A dispatch from Art Basel fielding questions of protest, spectacle, and frivolity through a quote by Slavoj Žižek
The first thing I learned about Art Basel Miami Beach upon touching down is that the namesake fair itself is not the main event—it is merely the center of gravity, the nearly invisible spatial mediator, which attracts the satellite exhibitions and ancillary pop-up galleries and concerts and celebrity-filled events that come to be the primary attractions. Art Basel is like dark matter: an unseen, ubiquitous force holding together the visible stars lighting up Miami. The famed art fair, then, is not isolated to the Miami Beach Convention Center but instead sprawls right outside its double-wide doors.
I’d never attended Basel (or, more properly, Miami Art Week) before, and my “guides” were friends that had been once a few years ago. Their most significant memory was taking LSD sugar cubes and roaming the beach, with no real recollection of the art. I can’t blame them; the sheer spectacle of the weekend easily subsumes the art on display in the galleries across the city. This time, my guides spent most of their time lingering at the Airbnb or wandering drunk in Wynwood or looking for places to skateboard—and without my press pass I likely would have done the same. They were confused when I said I needed to Uber to Miami Beach to go to Basel, telling me that Basel is everywhere. After explaining I was going to the main fair at the convention center, they replied that it would be “lame corporate white people shit” (I’m white).
My first encounter with Basel took place outside the convention center. Outside, activists had hung a 50-foot flag reading, “Let Palestine Live.” A spokesperson, Nikki Morris, of the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace told me that the display was a “message of solidarity.” It functioned as a reminder to visitors that “business as usual can’t continue when people are being slaughtered.” Basel attendees stopped for a moment—maybe taking a picture of the chanting crowd and opposing line of police—and entered the convention center, glancing at the protest like a marginally compelling painting by a vaguely recognizable artist.
Two men observing the display paused their animated conversation about Gaza to decline to comment on the protest when I asked. They told me they didn’t want to “touch” the subject.
The protest complicated the remainder of the weekend, suffusing it with a tinge of emotional and intellectual apprehension. Originally, I was here to look for meaning in images—my idea had been to write an article on anti-beauty aesthetics, inspired by a Slavoj Žižek quote I’d recently read: “In today’s art, the gap that separates the sacred place of sublime beauty from the excremental space of trash (leftover) is gradually narrowing.” The protest, though, deliberately threw meaning into a confused panic: How does meaning contend with genocide?
“If Art Basel is the gravity that makes the weekend what it is, then money is the God, the Original Source that actuates the possibility of any art-oriented weekend at all.”
A protest-artist named Emily, who helped construct the flag, said it was a “symbolic action” to display it immediately outside the center that housed millions of dollars in art and some of the wealthiest people in the world. “Nina Simone said it is the artist’s duty to reflect the time. I heartedly believe that artists are mirrors of our world. They have their heart on the pulse of life. They are here to show us the truth,” Emily told me.
Emily’s conception of art and the artist is a fundamental obligation: A duty to represent truth and good and right and distinguish it from lies and bad and wrong. The protesters were here to produce a certain ideological art and, further, to disrupt it—to create a feeling oppositional from the art represented by the fair that did not align with their principles. This seems to be the issue with positing a definition of art (particularly one, like Emily’s, that is ideological): it radically simplifies the dynamic, time-bound “reflection” that Simone refers to as the artist’s duty to a one-liner. And, of course, a fixed statement does not have the capacity to reflect the messy, complicated truth to the world, but rather dogmatically asserts it. This is the difference between a capacious definition of art and a limiting one. A proper reflection would also include all the contingencies, ambiguities, and uncertainties that make up “truth.”
They were correct to protest but wrong to assume that the art around them needed to share their tactics for asserting what it meant to be right and true: my favorite pieces of the weekend were those that embraced the unknown within reflection. For instance, a partially transparent collage within the Basel fair (by an artist whose name I neglected to write down), framed by the words “God is” and including quotes from Aristotle, Deepak Chopra, and the Bible—along with the meme of dry, sweaty SpongeBob and erotic photos of attractive couples kissing. Pieces like this, which appeared senseless and incoherent but nonetheless thoughtful, were the ones that made the most sense; they were emblematic of the contemporary confusion that seemed inexplicable, an honest reflection. For me, the protest framed Basel, providing an implicit background context to the paintings, lectures, sculptures, and film: everything seems superfluous in the face of a humanitarian crisis, including art. In this way, the protest performed its function; it embedded itself in my mind, acting as an internal disruption.
