For two nights during Art Basel Miami Beach this December, the waterfront of South Beach took on a dazzling new dimension. “Wave,” an immersive installation created by Spanish-born contemporary artist Pablo Valbuena, created the effect of light dancing on an undulating wave. Over a twelve-minute cycle, 25 shafts of LED light columns blinked on and off to mimic the sense of a giant swell rising, falling and rising again. “The idea was to depict a sculptural volume unfolding over time,” Valbuena says. “It’s the shape of light seized in perpetual motion.”
Valbuena’s work, which explores concepts of space, time and perception, has been exhibited around the world from Seoul to Sao Paulo. Among his best-known projects are “Kinematope,” an immersive light and sound installation created in Paris’s Austerlitz train station and “Methods,” a commission for Durham Cathedral, in England, that transformed the historic cathedral with a remarkable light show activated by the sound of ringing church bells. But the artist, who is based in Toulouse, France, and works without gallery representation or a full-time staff, admits that producing his large-scale, usually public, and often ephemeral work has its challenges. There are municipal permits to apply for, complicated pieces of equipment that must be fabricated and installed—and, of course, the checks that need to be written to pay for everything. “These can be expensive projects,” he says.
This is where La Prairie, the luxury Swiss skincare company known for its creams containing caviar extracts, comes into the story. Though a casual viewer would hardly know it, “Wave” was a La Prairie commission, the company’s seventh activation at Art Basel Miami Beach over the past three years. But aside from a couple of discreet placards placed on the beach near the installation, there was no obvious marketing messaging to be found.
Beauty companies teaming up with contemporary artists is nothing new, of course: Jeff Koons and Kenny Scharf have produced labels for Kiehls, while Cindy Sherman has created advertisements for MAC, and glass artist Jean-Michel Othoniel has designed limited-edition fragrance bottles for Dior. But La Prairie takes a distinctly behind-the-scenes approach, one that felt more comfortable to Valbuena. “When the company first approached me, I actually tried to discourage them,” he says. “I wrote them saying that I would only consider working with a brand under very strict conditions that they not interfere with my artwork and that the final project be free and open to the public,” he says. “What was amazing to me was that they got back to me right away saying, ‘No problem.’”
Founded in 1978, La Prairie prides itself on a culture of “audacity,” says executive Greg Prodromides. Its ties to art date from its very beginning; according to company lore, artist Niki de Saint Phalle is its “aesthetic godmother” and was the inspiration for the company’s signature cobalt blue jars. “We know that the artist is at their best when they have total freedom to create,” he says. “So we don’t pick art to create a message for the brand. We use art as a platform through which we can express our stories.”
Naturally, the company chooses commissions that sync nicely with their product messaging. For last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, for instance, they commissioned architect Mario Botta to make a piece illustrating “haute rejuvenation” and the “origin of life,” to coincide with the release of their Platinum Rare collection. His contribution was rather conceptual: A Bauhaus-inspired cedarwood sculpture inside which two people could sit and meditate. This year, La Prairie was looking for an artist whose work could tie into the upcoming release of White Caviar Eye Extraordinaire in early 2020, a new eye cream formulated to take advantage of the latest research behind light and the eye’s perception of shape. “We loved that Pablo’s work deals with light, shape and time,” Prodromides says. “‘Wave’ was in this way an ideal match.”
As for Valbuena, he says that having access to Miami’s legendary beachfront was special indeed. “It was the perfect context for my work, with the vastness and emptiness of the ocean on one side and the dense streets on the other,” he says. “I would never have been able to pull this off myself.”
In other words, this was one particular meeting of art and commerce that ended happily. And after the grand unveiling of “Wave,” La Prairie hosted one of the week’s most-sought-after private dinners on top of the city’s monumental Herzog and de Meuron garage, where each course highlighted a different type of caviar. “Well, I do I love caviar,” said Valbuena, as he dug into his beluga.