With its cosmic sum of big-ticket trophies and the hoard of satellite fairs that orbit it, Art Basel Miami Beach exists in a sort of dreamlike, moneyed vacuum; a trade show catered to the super affluent, a place where million-dollar deals are reeled off like grocery lists. According to Artsy reports, at the 16th edition’s VIP opening last Wednesday, there were more seven-figure sales than the preceding year. Collectors nabbed Yayoi Kasuma’s Standing at the Flower Bed from David Zwirner for $1 million and a Neo Rauch for $1.2, an Ugo Rondinone sold at Eva Presenhuber for $1.2 million, Yoshitomo Nara’s Young Mother (2012) went for $2.9 million at Pace, and Coenties Slip Studio—a 1961 oil on canvas and shaped hardboard by James Rosenquist—sold at Thaddaeus Ropac for $2.7 million. At Hauser & Worth, Mark Bradford’s triptych Moon Rocks (2017) sold for $5 million.
At Newark Airport, en route to the art fair’s madness and Miami's sweaty, deck chair-heat, life remained (refreshingly) mundane. I sent emails in the kind of sad, overpriced café that only exists and flourishes beside terminal gates. A woman walked past in a pleather jacket, its giant store security tag still attached, and I admired her total brazenness. Later, when we boarded, a man in a business shirt requested a pair of complimentary headphones, which were not complimentary. He proceeded to watch the automated programming on the small screen in silence: pizza ads, a game of football. Later, he played Angry Birds on his iPhone.
On reaching Miami, however, Basel fever was contagious—the atmosphere was batty and brash, glitzy and hyped, but it was also very good. At Miami Beach Convention Center, where the fair is held, the newly renovated interior added 10% more space, opening up walkways for audiences and allowing them to better navigate between the 268 galleries. Within those booths, certain works seemed to reverberate, like Mapplethorpe’s half-grinning Italian Devil, or the snarling, bloody-teethed sculpture House with Face (2017) by Jordan Wolfson at Sadie Coles HQ, or Yto Barrada’s brightly-painted educational boards, that almost look like album covers; objects found in Morocco’s Natural History Museum and never opened. There were works you wanted to keep near you at all times, works you were scared to spend too long with.
Presented here are a few of the greats.
Betty Tompkins and Carolee Schneemann at P.P.O.W
Toward the back of the fair, New York’s P.P.O.W didn’t disappoint, with a collection of works by two American pioneers of feminist art. There were gelatin silver prints from Schneemann’s 1963 Eye Body series—oft considered to be among the first explicit acts of feminist avant-garde image-making—in which the artist’s naked flesh is subjected to a series of distortions: splayed across sheets of plastic, warped by smashed glass. Deeper in the booth was a long row of manipulated art-historical and pop-cultural images by Tomkins, forming part of her ongoing, text-based Women Words series. In these new additions, the entire bodies of females are obscured by all-caps, crowd-sourced words and phrases describing women, rendering the figures anonymous: smart cookie, you’re pretty when you smile, she sounds like a man, bitch, psycho, hot mama, erratic, she is a dream, China doll.
Farida El Gazzar at Kalfayan Galleries
It was hard to ignore these 27 paintings and five drawings by Greek-Egyptian artist Farida El Gazzar, though they were small and modestly framed in slim bands of gold. These are Hockney-esque portraits of ordinary life in Egypt: concrete-like, square buildings with dark doorways and windows, modest shopfronts and intricate presentations of gold jewellery, expansive skies in dusky blue and orange. The one thing you won’t spy in any is a human form.
Christina Forrer at Luhring Augustine
At Luhring Augustine’s booth, two prismatic, carpet-like works in watercolor, cotton, wool and silk—Mitigated dualism and Couple (both 2017)—embodied the cartoonish absurdity and satirical filth of a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Think conjoined faces with grimacing teeth, and a man with boots aflame ripping a second set of legs apart, two tiny, terrified heads at their ends instead of feet. Christina Forrer, who was born in Zurich, has long used folkloric visual language to channel discord between humans and in nature; everything emerges as a battle of instinct and will. In this booth, her jaunty tapestries were a pleasing contrast to an enormous, quiet sculpture (Natural Man, 2015) by Oscar Tuazon, in which half of a black walnut tree morphed into a fibreglass concrete column.
Camille Henrot at Metro Pictures
Two 2017 works by the French artist sat in close proximity: the humorous, large-scale watercolor Man Who Knows (which comprised of two loosely sketched heads: a man’s outsized face on profile, his nostrils elongated, and a diminutive, semi-peeved girl below who faces us straight-on) and a suspended sculpture, Chained Bronze 2. In the latter, two abstracted, oozing lumps of gold and silver are intertwined; they cling to each other like friends or slumping lovers, or like enemies mid-wrestle. Parts resembled human bodies, then tapered into slim, tail-like forms.
Samson Kambalu at Galerie Nordenhake
There were only a handful of digital video works in Miami—the frenzied context is perhaps better suited to ‘traditional’ mediums of painting, drawing and sculpture—but Samson Kambalu’s Rocking Chair (2017) was hard to ignore. The 54-second piece by the Malawi-born, London-based artist fits into his ‘Nyau cinema’ approach, based on a set of 10 programmatic rules he published in 2013. Among other things, these stipulate brevity (clips must be no longer than one minute), spontaneity, site-specificity (to found architecture, landscape or objects), and the editing process must be limited to the aesthetics of primitive film and silent cinema. Rocking Chair, with its formal simplicity and tint, is charged with a subtle, manic energy; its Boomerang-style looping of the artist rocking rapidly on a tilted chair into perpetuity has a real effect on one’s body. I left it, my legs feeling skittish.