Let’s begin with the facts. This year’s 12th annual installment of Art Basel Miami Beach featured 257 exhibitors (excluding publications, institutions, or bookstores). This means 257 booths spanning the floor of the approximately 500,000 square foot bottom floor of the Miami Beach Convention Center. If you walk all eight north-to-south aisles (one way), you will canvas a little over two miles of carpeted ground. This does not include the shorter east-to-west aisles (of which there are six), or offsite partnering venues (of which there are three). Add to the mix the record attendance numbers (50,000 visitors) over a short period of time (four days) at the pricey cost of participation ($35,000 on average), and you have a bona fide contemporary art circus. At $42 a ticket, the show better be worth the cost of admission.
Needless to say, the costs associated with exhibiting in one such fair are astronomical. Beyond the cost of the booth itself (which runs $52 per square foot in the fair’s main section), a gallerist must consider packing, shipping, flights, meals, staff hotel accommodations, promotional expenses, possible furniture rental, client entertaining, and the omnipresent “unanticipated expense.” Need an extra light bulb in the booth? That’ll be $150 each. Lunch for the staff of four? $96 a day. Needless to say, the pressure to (at a minimum) break even on the expenses of participating in the headlining mega-fair oftentimes results in high-ticket inventory from high-ticket artists, leaving little room for the mid-career, emerging, or unknown set. So when a gallerist decides to feature the atypical – potentially, unsaleable – artists of his/her program, it can often be considered a bold, magnanimous statement. Moreover, to hold the attention of a collector is challenging enough when sensory overload is a fated plague, but to also attempt to capture their focus through an unorthodox sensory faculty requires certain panache. Enter: sound and video art; the conceptual, disenfranchised cousins of Basel’s long running triple feature, starring Koons, Murakami, and Warhol. This is not to say that presenting sound and video art at a venue like Art Basel Miami Beach is easily done, or even encouraged, by participating dealers. All signs typically point to “easily overlooked,” especially when competing with more commercially digestible works like the colossal Roy Lichtenstein in Gagosian’s booth, or the hustled parade of hip hop moguls weaving through the masses. However, a select few of these ambitious projects managed to cut through the white noise of the fair’s inner murmur, and conduct an alluring opus for the observant few.
Shanghart Gallery’s (Shanghai, Beijing) presentation of Zhang Ding’s “Buddha Jumps over the Wall” (2012) offers a two-minute video tucked behind several lengthy tables of red-stained plaster fragments, as if the removal of a body cast has gone horribly awry. Set to an incongruously elegant soundtrack of soft classical music, the video’s explosive gunshots lure the viewer in to a staged annihilation of white plaster animals. Filled with red paint, the bleached creatures in the video are disturbingly-yet-gracefully pierced and dismembered, the illusion of blood flowing from their figures causing simultaneous agitation and intrigue. The push/pull revulsion and curiosity evokes the kind of tension associated with romanticized reality, as we dissect the parts we long to keep and discard those less appealing – precise like a butcher in his shop.
Galeria Laura Marsiaj (Rio de Janeiro) transformed their booth into a sand-filled dune for the installation, sound, and video-based work of Paulo Vivacqua, “Desert” (2012). Projected upon the back wall are the summits of a tawny mountain ridge against a slate sky – unspecific to any one region. Buried in the sand are several glass columns – in which audio channels and speakers are housed – that emit ambient, meditative sounds. Wind rushing, cicadas hissing, and voices whispering meld into a hypnotic sibilance, and are carefully interwoven with the artist’s own atmospheric compositions. Meant to represent the lapse of a full day within eight minutes, the installation is haunting and tranquil – a nod to the lost repose in our increasingly harried lives.
Just around the corner, Raebervon Stenglin (Zurich) presents a solo booth of paintings and sound by Ivan Seal. Painted from memory, his still lifes appear evocatively disjointed – and are accompanied by a matte black boom box resting on the floor. Much like the spacing of his works on the walls, Seal’s irregular beats hiss from the speakers like a misfiring audiocassette. Though acting as the wholly recalled memory of one painting’s subject in particular, the abstracted autobiographical track emits a guttural, throbbing pulse every few seconds, preventing the viewer from having a singular sensory experience through its comical diversions. The cadence of the work mimics the meter of Seal’s erratic reverberations – imprecise, authentic, and constantly shuffled, as no two viewings will ever be the same.
“Stars Stairs Ptemkin Exorcism” (2012) by T. Kelly Mason absorbs much of Cherry & Martin’s (Los Angeles) booth. Like a makeshift abode born of speedrails and packing blankets, the environmental installation consists of two darkened enclaves – both of which are illuminated only by lightboxes. Like stained glass windows, they depict a starry night sky and a dimly lit staircase – false vistas narrated by hushed voices, footsteps, and musical snippets emitting from the speakers overhead. As the title suggests, the installation bespeaks the shoddy illusions of a Potemkin village, and the expelling of our disenchantment – Mason’s eerie din further recalling the incessant thrumming we endure throughout our days. Not the least of which resonates throughout these vast halls in Miami Beach. Will you stop to listen?