Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Art Basel Miami Beach

I’d never been to Miami Beach before, so I had no idea whether the people around town were any different to those that spend the remaining 51 weeks a year there. But when Art Basel Miami Beach descends upon this stretch of sandy shoreline so far south in the US that people are lazing on the beach well into December, there’s the sense that something special is going on, and that artists, dealers and collectors are out in number.

The art fair is the largest of its kind in the US, with about 300 international galleries showing works by 2,000 artists in the outsize convention centre, attracting a further 20-odd satellite shows around the city. There’s art on the beach, in hotels, up palm trees and anywhere else you can imagine. And even in the current economic climate, there are those who are ready and willing to buy it. Lots of them.

I’m there working with The Art Newspaper, which publishes a daily edition at the fair. This means working late, until the early hours, giving me some time to be around the city in daylight hours. The area’s art deco architecture takes me by surprise. In the UK you may come across a classic art deco building here and there, but the South Beach area seems to have whole streets of them, hotel after hotel, with palm trees lining the pavements. And whereas so many such buildings in the UK give the impression of having been “improved”, ie, had their art deco features, such as window frames, ruined in the name of maintenance and renovation, in Miami they have stood up to the passage of time so much better.

Unperturbed by the vast quantities of outsize, ambitious, multi-disciplined, opulent, attention-grabbing and wincingly expensive art on show around me, I spend what moments I can drawing in my simple little A5 sketchbook with a simple black marker pen. I have no plans to make a film of my drawings, make a series of ceramics about them, have a panel discussion with Julian Schnabel, Yoko Ono and Ai Weiwei about them or enter into discussions with the Guggenheim or Cartier about how they can present them. I just go about making small, squeaking, often uncertain marks with my Edding 4000 to represent the wonderfully foreign environment I have found myself in.

It’s sunny and hot, and therefore easy to find cafes with outdoor tables to sit at. But what I make seems to have very little in common with what is on show at Art Basel Miami Beach – this is hardly surprising; they are making thousands of dollars from this and I am not. In the fair, there is plenty to see and plenty to be moved by. The tour guide standing before two recent photographs by Cindy Sherman spoke fluently about the “brutally honest” figures with plucked eyebrows, sagging necks and ageing skin, despite their obvious wealth, before it dawned on him that he was describing most of the women following his tour just as much the subjects of the photographs. “And yet they remain endearing,” he rallied, less than convincingly, to the shuffling of feet.

Small and black and white drew me in – Brice Marden’s works in ink on paper, and Olga Chernysheva’s photographs of old rural Russia at “Russian Dreams” at the Bass Museum of Art. I’m not sure it pays to be understated in a city where so many are clamouring for attention, but it certainly worked for me.