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Brian Alfred

There’s a lot of product going on here,” I heard a woman say into her cell phone at the mega-art fair Art Basel Miami Beach 2014. Indeed, $3 billion worth of art is being offered for sale this year, according to the event’s organizers. The seemingly countless other satellite fairs must add considerably to that number, making the art fair a major economic event.

Still, even in the context of the vast amount of money changing hands at the Miami Beach Convention Center, where the main fair is taking place, there are pockets of resistantly antimaterialist art, and outside its walls some performance and film are to be found.

The ever-inventive David Shrigley, in addition to a couple of animations in the film series described below, is represented in BQ Gallery‘s booth by a white room, empty but for a sign saying “Empty Room” and the wall text identifying the piece’s unsurprising title, Empty Room. It’s hard not to interpret the room as a giggly poke at the rest of what’s going on at the convention center.

In a more serious vein, Hrair Sarkissian’s Homesick at Kalfayan Galleries in the Positions section of the fair brings a personal perspective on the devastating civil war in Syria. Sarkissian created a model of his parents’ apartment building in Damascus, where they continue to reside. In the video documentation, the artist smashes the model with a sledgehammer, a tool I’ve seen used by other artists in a more lighthearted way (e.g. Kate Gilmore); the act could hardly be more appropriate or more poignant than here.

As far I could tell, PPOW is the only exhibitor at the fair devoting a substantial portion of its booth to videos, namely those of the multifaceted artists Martin Wong and David Wojnarowicz. The films were made with the participation of other downtown New York artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The artists’ early deaths from AIDS and the glow of history add an unavoidable tenderness to these defiant, beautifully filmed collaborative performances.

In Charim Galerie‘s booth, performer/provocatrice Valie Export is showing a portion of her project Delta called “Das doppelte Alphabet” (”The Doubled Alphabet”) in which she wears black makeup and writes words in chalk on an inclined platform, progressing from the German word for “word” (Wort) as it mutates into “responsibility” (Verantwortung). At the end, she locks her head into a kind of wooden yoke and holds plaster casts of a hand and a head. Despite the ephemerality of her performances, the gallery is offering her video oeuvre for sale in a limited edition.

Fluxus artist Alison Knowles has created a new version of her 1966 work The Big Book. This one, titled The Boat Book, is dedicated to her brother, an East Hampton fisherman. The oversize book, at the James Fuentes booth, is an interactive sculpture designed to allow adults to pass through its “pages,” which measure four by eight feet and are made of various materials, including collage, beans, sand, and personal items.

Amid the countless objets d’art on display, the fair does offer tastes of experiential, time-based work. David Gryn, director of Artprojx, London, has again curated a film series to be shown on monitors at the fair and also in the evenings in an outdoor screening in SoundScape Park nearby. In previous years, the films were shown at the fair inside uncomfortable “pods” in the middle of the Convention Center. This year they have been given a room of their own, though it’s located off a corridor devoted to art magazines and a bit hard to find. When I walked in, the only other person in the room inquired hopefully, “Is this the business center?” and left disappointed.

Some of the films were made available to me for advance viewing, and among them were many worth watching. Tabor Robak’s 20XX (2013) (Team Gallery) features a lush, unthreatening cityscape overrun by neon and Klieg lights and advertisements for media and game brands on the fantasy buildings. The resurgent Babette Mangolte’s Water Motor (1978) (Broadway 1602/Sikkema Jenkins) elegantly documents Trisha Brown’s loose-limbed dancing, with a seductive repetition of the sequence in slow motion. Leo Gabin’s Oh Baby (2013) (Elizabeth Dee/Peres Projects) is a low-tech, low-production value music video with some fun editing choices. Brian Alfred’s Under Thunder and Fluorescent Lights (2104) (Ameringer McEnry Yohe) is an animation involving allusions to landscape and architecture and a mutating, colored sun.

