Less than a month after the election, collectors, gallerists, critics and art tourists assembled in Miami for Art Basel’s circus-like rotation of champagne-fuelled parties, raucous DJ sets, exclusive dinners on chartered yachts, and, of course, a dizzying array of gallery booths. While artworks charged with political urgency permeate the fair, the general mood of hotel party-hoppers and well-heeled PR agents is disconnected from that of the current socio-political climate and is, instead, marked by complacency.
Under the Trump administration, the rich will continue to get richer and deregulated markets like the global art market will likely blossom and balloon to unprecedented levels. It is precisely the blue-chip segment of the art world that will benefit from an increase in tax cuts, with bloated accounts and sky-high auction rates. As is the case with other industries, the already trenchant economic stratification between emerging artists and personnel (ie art handlers, custodians and studio assistants) and top-tier gallerists and collectors will widen. As reported last year, “even as art benefits from general income inequality, the art world itself is an unequal place. This is not a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats situation.”
At the Miami Beach convention center, well-tanned Miamians in wacky prints, execs in crisp suits and leather loafers, and groomed Ivanka Trump-types become impatient as the VIP check-in line grows long. Inside, fair-goers contend with frigid, air conditioned winds and stall in front of bold works such as Sam Durant’s glowing orange End White Supremacy piece (2008), on view at Blum & Poe’s booth, and Rubin Ortiz Torres’ striking Black Star Spangled Banner (2013), on view at OMR. Amid a rising tide of neo-nazism and white nationalism (what many outlets have downplayed as the “alt-right”) in the US, these pieces feel especially salient. (Both works would have been similarly relevant in prior Basel years, as in 2014 when a swell of Black Lives Matter protests erupted in Miami and across the country, after the police officer who killed Eric Garner was not indicted.)
Ten red and orange watercolor portraits of young black men killed by police officers form a backdrop for two wooden gun toys that are suspended by metal chains in Barthélémy Toguo’s Black Lives Matter Always (2015), installed at Galerie Lelong. At the bottom of each lyrical, emotionally charged rendering, the subjects’ names are scrawled in cursive: Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant and Michael Brown. (At Miami Art Basel in 2014, the Cameroonian artist’s installation The New World Climax addressed the global refugee crisis by highlighting words like “migrant” and “illegal”.)
At Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s The Tyranny of Common Sense Has Reached Its Final Stage speaks directly to this period of uncertainty and political turmoil. Tiravanija gathered pages from the New York Times the day after the election and added all-caps, brightly colored text to obfuscate the fatalistic headlines (for instance: “Trump Triumphs”). The work satisfyingly captures the frenzy of news consumption during this election cycle with apocalyptic, on-the-nose timeliness.
Sandwiched between the booths there are plenty of diversions – promotional cocktail carts and illy coffee stations primed for cross-continental friends to catch up on industry gossip. The hosts at a series of events are, as usual, befuddling in combination: celebrities paired with luxury watch brands paired with DJs and lesser-known celebrities. (While some performance artists are present, artists are notoriously absent from many of the fairs.)
On Friday night, Madonna hosted a benefit for her charity Raising Malawi at the newly opened Faena Forum in Miami Beach. Tickets sold for $5,000 at the lowest and $150,000 at the highest rung, the “philanthropist package”. Celebrity guests included Sean Penn, Chris Rock, and Ariana Grande; artworks by the big-name contemporary artists Ai Weiwei, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, Marilyn Minter and Damien Hirst were auctioned as part of the benefit.
Meanwhile, across the country in Oakland, California, dozens of people were killed in a fire at the “Ghost Ship” warehouse. Trump announced another troubling appointment – Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon with zero experience working in government – to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But as the fair closed, one glimmering bit of news shone through: the Army Corps of Engineers had moved to block construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, which would destroy the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s sacred burial grounds and threaten its only water supply. While this was a major win for the water protectors, a legal representative for the tribe pointed out that the decision could be appealed under the new administration.
As the art world landscape trembles and even quakes with political art, one looks to activist groups such as Occupy Museums for direction. The social justice group that grew out of Occupy Wall Street aims to hold large arts institutions responsible for their investments, and announced that the Miami Art Fairs were “Trump’s inaugural pre-party”. The group targeted the fair’s lead sponsor, UBS, with a spoof of its promotional materials with the title UBS Debt Collection: To the 1% Its Freedom. As the fair closes and pop-up tents for the satellite fairs are taken down, we must remain vigilant as to how political art is understood and consumed.
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