Letter From Miami

This is Unreal: Art Basel Miami Beach 2016

A post-election malaise and concern over the Zika virus didn’t put a damper on this year’s art and design fairs.

For me, this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach began in true Miami style: at a leisurely pace. Upscale grocery store chain Dean & DeLuca hosted a private dinner on Nov. 29 at Casa Tua in honor of German-born architect Ole Scheeren. The following day, he would debut his Stage prototype café for the brand at the Design Miami fair. Around 9:30 p.m., an hour after the dinner’s scheduled start time, the guests—including Martha Stewart, the film director Brett Ratner, and designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia—were finally seated.

To my right were novelist and Interview magazine editor-at-large Christopher Bollen, and editor Zoë Wolff. Around 9:45, frustrated and assuredly as “hangry” as I was, they requested a basket of bread for the table. WSJ. magazine editor Chris Knutsen, to my left, and Scheeren, across the table, laughed at the situation. It seemed ironic that a purveyor of fine foods was hosting such a haphazard meal. (It should be said that when the food finally came—the main course at around 11:20—it was absolutely delicious.) But Miami during Art Basel is in general an unpredictable feast, a grab bag of personalities and brands and galleries all pushing particular and often peculiar agendas.

Ole Scheeren's Stage café prototype for Dean & DeLuca at Design Miami (Photo: Buro Ole Scheeren)

At the press preview the next morning, Scheeren gave a convincing, if sometimes befuddling, Rem Koolhaas-ian slide presentation about Stage, describing it as a “food theater” platform. (My favorite slide read “Café = Café.”) Clean and modernist in design, not unlike the architect’s boundary-pushing, large-scale buildings in places like Singapore and Bangkok, the concept sets up a functional and aesthetic topography for displaying and serving food, a smart and noteworthy if not groundbreaking improvement over a standard café. Sheathed in mirrored stainless steel and featuring a milled white Corian counter designed to fit sleek serving bowls, the concept will be rolled out in the U.S. market next year. As the week wore on, Scheeren’s design served as an apt metaphor for all of this year’s happenings. I wasn’t necessarily wowed by it, but it wasn’t lackluster, either. And it seemed to add something worthwhile, even if I couldn’t quite pinpoint what exactly that was.

Anders Ruhwald in Volume Gallery's booth at Design Miami (Photo: Spencer Bailey)

Later in the day, as I walked around Design Miami, plenty caught my eye. A furniture collection by Gaetano Pesce at Salon 94; ceramics by Anders Ruhwald at Volume Gallery; a dining table with matching stools by the Haas Brothers at R & Company; Adam Silverman vases at Friedman Benda. It was the best iteration of the fair I’ve seen. Rodman Primack, Design Miami’s executive director for the past two years, has clearly made his mark.

Patrick Parrish Gallery's booth at Design Miami (Photo: Spencer Bailey)

Only one booth at the fair, however, truly stood out for me: Patrick Parrish Gallery’s, which had work by Jonathan Nesci (whose Rolled chair was my favorite piece at the fair), Fort Standard, and Julian Watts, among others, all presented around a sharp display of Nesci’s creation that let each piece shine. My kind of presentation, it looked more like a curated gallery show and less like something squeezed into a fair.

Virgil Abloh's “Design Curio” booth with Aurélie Julien at Design Miami (Photo: Courtesy Design Miami)

I also paused at the “Design Curio” booth that Virgil Abloh, founder of the fashion label Off-White and Kanye West’s creative director, conceived with Paris dealer Aurélie Julien. I’m still not sure what to think of Abloh’s pieces on display—they seemed sort of like a furniture version of the Formlessfinder-designed “Tent Pile” entrance to the fair from 2013—but I appreciated a simple text on the wall that read, “This is unreal.” It seemed poignant somehow, a way of capturing the idea that there’s always something extraordinary about what happens in Miami during Art Basel. It also captured the feeling that something wasn’t quite right about the fair this year—maybe it was a post-election malaise, or a fear of the Zika virus.

Ugo Rondinone in Eva Presenhuber's booth at Art Basel Miami Beach (Photo: Spencer Bailey)

On Thursday, when I visited Art Basel Miami Beach itself, I found myself drawn most to the work of Swiss-born, New York-based artist Ugo Rondinone—first at the Eva Presenhuber booth, then at Gladstone Gallery’s. The work of Rondinone, who also unveiled his 41-foot-tall “Miami Mountain” installation outside of the Bass Museum of Art last week (and will have a retrospective there next year), offered a reprieve from so much of what seems to be social-media eye candy or baubles for the über-rich (see Jeff Koons’s “Diamond (Blue)” at Gagosian Gallery). Admittedly, Rondinone’s work is Instagram-friendly, but there’s also a sense of substance and craft to it.

