had the sense that it would be possible to look to my side and find a gentleman that was peeing on the spot while talking a deal on his phone - one just couldn't be bothered to go ALL the way to an actual toilet!

Along those lines, I will relate an actual experience I had. I went to the men's room and as I sidled up to the urinal, I overheard a cell phone conversation in one of the stalls. "Uh huh, uh huh, yeah, yeah, ok, I'll call you right back. Yeah, just a few minutes, I'll be right back to you. No, really, I'll call you back in just a few. Yep....ok. Bye" Just a second later there was the sound of an urgent evacuation. I didn't wait to hear if the conversation started again after the flush. This made me wonder, what was the conversation leading into the bathroom? What was SO urgent that it couldn't wait while the gent calmly walked to the toilet. I can imagine him barreling down the aisle, elbow out, "We can offer you the piece for $145,000. It's great work, but we've got a lot of offers. You're going to have to make a decision right away." he steps into the stall, locks the door and pulls down his pants....."No, we won't be getting more work and $145,000 is a fantastic price. Uh huh, uh huh, yeah, yeah, ok, I'll call you right back. Yeah, just a few minutes, I'll be right back to you. No, really, I'll call you back in just a few. Yep....ok. Bye". Flush. This is what I call doing your business. Chapeau to the gent in the stall. His focus should be an MBA class model.

There is another element that contributes to the unpleasant vibe in Miami and other like fairs. Unless one has a few hundred thousand dollars to bestow here or there(and sometimes not even then!), this fair is simply not intended for you. Now I am quite comfortable viewing, appreciating, and learning about art which I cannot possibly afford to buy. I don't waste anyones' time when I'm not serious about a work, but I'm happy to be there to see what is on offer. I mean, this is a grand bazaar where work to be sold is put up for public perusal. But that is not the assumption of most of the galleries here. They know the few hundred "real" buyers they want to meet. If you are not among the recognized few, you will be ignored to a degree that will make you feel like the fat, pimply kid at the fraternity rush. I make a baseball metaphor: If a pitcher and batter are roughly well matched, the batter may or may not swing. But if he does, there is some chance that he will actually hit the ball. However, if the pitcher is at a level too much above the batter, it won't matter if he raises his bat off his shoulder or not. If he swings, he will not connect. Faced with that kind of odds, what is the lure of trying to swing? There is no pleasure in guaranteed failure. Galleries at ABMB are not pitching to me, and after a few hours I feel the ennui of guaranteed failure seeping into my blood. Even when I love the art, I feel disconnected; this event has no relation to me. I am made to feel like an interloper and I cannot sustain my interest.

One could claim that this is sour grapes on my part. It could be imagined that I wish I could be a player, so when I meet the reality of a high finance art world, I'm bitter at my real world options. Maybe. But then, why make these public events? Why not just invite those few hundred high rollers and call it a day? Instead of asking to see the ubiquitous VIP cards at the door, insist on checking a recent bank account return. Perhaps that would thin the herd and make all participants happier.

Last, I was completely befuddled by the security check at the door that insisted that there be no cameras inside the fair. No cameras? There were more cameras inside the fair than in Times Square on New Year's Eve. There were camera phones, pocket cameras, disposable cameras, digital SLRs, and every other possible picture taking device. What could possibly be the genesis of this rule? And what could possibly be the reason for keeping it when it is so thoroughly and resoundingly ignored? To be forced to leave your camera at the coat check and then to find thousands of picture-takers inside was the yet another little indignity to be heaped on the hoi polloi. It was one more little reminder that you weren't really welcome here.

Not everything was so frenetic and unpleasant. For the second year in a row I spent an inspiring few hours at the Margulies Collection. Lat year was 90% photographs and 10% sculpture. This year the proportions were reversed. Much of the sculpture was devoted to explorations of representations of the human form. Anthony Gormley, George Segal, and Magdalena Abakanowicz were all beautifully represented. The wall text for Ms Abakanowicz' work included a short toast she gave in 1993. I found it touching and inspirational. I have thought of it many times since so I reproduce it here.

"I wanted to tell you that art is the most harmless activity of mankind. But I suddenly recalled that art was often used for propaganda purposes by totalitarian systems.

"I wanted to tell you also about the extraordinary sensitivity of an artist, but I recalled that Hitler was a painter and Stalin used to write sonnets.

"Art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind born out of struggle between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality in our mind.

"Each scientific discovery opens doors behind which we are confronted with new closed doors.
Art does not solve problems but makes us aware of our existence.
Art prepares our eyes to see and our brain to imagine.
To have imagination and to be aware of it is to benefit from possessing an inner richness and spontaneous and endless flood of images. It means to see the world in its entirety, since the point of the images is to show all that which escapes conceptualization.

"I propose a toast to celebrate imagination which is more universal than any language."

I would raise my glass to that idea any time......

Other sculpture on display explored how one realizes a line in space: how can geometry exist off of the page. Marvelous work by Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Olafur Eliasson, and, especially, a remarkable light sculpture by Anthony McCall demonstrated the thesis with great panache. I was only missing a Fred Sandback piece to make my pleasure complete.

Elsewhere, Joe Amrhein of Pierogi Flatfiles and Ronald Feldman teamed up for a second year (this year with Hale Gallery from the UK) in a warehouse space in the Wynwood district. This was an art lovers' oasis. Yes, art was for sale. Yes, the purpose of the venture was commercial. What separated the venue from the rest was how much space was devoted to the work. One was encouraged to look, to pause, to discuss, to actually experience the art on view. The atmosphere was one of respect, fun, and curiosity. I couldn't wait to see what was in store for me around each new corner of the space. As it was last year, this was a haven of good art. What was new this year was a BBQ party on Thursday night. I have not had so much fun at an art party in recent memory. This was what all art events should aspire to. People were open, talking, laughing; there was good food and alcohol; and best, a diverse program of fine art was there to explore and discover. Heaven. A big ovation to the three host galleries for making it happen.

I could fill 10 more blogs with the stinkers and standouts of the art I saw. Maybe I'll post something later with a few names and photos. For now, it's good to think that all the VSIPs are scattering to the four winds. For next year I'll have to think whether the Pierogis and Margulies of the world make all the other aggravations worth the trip.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Art Basel is an ego trip for a few at the expense of the many who must be there to observe them. But, for those who can get past all of that there were some great moments.