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The design fair at the end of the world

The 2016 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, often a testing ground for the next art and design trends in popular culture, braces for the new normal

The long-disused Miami Marine Stadium, built in 1963
Rick Bravo via National Trust for Historic Preservation

The other week, on a small but well-appointed speedboat in the middle of Biscayne Bay, a detachment of Miami real-estate types and a lone journalist were escorted after dark to see an installation by the artist Yvette Mattern.

Best viewed from the water, Mattern’s piece appeared first as a single intense beam of light emanating from the landward side; as the craft chugged on, the shaft seemed to separate into discrete bands, an array of seven familiar shades that raked across the night sky from horizon to horizon.

“Roy G. Biv,” said one onlooker, recalling the old science-class acronym.

Bobbing in place for several minutes, the group snapped the obligatory photos and marveled at the colorful spectacle overhead. Conversation had heretofore been kept to a minimum, save for the stray remark about how much money this or that waterfront estate had sold for. (Both artwork and excursion were sponsored by Lionheart Capital as a promotion for its upcoming Ritz Carlton residences, designed by Piero Lissoni.)

Now, however, the shipmates were feeling their champagne and getting chummy. One of them, hearing that the journalist was from New York, reached out with a thick filet of a hand. “I’m going to be in Manhattan next week,” he said. “Is it worth it to go to Gene and George’s?”

The writer was flummoxed. He imagined some kind of Dave & Buster’s for high rollers, or the private apartment of a wealthy developer couple. He confessed he’d never been.

“Oh, I thought everybody had been to Gene and George’s,” said the flourishing Miamian. “They say it’s crazy expensive.” It took a full thirty seconds before the journalist realized that his interlocutor was referring to Jean Georges.

The Faena Forum, designed by OMA, opened on the eve of this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach.
Iwan Baan/Courtesy of OMA

In any other Basel, in any other year, this would be one of a cadre of anecdotes to be gleefully trotted out at a later date. As in 2014, sitting poolside at the Delano Hotel, watching the over- and under-dressed locals as they swan around a vintage Jean Prouvé house installed in the courtyard.

In 2016 the weeklong Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) and its kissing cousin Design Miami (DM) promised a like quantity of screwball encounters. Madonna was doing a show at the just-completed Faena Forum (designed by the New York office of Rem Koolhaas’s OMA), while Surface magazine hosted a performance by rapper-producer Pusha T in the weird old wreck of the Miami Marine Stadium. It would all make for a rattling good yarn for the folks back home.

It would have—only this wasn’t any other year. Besides comic relief, Miami Basels past have often afforded a fine core sample of What’s Going On in the broader culture, a testing ground for trends artistic and architectural in a city where both money and taste are sufficiently unfettered to allow almost anything to happen. That was not the case this December, however, as recent developments conspired to turn the cultural logic of the event on its head, to ghoulish effect. This year, it felt like the mineshaft was in the canary.

Whispered rumor had it that hotel reservations were down fifteen percent. Attendance at the fair did not top last year’s numbers, though sales on both the art and design sides were robust (even if the biggest-ticket item to trade hands—a $6 million painting by Lee Krasner—was well behind last year’s show-stopper, a $15 million Francis Bacon from 1954).

The weather was good and the traffic was bad, but there were empty seats at dinner tables, and when the gatekeepers with iPads outside Ian Schrager’s Edition insisted that the fire department had shut down that night’s party, they were being more-than-usually disingenuous. The crowd in the backyard was so thin you could almost get a drink.

After 15 years, ABMB might simply have been suffering from its own success. Exhibitors in tent after tent—besides ABMB and DM there’s also Pulse, Art Miami, and a brace of others—have complained about the party-hopping riffraff getting in the way of big spenders in the market for actual art. A slight dip in overall volume might have been salutary, all things considered. But numbers alone were not the issue here, and everyone knew it.

The ghosts at every feast were pestilence and politics.

As to the former, the anxiety was borne by a mosquito. The Zika virus had prompted the federal government to instruct pregnant women to avoid traveling to Miami-Dade County, and in particular, a swath of Miami Beach. One such insect was supposedly on the loose in the Design Miami tent at one point, but he discreetly departed without incident.

The threat of Zika has lately lifted (Gov. Rick Scott announced last week that the area’s Infection Zone is now disease-free) and yet one wonders whether the advisement ought to remain in place, for Basel week at least. The whole thing should come with a warning label.

Politics was tetchier. Fidel Castro had died only days before the press preview got underway, a source of unexpurgated joy to the city’s Cuban-Americans—who have been known to entertain a rather romantic view of their pre-Communist patria—and the cause of somewhat more muted satisfaction among international artsy persons—who have been known to do the same with regards to Cuba and its revolutionary leader. In taxi after taxi, Spanish-language radio stations broke in between reggaeton tracks to play clips of cheering callers-in expressing their happiness and hope for the future.

And then, of course, there was the election. Ah, the election. Oh, the election. No one wanted to talk about it, and everyone wanted to talk about it. In one memorable exchange, a trio of principals from SHoP Architects (winners of this year’s Panerai Design Miami/ Visionary Award) managed to get through an entire panel conversation and most of the subsequent Q&A before attendee Bruce Ehrmann, of New York mega-brokerage house Douglas Elliman, asked how architecture should operate given “the altered national climate.”

The architects sputtered briefly before recovering, mentioning such points of light as timber-based construction. Essentially, however, their response amounted to saying that architecture will operate by... designing buildings for clients who hire architects. A humdinger of a tautology. But who on earth could blame them?