Barbara Kruger at Mary Boone (Photo: Spencer Bailey)

I found myself paying attention to a few text-based works at the fair, too. (Our November issue cover story featuring Jenny Holzer may have had something to do with this.) Two were by Barbara Kruger at Mary Boone’s booth. One read, “The secret of the demagogue is to make himself as stupid as his audience so that they believe they are as clever as he is.” The other said, “Art is as heavy as sorrow, as light as a breeze, as bright as an idea, as pretty as a picture, as funny as money, and as fugitive as fraud.” Another was a light work by Doug Aitken at Berggruen Gallery that read simply “End,” the “En” atop the “d,” an island surrounded by sea and white sky depicted on the text.

An animation by Ben Jones projected on the Miami Marine Stadium (Photo: BFA for Surface)

The week came to a crescendo on Thursday night, not just for me but for Surface—which hosted eight events from Tuesday through Friday—at the Miami Marine Stadium, where we partnered with Adidas Originals on the debut of its #TLKS series and a large-scale installation by the Los Angeles-based artist Ben Jones. Other Surface events included Design Dialogues talks—one in partnership with Perrier-Jouët, the others with Faena Art—featuring the likes of designer Yves Béhar, Art Production Fund’s Yvonne Force Villareal, and fashion designer Heron Preston, as well as a pajama party with 21c Museum Hotels in the Design District and a Friday night party with music programming by Virgil Abloh.

Surface editor-in-chief Spencer Bailey with artist Ben Jones, model and activist Adwoa Aboah, and artist and G.O.O.D. Music president Pusha T at the first Adidas Originals #TLKS (Photo: BFA for Surface)

For the #TLKS event, I joined Jones, model and activist Adwoa Aboah, and artist and G.O.O.D. Music president Pusha T in a conversation—the first-ever presented by Adidas Originals via Facebook Live and with questions submitted via a chatbot—on a floating pier abutting the stadium. Designed by the Cuban-born architect Hilario Candela and completed in 1963, the Marine Stadium was closed in 1992. It wasn’t until 2008 that a group was formed to guide its restoration. I first visited the site for a rather forgettable presentation by Audemars Piguet and Galerie Perrotin in 2013. (The only thing I remembered from it, aside from a ridiculous inflatable log cabin installation by French art duo Kolkoz, was the stunning modernist structure itself.) This year, working with Bureau Betak, Adidas created a truly special presentation: A projection by Jones took over the entire underside of the stadium’s 65-foot concrete canopy, combining sounds and fast-moving, Tron-like visuals to spectacular effect. I’m biased, of course, because of Surface’s involvement in the program, but I hadn’t seen the installation until arriving for rehearsals, and was completely stunned by it. I still am, actually, especially the way it played with the architecture in such a seamless way.

This wasn’t just another art spectacle. There was substance to the night. I found the #TLKS conversation to be engaging, taking many twists and turns, most notably when a cartoon-like heckler in the second row of the audience jumped into the fray. (If I had to guess, he may have been planted there, but nobody involved in the event had given me a heads-up about this. In any case, I enjoyed the spontaneity of it.) The four of us discussed everything from the Spice Girls to The Simpsons to political activism.

Most surprising—and refreshing—was when I mentioned to the panelists that 88 percent of the 12,000-some respondents to the chatbot question “Does the internet make the world a more democratic place?” answered yes. Jones, Aboah, and Pusha were adamant that no, that’s definitely not the case. To find them in the minority suggested to me they’re situated within a distinctive demographic: the 12 percent who don’t fit the mold of the masses, who value originality and humanity and are willing to fight for it, who make their own platforms for pushing potent ideas forward.

Pusha T performing after the #TLKS discussion (Photo: BFA for Surface)

After the #TLKS conversation finished, Pusha T performed a set on another pier separated by a narrow band of water from the one where the conversation took place. Behind him, on a circular screen, was a series of projections by Jones. The night combined art and design and architecture and conversation and music and performance and entertainment, all compacted into two hours. And it reached far beyond the Baselers in attendance: roughly 120,000 people viewed the Facebook Live video. It wasn’t just for the privileged few hundred in attendance; Adidas was opening the door for a global conversation, live from Miami.

What had happened on Thursday night had felt like a dream. It still does. It was indeed its own unpredictable feast. When I headed to the Miami airport on Saturday morning, I thought to myself, “This is unreal.”

All Stories