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by Ben Davis
It’s easy to get lost in Miami during the fairs. And this in a double sense. The main fair, Art Basel Miami Beach, Dec. 2-6, was particularly confounding this year, as it had spread like the evil hedge maze from The Shining to fill the entirety of the cavernous Miami Beach Convention Center.

At one point, I ran into art journalist Alexandra Peers at ABMB. "How’d they lay this thing out?" she said. "You always end up on ‘F’ aisle!" I think "You always end up on ‘F’ aisle" is a pretty good slogan for the whole experience.

But in addition to losing your way, it’s also easy to lose your sense of meaning amid the razzle-dazzle, beneath drumbeat of the omnipresent, relentless question, "How are sales?" It’s easy to forget that in addition to being a commercial affair, there is actually something interesting about this whole exercise in "laissez-faire curating" (as it has been called). Beneath it all, some good art is clawing for oxygen and nutrients in the crazy art-fair petri dish.

Here, in no particular order, are some things that were worth noticing during Miami fair week 2009:

Why was chess everywhere at the fair this year? Maybe it has something to do with a reach for some kind of mythologized intellectual authority. At any rate, the first thing that really stopped me at Art Basel was the booth of Francis Naumann Fine Art, the scholarly New York redoubt. There, packed lovingly into two stalls was a terrific, compact mini-exhibition, "Marcel Duchamp and the Art of Chess." Included were a Salvador Dali chess set, Hommage a Duchamp, for which the pieces were cast from thumbs; Yoko Ono’s all-white board (an anti-war statement, but also one with unintended racial undertones?); some amazing photos of a serious-looking Duchamp playing chess; great Philippe Halsman photos of art figures dressed up in Surrealist chess costumes; and too much more to list.

Chess was also the raw material for another, more improvized highlight. Smack dab in the middle of the Convention Center, one came upon the bafflingly empty booth of Christian Haye, the New York dealer who failed to show up, for reasons as yet unexplained. Neighbors Sies + Hoeke took the opportunity to set up a Kris Martin piece in the abandoned space, consisting of chess pieces arrayed against each other on the empty floor, sans board and so without direction. "Like refugees," the man from Sies + Hoeke told me. The piece had a lovely off-handedness to it, and certainly reflected the thesis that the most affecting pieces at art fairs are those that find their place in the interstices of the spectacle. It was, in fact, titled Lost.

The masterminds of these fairs never fail to invoke the word "community" when introducing them -- it’s all about "supporting the art community," "the community of dealers," and so on -- while studiously avoiding mentioning that they are, in fact, about selling things. The fragmentary experience of fairland naturally creates a hunger for some kind of authentic esthetic communion. Correspondingly, the weekend was full of tribal gatherings and clubhouses, whether in the form of Camper Contemporary, the Baltimore art space/camper that was seen in front of various fairs, or in the "Art Burn," the cookout spearheaded by the artist El Celso, which brought together an ephemeral group to toss some art on a BBQ, a kind of jovial ritual sacrifice to the Miami art gods.

At the Aqua fair, San Francisco’s White Walls gallery dominated with an installation recreating the "art shack" of graffiti artist Mike Shine, a real space that exists in Briones, Ca., a low-key Mecca for fans of the SF graffiti scene. With lots of cool, cartoony illustration on wood, free-associative mythological themes and a wolfman deposited on the roof, the White Walls piece seemed teleported in from another, cooler world (San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Folk Art has also hosted a recreated version of the "Art Shack"). Later, wandering to the back of the Design Miami fair, I found myself enjoying a raggedy clubhouse where artists Jim Drain and Graham Hudson, and poet P. Scott Cunningham held court for the duration of the fair, turning out zines. Their castaway esthetic looked particularly good against the background of Design Miami’s sculpted slickness.

The most rewarded outing for the clubhouse theme, however, came at Pulse’s Ice Palace Studios, where the Austin art group Okay Mountain’s contribution to the fair’s "Impulse" section (sponsored by Arthouse) saw their nine-person team conjure an entire fake convenience store, stocked with artist-made products, from handmade condoms to a dummy wooden video poker machine. All items were actually on sale -- a candy bar made out of painted wood set you back as little as $5.99. Okay Mountain’s members themselves manned the store, serving as credible versions of bored store clerks.

It’s not the most original gesture in the world; in fact, it’s almost identical to one Chinese artist Xu Zhen did for ShanghArt at Art Basel Miami Beach a few years ago. But Xu was selling empty packaging, a comment on the hollowness of commerce, while the great thing about Okay Mountain’s piece was the fun they clearly had making each of the individual items, injecting them all with a bit of slacker humor. It was all about finding a bit of soul amid the clutter of commodity exchange. No surprise, then, that Okay Mountain installation was a crowd-pleaser -- it won both the judged "Pulse Prize" and a separate "People’s Choice" award.

Signs of death were everywhere, though of a generally unthreatening kind. In the skull, you have an image that has art-historical cachet, and also has a certain trendy contemporary pop-Goth resonance. In 2009, its popularity also comes across as a bit of knowing black humor about the grim times we live in, a winking way to recognize -- and then forget -- the obscenity of all this money against the background of 10 percent unemployment. Yan Pei-Ming’s flashy black and gray image of a skull overlaying a giant dollar bill at David Zwirner, which greeted visitors as they entered the Convention Center for Art Basel Miami Beach, brought together all of these senses in one place.