Large orange canvas with END WHITE Supremacy written on it in black paint, on a wall at the Art Basel Miami art fair.
A piece by Sam Durant from 2008 (right) at Blum & Poe gallery’s booth at Art Basel Miami Beach. It’s currently affixed to the facade of Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.
Alain Almiñana

There were a few, more candid attempts to address the Altered National Climate by various contributors to the shows. A lightbox by Sam Durant from 2008, admonishing viewers to “End White Supremacy,” greeted fairgoers at the Blum & Poe booth. A performance in the Wynwood neighborhood featured a woman wearing a traditional Muslim hijab with an extra-long train, held aloft by a team of women walking beside and behind. Wynwood was also the repository of a converted Republican campaign bus, covered with oppositional slogans, that had been rejected from one of the fairs but that is now available to you, the consumer, for the low, low price of $150,000 via eBay.

Which only makes the moment more confounding. Art and design have spent plenty of time—a century and more—attempting to critique, stymie, or at the very least negotiate the landscape of contemporary capitalism. The grotesque appeal of the Miami fairs usually derives from this: the head-on collision of radical creative thinking with the monied power-structure to which designers and artists are nominally inimical. In any other year, one could scoff good-naturedly at a self-proclaimed progressive practice like SHoP accepting the largesse of a fancy Italian watch maker.

But the Altered National Climate isn’t even pro-capital in the customary sense, given that the incoming administration appears more interested in disruption for its own sake than in enforcing a particular economic order. Confusion and uncertainty are at large in America today, even on the sun-washed shores of South Florida, which is why every fair and every project debut and every late-night invite-only performance had a detectable undercurrent of panic.

Like families, all happy industry fairs are alike, but each unhappy industry fair is unhappy in its own way. The comparison is even more apt when one considers that all fairs, be they cultural or commercial (or, as Basel and DM are, both) bear a family resemblance, sharing as they do a common ancestor.

Leaving aside a couple early precursors in France, the mother of them all was the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, a giant international commerce-fest that also included art and furniture and that was housed, famously, in architect Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the first large-scale glass-enclosed structure ever built.

The Crystal Palace in London, which was the splashiest piece of architecture unveiled at the Great Exhibition of 1851—an endeavor to prove to the world Britain’s might and industrial prowess.

The success of the Great Exhibition gave rise to a long tradition of World’s Fairs taking place in various cities at irregular intervals down to our own time, including last year’s in Milan, Italy and next year’s in Astana, Kazakhstan.

With the passage of time, and with greater ease of travel, the World’s Fairs have been upstaged by annual pageants for individual industries, but the philosophical DNA for all of them remains largely unchanged: the cheery, Enlightenment-era notion that the exchange of goods and ideas will advance the cause of progress, promoting peace among nations and a better life for all.

When the political atmosphere of one of these fairs runs counter to that spirit, things get, shall we say, interesting. The most notable instance would be the 1937 Paris Expo, which featured the Albert Speer-designed pavilion of Nazi Germany directly opposite the Soviet Pavilion. Both countries were then engaged in a proxy war in Spain, whose own national pavilion--replete with Picasso’s Guernica, created in protest of the German bombing campaign--was right next door.

Only two years before the outbreak of WWII, the fair took place under a cloud of fear and enmity; worse, it saw the French turn their capital into a platform for their future conqueror’s ideology. As scholar Karen Fiss has written, simply by staging the fair as though it were any other year, “The line ‘between ‘business as usual’ and complicity is blurred.”

How very true. No, 2016 was not 1937, and yes, it may be difficult to think of Art Basel as having any soul to betray: Lest one forget, this is a place where the height of earnestness was represented this year by Sarah Jessica Parker, who appeared at a Perrier Jouet party surrounded by developer Alan Faena and a group of half-dressed dancers to read a love poem by W.H. Auden.

Still, whether it be the oversized dresser by artist-designer Gaetano Pesce at DM’s Salon 94 booth, or the Jeff Koons sculptures unveiled up in Bal Harbor, Miami’s yearly cultural cataclysm and all its offerings are still rooted in that dear old 19th-century premise about the free movement of products and people across cultural and national borders.

In the face of an emerging political reality that threatens that very ideal, fair organizers and attendees alike could not seem to do much more than nervously knock back another cocktail, hoping that a show of normalcy could somehow hold the line against the new normal.

More nervous-making was the thought that some of their fellows, possibly, might be rooting for the other team. Who knows who everyone voted for? At the house of Craig Robins, the impresario behind the Miami Design District, a dinner party featured a Busby Berkeley-esque performance of bathing beauties, disporting themselves in the swimming pool. Was it permissible to gripe to the person next to you about the sexual politics involved? If they laughed it off, did that mean they thought you were a killjoy, or that you were part of the out-of-control PC mafia?

So no one said anything, and the tension mounted, and surely it will hardly dissipate by next year, if there is a next year. For the time being at least, this sometime-bellwether of art and design will now be an elaborate exercise in ignoring the large trunk-bearing pachyderm in the middle of the room.

As long as it is possible to ignore it: Towards the end of the week, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and developer David Martin of Terra Group welcomed visitors to the lobby of their new residential project in Coconut Grove, where a television set would shortly run a promotional video. But before anyone could activate the film, a newscast appeared, announcing that former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was in consideration to be named Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

As they waited for an assistant to switch the input, architect and client stood stock still with painted smiles, remaining perfectly silent in front of their audience for an agonizing twenty seconds or so. At last, Martin spoke.

“Could someone turn this off?” he said. “Let’s turn this off.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled developer David Martin’s surname. Curbed regrets the error.