Inside the fair, despite the protest, I saw plenty of business as usual: non-functional designer clothing, Perrier sparkling water, and overheard fragments phone calls discussing million-dollar deals—only feet away from Peter Saul’s painting Bad Day at the Gallery, which depicts art dealers dumbly clamoring for money, hiding behind canvases, and stealing from each other’s pockets. Looking at this critique of art’s commodification for sale at an event sponsored by credit card companies and luxury brands, it made me wonder if any scrutiny of the economy of art was impotent: if Art Basel is the gravity that makes the weekend what it is, then money is the God, the Original Source that actuates the possibility of any art-oriented weekend at all. The universe, luminous and brilliant and supported by gravity, is a beautiful thing, but there is no gravity in the absence of God.
In this forcefield, much of the work took on a disorienting effect, wormholes of competing critiques and assertions and even non-meanings. Not in a psychedelic way, but rather a slightly incoherent cocaine-fueled, shivering-in-the-closet type of disorientation. A paranoid, confused modality where a video performance of human faces being rhythmically slapped—rendering the faces percussive instruments—is on view down the hall from a multimedia video on Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye that discusses the symbolic genocide of Black people by American culture (Composition for Face and Hands by Oliver Beer, and Quiet as it’s Kept by Ja’Tovia Gary). Meaning in the artworks seemed fragmented and conflicting, like it couldn’t quite acclimate to the world, and maybe didn’t care to.
Before the close of Basel on Friday, I attended a lecture by three artists–Noémie Goudal, Anne Duk Hee Jordan, and Lee Pivnik—on climate change. The artists discussed deep time and climate gentrification and the ecological precarity of Florida. They made disorienting maps that reflected the future of Miami and designed speculative eco-architectural homes and sculptures imitating termite mounds. Pivnik mentioned that he couldn’t not make art about his changing environment as a Miami native and fifth-generation Floridian—he felt compelled. I thought about a texturized series of dimly colored paintings I’d seen earlier by Mel Bochner that self-reflexively stated, “DO I HAVE TO DRAW YOU A PICTURE?”
Around the same time the next night, I witnessed the embodied version of the tension between Bochner’s series and the climate panel: Four protesters were arrested during an anti-Zionist demonstration, one for throwing a water bottle at an insolent driver who yelled something I couldn’t hear (but was evidently instigative) and three others for stepping over the arbitrary line of a curb, which the police pettily designated as a crime of disobedience. One activist scrambled to the floor of a bus stop to avoid arrest and was dragged up by three police officers and taken away. Her friends yelled, “What are you doing to her?” and, “Fuck the cops” while a woman still in her work uniform waiting for the bus shouted at the protestors: “Y’all motherfuckers need to go somewhere else, I’m tryna catch this fucking bus,” and the police shot tear gas to a dispersing crowd. When I left a few minutes later, the woman was still waiting for the bus, which couldn’t pass through the closed-off street.
Saturday, I went to see Sebastian ErraZuriz’s Maze: A Journey Through the Algorithmic Self, on the beach behind its hotel-sponsor, Faena—and it was… a maze made of wooden walls covered in a thin layer of sand. Even for a maze, it was not particularly labyrinthian: all paths quickly led to the center and its multiple exits. I overheard a participant murmur to their friend, “that was it?” Another indifferently said, “I’m glad that we at least saw it.” The line to take a picture of the maze from the elevated overlook was three times as long as the actual line into the maze. There’s an urgency not to participate in the attraction, but to posture as though you’re the kind of person who wants to get lost for the sake of knowledge. This fascinates me: It was an attraction not to be experienced but to be photographically captured from above.
I allow for a certain charitability for things that exceed my (very limited) knowledge of history or context or subtle nuance that I may miss, but nothing within the large-scale structure indicated anything about AI or technology as teased in its title. For me, this was a welcome surprise; I did not care to contemplate AI on the beach. There was, though, something sublime to the maze exits, revealing the sliver of beach and endless ocean—for just that moment it exceeds itself and becomes more than itself. I’m not sure if this can be attributed to the maze.
