A Frisson of the New

THE CHANGES AT the Design Miami fair have been radical. The fair was pulled in from the Design District and was nose-to-nose with the front door of Art Basel, which was by no means close enough to satisfy designer Ron Arad, who wandered the main fair in his trademark Paddington Bear get-up calling design fairs “design ghettoes” and grumbling that he had a single piece in “the ghetto … unfortunately!”

Here the most remarkable piece was Swarm Light, which is the work of rAndom International, a London-based three-man collective. The piece was inspired by a larger commercial that showed a flock of birds preparing to migrate, and it has evolved into a wholly interactive computerized piece.

You are looking at a cage. You approach and it becomes home to a cloud of individual white lights that flash around in the patterns that will be familiar to anybody who has ever seen a flock of agitated starlings, a shoal of fish or a swarm of midges over a pool in the dusk. The light-creature that inhabits Swarm responds to your presence–with agitation, even, if you raise your voice. It sold swiftly for $180,000 to a collector who preferred anonymity.

Zoom, a much talked-about fair in the South Seas Hotel, showed artists from the Middle East. Much of the work had a cutting sociopolitical edge, and the reactions of American collectors were wary. “They may not be ready for this fair,” said Kourish Nouri, the owner and director of the Saudi gallery Carbon 12, which contains work by a Saudi woman artist wearing combat gear and a malignant-looking balaclava. “I think it will take four to five years.”

The stand-out in Zoom, I think, was Ahmed Mater, 31, who is also a doctor who lives in Aseer, a region on the Saudi side of the Saudi-Yemen border. A strong piece here, Yellow Cow, is based on the first chapter of the Koran, which references Moses and the Golden Calf. For this piece, Mr. Mater painted a cow saffron to the delight of the villagers–“For me the artwork is the reaction, not the object”–then manufactured such dairy products as cheese and yogurt. He pointed out two words in the label. “Kosher, Halal,” he said. “It is exact same thing”

Mr. Mater added that for the first time, there will be a Saudi pavilion at the next Venice Biennale. It is tough for Saudis to make a living through art, and I wondered whether he would give up doctoring if his international art career prospered? “Most of my artwork is coming from my context. It’s coming from my real life,” he said. “I have a project to photograph the life of the hospital where I work on CCTV.”

There was also strong work in Zoom by Shoja Azari, the Iranian artist, who is married to Shirin Neshat. One was a video, THERE ARE NO NON BELIEVERS IN HELL, which included Renaissance masterworks, the Goya-esque conehead image from Abu Ghraib, black-turbaned mullahs and Christian saints; a taped sermon from a fundamentalist U.S. preacher that Azari unearthed on YouTube belts out at length. “Listen carefully! There are no unbelievers in hell. There are no unbelievers in hell!” Yes, the point seemed to be, we have our jihadist-equivalents, too. There was none of Mr. Moses’ happy-happiness here.

 

MOST DEALERS WHO managed to tear themselves from their stands said that Miami felt different this year. This was in part because there was such a tremendous build-up of events that even the most VIP-ish of fairgoers just flung up their hands. You didn’t get to the White Cube party? That once-in-a-lifetime P.S.1 party on the beach? So what? “It’s a different mood,” Amanda Sharp, a cofounder of London’s Frieze, said at Scope (where kitsch art, as a rising theme, ruled).

The wealth of non-art events indicated that the decision of Sam Keller, the former doyen of Art Basel, to choose Miami over such other warmer U.S. cities as Los Angeles or Charleston was a canny one because of the nature of Miami itself.

Some years ago, Herbert Muschamp, the then architecture critic of The New York Times, wrote “Miami Beach is no longer a southern city of North America but a northern city of the Latin South.” Along those lines, there was a party to display the collection of Milagros Maldonado–works by Picabia, Botero, Wilfredo Lam, Matta, Manuel Bravo–a Venezuelan whose family holdings were sequestrated by President Chavez. 

But curiously, and with such exceptions as a performance by the Cuban collective Los Carpinteros, some pieces by Alfredo Martinez in the White Box space at Scope and Assume Astro Vivid Focus at Wynwood Walls, there was relatively little Latino art at any of the fairs.

It happens that the second “Armory Focus” in 2011, which is the invitational section of the New York big-fair contender, will be upon Latin America. It will include galleries from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Indeed, Katalijne de Backer, director of the Armory Show, who had been coasting the aisles at Miami Basel, announced this with insouciant precision just as dealers were folding their tents at Art Basel Miami. 

So the Art Fair Wars continue unabated.

editorial@observer.com

READ MORE ABOUT ART BASEL:

Schnabel Paints the Town: The Artist-Director on Film, Power, Charity and Art

Land of 1,000 Air Kisses: Art Basel Miami Beach, With Regrets

A Frisson of the New: Haden-Guest Prowls the Art Fairs

The Business of Art Basel : What Sold, to Who, and How Much