Welcome Art Tourists Miami Basel Diary By Ben Austin

Miami Basel Diary

Day one:

Roll up, roll up, the circus is in town. Miami Basel is the Big Top, the main event. Come all you collectors, critics and curators. Welcome art tourists, party people and socialites. The guest lists are filling up and bars are being stocked. The fancy hotels on Collins are teeming and the high-end restaurants are booked solid the week through.

Here you can find all the fun of the fair. The plastic fantastic Miami ladies, jewel laden and tottering in Laboutins, clutching their Chanel bags with plunging necklines.  The guys, often dwarfed by these ‘glamour-zonians’, are to the man slicked back and easy in their suede loafers.

So it was at the opening of Untitled, situated in a hastily erected and over-lit tent on the beach. There was a line of what seemed to me as mainly locals outside, all ready to get a jump on the week. Once inside the harsh lighting made it difficult to take in any of art, which seemed pretty immaterial anyway as nobody was paying any attention to the sparse and minimal booths. I did spot the lovely gallerist Debbie Carshaw, the only UK gallery showing there, she had brought along a couple of pieces by GL Brierly, which to my mind were some of the strongest work to be seen in the whole fair. The masses easily gloss over such treasures, more interested in tittle-tattle and who’s there. The fair was clearly a backdrop to a social event, art muzak if you will.

I left feeling depressed and discouraged, perhaps I am an old school art snob, but there was absolutely no engagement with the surroundings and a lack of any serious curatorial content, just an ugly tent which could have easily doubled for some kind of society wedding.

My party left to go for dinner, which was also borderline average, being some kind of sports bar, personally I would of rather had a sandwich and an early night, could I possibly over Basel before it has even started?

Day two:

Rested, I managed to decompress by taking a walk around South Beach, here life seems to be like a movie set. Cool kids slide past on skateboards, beautiful girls in hot pants ride by on bikes, luxury cars cruise up and down, a resort paradise for many, save for the down and outs on Washington, begging for a few bucks.

 As I walked down the restaurant lined Lincoln Rd, I was confronted by a pack of paparazzi hounding a celebrity. I reached for my phone and joined the fray as a petit brunette flanked by a couple of burly minders made a dash for a classy eatery.  She disappeared within and the pack began to disperse, I turned to one chap and like an innocent abroad asked who she was and he looked at me as if I was from another planet, not just from another country.  ‘Kim Kardashian man,’ clearly upset by my ignorance. I am actually familiar with this eponymous reality TV show, although feel that life is too short to waste, ‘keeping up’ with them.

I carried on, faintly pleased to have spotted American royalty in any event. I popped into a phone shop and brought myself a rinky-dink Samsung handset, well I’m going to here for a while and I’m not getting much service from my UK phone added to which I am not prepared to pay the extortionate overseas calls.

I made it back to the apartment and had what is known as a ‘power nap’  (as we get older they become ever more essential) after showering down and dressing up we head out to North Miami to attend the opening of the Bill Viola ‘Liber Insularum’ show at MoCA (museum of contemporary art).

Now this was more like it, I spotted English art royalty at the entrance – Tracey Emin who was talking to Bill, I’ve known Tracey for quite a few years and went swimming down the Rhine with her one baking hot Basel Switzerland, but that as they say is another story.

We joined the masses leading into a darken corridor and then into a series of rooms, where we greeted by Viola’s signature video style consisting slow-mo camera work of groups interacting in a painfully measured way. One such mise-en-scène entitled ‘The Quintet of The Astonished’ (2000) depicts a group undergoing intense waves of emotion.  One moment of sadness gradually turns to ecstasy in this poetic and quietly powerful work.

Elsewhere, were older pieces reflecting the artist’s ongoing fascinating with the effects of water and immersion, such as ‘The Reflecting Pool’ 1977-79, where time seems to freeze as a man leaps into a pool of water, with mutations of movement emerging in reflections below him. In ‘Transfiguration’ 2007, we have a body passing through a physical downpour of water, evoking some kind of sense of spiritual awakening and transformation.

‘The Raft’ 2004 is an iconic Viola piece, showing a group of 19 people in extreme slow motion being struck by an onslaught of a high pressured hose. There is violence and fragility here, yet captured in a beautiful and highly controlled manner.

Other stand out pieces, include ‘Three Woman’ 2008, showing ghostly female figures, each depicting various age stages, passing through a wall of water.  The slow motion process points to the metaphysical becoming real and corporal.

“Bill Viola’s work has long displayed a concern with the artistic possibilities of emotion, connecting viscerally with the viewer,” comments Bonnie Clearwater of MOCA and I would agree that observation.

Outside in the courtyard, society types had gathered under the large glowing text piece by Jack Pierson. There was food and reasonable cocktails on offer until 9pm when everyone is moved on.

We headed off to Wynwood, actually West of Wynwood (known as WoW) to a gallery show staged by the curator of the moment – Anthony Spinello. This was an impressive group show, entitled ‘Closer’ –


I very much liked a lot of work here and there was a powerful performance piece taking place, which comprised of two artists (a naked male and female) in a room violently throwing objects at each other. The piece was being simultaneously projected on the outside wall, whilst viewer could peer through peep- holes to see the confrontation, which was at times playful and others vicious.

Another stand out piece and I forget the artist’s name, was a pair of engagement ring boxes faces each other yet empty of the rings. This simple concept sums up many of the complexities of an engagement and marriage. Nanny Prieres’ work consists of dark graphite drawings on black paper of challenging book covers (such as the Naked Lunch and Lolita) and are particularly effective, especially seen in a group.

Off we went again, this time for a bite to eat in Wynwood itself, a fun restaurant this time, with a large scale Shepard Fairey on the wall. In fact the restaurant backs on Wynwood Walls, a collection of impressive street art murals, some obviously better than other, but the overall effect is ‘cool’ making this area the defining hip and cultural centre of Miami.

There were a bunch of other events and parties going on until the wee small hours, but I was exhausted and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

The main fair opens tomorrow, that’s when the serious action happens.

Photo/Words © Ben Austin for ArtLyst