“It seemed to me that an artist could choose to present Heaven or Hell or opt out of representation entirely—and a lot were choosing Hell.”
Inside the Faena Hotel’s opulent lobby was an installation by Beeple, S.2122, and a sculpture, Battle of the Corporate Nations, by ErraZuriz. Both pieces responded (indirectly) to Nina Simone’s call: they were imaginations of the future dispatched from the present. Beeple’s “climate-centric” artwork is a towering four-screen digital installation that presents a future where humans have been forced, due to rising sea levels, to live in vertical structures above water, receiving resources by drones from an Amazon-like service. The future is shown as mechanical and immobile—only able to go in one direction. Unlike archaic vertical structures (pyramids, steeples, temples) that strove towards transcendence and Heaven, S.2122 shows people moving upwards out of survival and progressing towards a kind of Hell on Earth. Again, as in the main fair, I was confronted by certain unsettling disorientation, an internal contradiction, to viewing this work—and its commentary on ecological disaster—in a hotel on the beach in precarious Miami Beach selling $80 steaks.
ErraZuriz’s Battle of the Corporate Nations stages a battle between Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos. In the Grecian-style marble sculpture, these corporate heads attain the status of mythical Gods. The most interesting detail is at the very bottom, beneath the hoof of Bezos’s horse: a dying man, among a pile of Amazon packages, still staring blankly at his phone.
It seemed to me that an artist could choose to present Heaven or Hell or opt out of representation entirely—and a lot were choosing Hell. Žižek was right: the sacred, let alone God, was no longer (or, at least rarely) the subject of representation. Divine revelation has seemingly become impossible; the only thing left is eschatology.
Later that same day at Lot 11, I watched Eric Koston, Louie Lopez, and other legends skate an oversized Dalinean silver spoon at the Virgil Abloh Invitational. There was a sense of immediacy at Lot 11 that I hadn’t felt the previous day: it was simply the celebration of a designer’s life through the stylish flipping and spinning on a huge dining utensil. Skateboarding was an illegible art in a good way.
At famed skate photographer Atiba Jefferson’s exhibition the next day, I felt a similar relief from overbearing assertive meaning in his work’s aesthetic immediacy. There was nothing cerebral about Jefferson’s photograph of Tyshawn Jones kickflipping the subway gap or Mark Gonzales wallie-grinding a rail—it may be complicated in a physical sense and technical in a photographic sense and thought-provoking in a racial sense (a large part of the exhibition focused on the celebration of Black skateboarders), but not cerebral. No interpretation was necessary. The kickflip did not conceal something more beneath it—the aesthetic beauty of the picture had a sense of primacy that art at other galleries had lacked. These tricks were not assertions of Hell but something closer to Heaven.
This isn’t to say that the work at these other galleries and fairs actually lacked these things—but rather that the fairs are not the place to experience immediacy. They were hyper-mediated by money, social performance, self-commentary, and luxury sponsorship. Few pieces could break through those many layers of sterility.
“The kickflip did not conceal something more beneath it—the aesthetic beauty of the picture had a sense of primacy that art at other galleries had lacked.”
After the Virgil Abloh invitational, I Citibiked to a talk by Robert De Niro and the French artist JR. The speakers did not permit photography or recording, and the conversation focused on a film that JR and De Niro were working on about the latter’s enigmatic painter-father—the short clip shown from the film was a touching eulogy. Those close to De Niro referred to him as “Bob.”
There was a playful dynamic between JR and De Niro: JR would offer insight into the production of their film-in-progress and its underlying ideas and themes, while De Niro was reluctant to assign the film any deeper significance beyond “documentation.” When JR asked about De Niro’s father’s posthumous recognition as an artist, finally retroactively receiving the fame he always wanted (De Niro Sr.’s work was exhibited at Basel), De Niro said acclaim didn’t matter, just that the artwork existed and his family could continue to see it. Towards the end, JR quoted an entry from Bob’s father’s notebook indicative of his sadness and loneliness: “Is life just one hell after another?”