Ethically Compromised and Culturally Richer: Basel 2012

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"What strip mining is to nature the art market has become to culture." Robert Hughes

This is the quote I was turning around in my mind as I flew towards Miami. Your virtuous young narrator had a lot of preconceived ideas about this colossal, annual art happening. More specifically, I was expecting a total shit show, with a who's-booth-screams-louder mentality and corporate tie-in's down to the toilet paper level - all in the neon-lighted, silicon-augmented context of South Beach, Miami. A place fittingly described in my Wallpaper guide book as 'a sunny place for shady people.'

Fresh from the emphatically not-commercial Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, your virtuous young narrator arrived with a lofty air of skepticism about this base spectacle of consumerism and celebrity. A thin veneer allowing for unguilty participation in activities that fundamentally offend ones better judgement. There aren't many opportunities to see this scope of work, I reasoned and I have good friends flying in from all over who I'm happy to see. As one gallerist later put it, 'a nice chance to see some art, go to some parties and get a tan before the holidays.'

I arrived at the (not quite) freshly opened Freehand Hostel in Miami, helmed by the hotel group behind the NoMad and the Ace New York, featuring a maritime-meets-flea-market ambiance by the gifted interior designers Roman & Williams. We had secured a private 'quad' for our variable group, with bunk beds and a sleep away camp for 20-somethings vibe. In the morning, I borrowed one of the communal red beach cruisers and made my way down to the press preview of the main Art Basel show. I checked in, received my credentials and sat uncomfortably through some profuse thanking from the mayor and entirely unmemorable comments from the directors and a wealth management fund or something. By the time the show opened at 11, the motley cast of press, adorned in wreaths of ostentatiously colored credentials, were drinking complimentary champagne beside a gaudy cigar brand pavilion and perusing artist-embellished luxury-brand racing cars.

Allora & Calzadilla / Gladstone Gallery

It's with mild exaggeration that one could describe the full scope of Art Basel and it's countless satellites as byzantine. Art Basel being the official epicenter, orbited by fairs like Nada, Untitled, Pulse, Art Miami, Design Miami, Scope, Miami Project and Aqua; and permanent collections like the Rubel, Margulies and De La Cruz; and museums like the Bass and Moca; and special installations, exhibitions, conversations, screenings and events in myriad hotels, stores, clubs, mansions, boats, airstreams, and airplanes.

Your virtuous young narrator began methodically traversing the fair, row by row, sparingly rationing attention for the pieces with the loudest siren song. Several hours later, feeling significantly reduced, I recessed for a bathroom break, some deep breathing and a recalibration of what could realistically be accomplished in my time here. I gave up on my methodical approach and proceeded with a liberating, follow the wind, work, crowd, light, feeling, friend or pretty girl approach - which closer resembles the way I proceed through life.

The art was world class. Established artists shown beside emerging artists and galleries from every corner of the world. Almost on par was the people-watching and eavesdropping. Fashionable art world insiders, wealthy collectors, celebrities, aspiring artists, scenesters, snowbirds, obvious locals (with tanned, overflowing breasts and muscles), and beautiful and seductive gallerinas with names like Salame (I'm not making this up).

 Jason Middlebrook / Dodge Gallery

I collected some memorable vignettes and impressions; A tour of shiny, wide-eyed sexagenarians nervously fingering their pearls as a docent/consultant type assured them you can find an Anish Kapoor in the dining room of any serious collectors home (I heard the same anecdote a half an hour later substituting fireplaces for dining rooms). A technical and tedious conversation about a Bill Viola new media piece, centered on logistical installation, maintenance (tech support?) and international tax code. A fairly constant ratio of 2:5 people on their cellphones. Unprecedented, for me at least, volumes of floral print and loafers. And children, seeming to enjoy the art and experience exponentially greater then their adult counterparts, in sync with the child-like abandon requisite to create great works of art in the first place.

Regretfully, all of the illuminating 10am conversations between the directors of the worlds finest art institutions were invariably slept through. My Basel was an ebb and flow of dilatory, diurnal culture consumption and nocturnal moral negotiation. Exclusive events seemed to overshadow art as a conversation topic. It felt as though many conversations were a variation on the theme of exclusivity, espoused to status, in a self-policing, relationally-determined social hierarchy. From the hysterical throngs of guests throwing designer-purse-embellished elbows, vying for entree through the velvet rope, to admonitions like 'to really experience the fair you have to get into the closets, all the best work is kept in the closets,' this refrain kept resurfacing like a ritornello. As unpleasant as it may be, there is a genuine reason for this exclusivity. In a word, finiteness. There are only so many works of enduring beauty and significance to collect, only so much space at that momentous party, and only so many places in those of upper echelons of social strata that shape the contemporary art landscape.

Jon Kessler / Salon 94

In this frenetic milieu, I found moments of absolute serenity. Glithero's Lost Time installation of hanging illuminated pearls reflected in a cool black pool at the design Basel show - tucked away in dark stillness from the anxiety-generating opening ceremonies. 12 Gordon Park prints at the Margulies collection that say more about civil rights in America, than I learned in my entire formal education. Adarsha Benjamin's Kurt Cobain-centric performance, featuring a superlative cast of artist friends and a resounding battle cry to choose love over fear. A saintly portrait of Marina Abramovic, in breathing white linen, cradling a goat, that will likely reside permanently in my mind. And many other moments of joy and fascination. Dap's impeccably curated selection of art books. Meals at the wondrous Haitian eatery (and informal cultural center) Tap Tap. Unscheduled and regenerative dips in the glowing, saline Atlantic. A forward looking exhibition of GIF's staged in a giant pitch-black warehouse space. Jon Kessler's insane mind. A swirling, stop-and-go Kentridge video piece. 4am, shiny, undulating disco bliss at Chez Andre. And plenty of impromptu conversations and jaunts with new found friends.

Your virtuous young narrator's Basel experience concluded with a slippery, alcohol-lubed nocturnal capitulation into a hazy cab ride towards a strip club in downtown Miami hosting a closing party. Not long after, fending off lap dances and watching naked daughters and sisters rub against one another in a violent precipitation of dollar bills and brown liquor. Sigh. Onwards, through my sui generis moral Manichaeanism, ethically compromised and culturally richer.

And now I sit and reflect in McNally Jackson bookstore on a crisp and chilly afternoon in Nolita, listening to baroque classical music, sipping hot hibiscus tea and typing these impressions. Outside, familiar faces, in their familiar context, walk by on Prince street and I idly envisage my return next year.

Text and photography by Perry Shimon for Pas Un Autre. See more photographs below. 

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Brice and Regis Abby

Snarkitecture's Drift Pavilion for Design Miami

 Art Basel Main Fair 

Marina Abramović / Gagosian Gallery 

Taryn Simon / Gagosian Gallery

Rad girls outside Moving the Still GIF Exhibition 

Glithero x Perrier-Jouet / Design Miami

Holton Rower / The Hole Gallery

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Beautiful young lady at the Design Fair behind a Corbusier mural (super cool parents not pictured)

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Beach Babe

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Ed Ruscha  / Plane Text 

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IMG_8107

Onlookers

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photo 2 (1)

Retna / Michael Kohn Gallery

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Adarsha Benjamin / KURT / Olympia Theater  

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Gordon Parks / Margulies Collection 

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photo 3

Fried Yucca, Okra and Plantains, Avacado Salad / Tap Tap Restaurant

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International Art Police, issuing citations for infractions like 'excessive tax on audience time,' 'famous artist, but not for this one' and 'who cares?'

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photo 1 (1)

Steve Powers / Joshua Liner Gallery