The duo Wood & Harrison (Caroll Fletcher) performs inside and with simple sculptural devices in a series of well-considered videos from the late 1990s, including one piece that involves being squished inside a container by an inflatable plastic bag, giving new meaning to the word “squeezebox” and another film that has the pair dodging tennis balls launched at close range from a machine. Takeshi Murata’s OM Rider (2013) (Salon 94/Ratio 3) portrays a weird, violent wolf man fantasy. In Hans Op de Beeck’s Parade (2012)(Galleria Continua), which appears to take place in a theater with a broad proscenium arch, numerous figures and groups of people cross from stage right to stage left in strict horizontality, marching to instrumental music, perhaps alluding to the endless parade of life, as it ends with a funeral and then a toddler; death and renewal.

Near the entrance where throngs of collectors burst through to snap up the items for sale, Marina Abramovic had set up her Sleeping Exercise, in which attendees could opt out of the overstimulation of the fair by lying down on cots and donning noise-cancelling headphones. After a few hours inside the convention hall, I eagerly returned there and felt immense relief from the chatter and thousands of things on display. On closer inspection, the experience was not quite commodity-free. Participants were asked to sign a waiver so that Abramovic and her foundation sponsor could use photographs of the sleepers for commercial purposes, and the brochure for the event doubled as a fundraising device by offering for sale “materials for immateriality,” e.g. a chaise longue purportedly for use at durational performance.

For the second year in a row, curator Nicholas Baume, director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund, has organized Public, an outdoor installation of sculpture and performance in Collins Park, adjacent to the Bass Museum and not far from the Convention Center. After the opening night, these works were offered free to the public, including a second night of live performances. Sad to say, the performances were mostly disappointing. Christian Falsnaes’s participatory performance involved inviting volunteers from the audience to spray-paint a plywood wall that was immediately destroyed. It offered nothing conceptually interesting and was an embarrassment to watch, not to mention its indifference to environmental concerns and the health of the crowd, which was subjected to toxic fumes.

Likewise, Dawn Casper and Liz Glynn’s occupation of the rotunda building in the park, in which two performers recited bits of physics through a microphone and some fragments of scientific equations were scribbled on the walls of the room, was sad and empty of any provocation or discernible ideas. Ryan Gander’s project, to have a group of security guards protect curator Baume, blended so well into the crowd that I did not see it, which may have been just as well. Alix Pearlstein, however, did have an engaging idea for her work, in which she organized a troupe of six black-clad performers who shined light on their interaction with the sculptural works on display, as well as somewhat cheekily shining the light on themselves (the glow of aesthetic contemplation or the egotism of the art world?).

At the opening night of the Untitled fair on the beach, there was an impromptu performance by Shaan Syed at Ana Cristea Gallery occasioned by a customs embargo on his paintings, which the gallery had intended to display. Syed imitated the famous Bed-Ins for Peace, in which Yoko Ono and John Lennon dressed in white and stayed in bed to protest the Vietnam War. Syed stationed himself in the corner of the gallery’s booth, bare-chested and in loose white trousers, surrounded by sheets of paper on which he had painted various words. The public seemed to revel in the work, as they crossed the line and joined him in bed or posed for selfies with the artist. Perhaps because of its unplanned quality, it had a lovely freshness to it. Nothing was for sale yet, though, to her credit, his dealer was quick to offer up pictures of the embargoed work.

I am all for artists being paid and having health insurance and otherwise some measure of economic security, without having to indulge in the often not very remunerative pyramid scheme of teaching as adjuncts in MFA programs financed, to a large extent, by the piles of loans that many of their students have assumed and will have little chance of paying off. In the U.S., the prospects for such de minimis support are extremely grim. Sales are a must to make the art world go round, and the fairs, according to many dealers I’ve talked to, are the big moneymakers, despite the degrading effect on the art and the artists. I hope that somehow someone comes up with a better system for helping artists survive and contribute their talents and imagination to the collective good.

Art Basel Miami Beach continues at the Miami Beach Convention Center (1901 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach, Florida) until Sunday, November 7.

Paul David Young

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