Best Skull award, however, goes to a large work by the Argentine group Mondongo at Buenos Aires’ Ruth Benzacar Gallery, also at the main fair. It was formed out of thousands of tiny, detailed plasticine figures, coming together only from a distance into a skull, like an Impressionist painting. Up close, you wandered across an endless landscape of tiny portrait heads, presenting scenes from art history (the couple from Manet’s Luncheon in the Grass; a sectioned cow a la Hirst), cartoon characters (Simpsons, Smurfs, Muppets), and historical figures (Peron, Marx, Noriega) all swirled together, and too numerous to catalogue. You could stare at it forever, and almost forget that the face of death was hovering over you.

Strange Transmissions
At Art Asia, I was arrested by the spectacle of small children happily entertained by Taiwanese artist Tseng Wei-Hao’s installation Speaker Tree. A "conductive ink" wall mural that resembled a sort of scribbled version of a bamboo garden, the project caused screeching, R2D2 noises to be broadcast every time a visitor formed a circuit between two of the lines on the wall. Moving your hands up and down the lines caused the bleeps and blurps to move up and down in pitch, to cacophonous effect. The artist himself was on hand to play with the kids, who seemed to love it -- though I didn’t envy his neighbors who had to put up with the ruckus.

Less invasive was a piece at the NADA fair (which looked outstanding in its new headquarters at the Deauville Hotel, by the way), where Twenty Twenty Art Projects was playing host to a work by the up-and-coming Miami artist Nicolas Lobo. The work involved broadcasting the contents of a telephone chat room live on former pirate radio station 89.5 for the fair’s duration -- "there’s some guy on there, ranting and raving about his life," dealer Scott Murray told me when I passed by -- and visitors could call in if they wanted to be part of the piece, which would ultimately take the form of a record to be sold in an edition of 1,000. I liked the statement of installing a pirate radio station beneath the chandeliers of the Deauville, even if I can’t imagine possibly wanting to listen to it. Murray’s gallery, which was at NADA because of a grant from the Knight Foundation, has an interesting program; you should check it out.

One of the indisputable virtues of the mega-fairs is that they unite a cross-section of the international art world all in one place, so that you can take its temperature. Some of my most interesting conversations at the fair were with Vladimir Ovcharenko, dealer from Russia’s Regina gallery -- he expressed the suspicion that the current regime’s machinations had set back the market for Russian contemporary art by making Russia politically uncool -- and, over at NADA, with New York-based Turkish artist Burak Arikan at Istanbul’s NON Gallery, who was showing visitors the booth’s promising crop of Turkish artists himself, after NON’s dealer was turned back by Homeland Security.

But don’t count Iceland out of the game yet! Though humbled by last year’s economic tsunami, the island nation’s fine artists carry on with characteristic quirky perseverance. One of the most purely enjoyable pieces at Art Basel was the installation by impossible-to-pronounce Icelandic artist Egill Sæbjörnsson at Reykjavic’s i8 gallery. A fun play with virtual and actual space, the piece consisted of a series of boxes stacked in a corner, overlaid with video projection, thanks to which it appeared that phantom cubes were peeling off from the real versions and flying around the booth, or that lids on the cubes were popping open, ejecting the odd flying banana. Little solenoids in the boxes issued satisfying clacks as the virtual boxes snapped open and closed, or reunited with their flying doubles. It was like watching Minimalism haunted by the joy of invention it left behind.

Another Art Basel highlight was at The Third Line gallery, from Dubai, which was showing a set of mirrored reliefs by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Each of these elegant works represents an invented hieroglyphic, playing on the esoteric aspects of geometry. Each stands for a number, indicated by the number of points the figure would touch if a circle were to be traced around it; thus, a triangular figure represents the number 3, while a complex, eleven-pointed zigzagging figure represents the "hendecagon," or the number 11. When asked if the recent, much-publicized problems in Dubai had been a topic of discussion with visitors to the booth, the dealer rolled her eyes: "Everyone asks us, ‘why is Dubai ruining the world?’"

Fortunately, Farmanfarmaian is the perfect antidote to such talk; the Iranian artist is 86, and as such something of a symbol of artistic longevity (the Third Line kept a copy of her autobiography, A Mirror Garden, on the desk to drive home the point for doubters).

Perhaps the most interesting development of the fair weekend was the coronation of New York artist William Powhida as the anti-Koons, in a lengthy New York Times article that saw reporter Damien Cave follow the artist, known for works sending up the art world, on his trip through the Convention Center. The article certainly won me over into the pro-Powhida camp, though on reflection this has much to do with its abbreviated autobiographical details -- the guy teaches art at Brooklyn public schools, which makes him a world-class badass in my book.

In both Powhida’s case, and in the case of the weekend’s other men-of-the-hour, the Bruce High Quality Foundation, success seems to have to do with some kind of ambient hunger for real social substance amid the sugar of the commercial art world. This dissatisfaction then gets channeled into jokes about the art scene’s excesses. At Pulse, Powhida was showing a series of cartoons at Schroeder Romero, mocking art stardom; Bruce High Quality sold a pile of penises and noses, Sack of Rome, at NADA’s Y Gallery, a joke on the trophy-hunting mindset (purchased by Beth Rudin DeWoody).

Over in Miami, it was the show at the private Rubell Collection that made me think again about the meaning of this zeitgeist. The exhibition was all self-referential self-congratulation, all name-brands and art-about-art, from Bert Rodriguez’s mocking take on Bruce Nauman -- a neon spiral proclaiming "The True Artist Makes Useless Shit for Rich People to Buy" -- to Elmgreen & Dragset’s stack of art shipping boxes with wrecked versions of Koons and Hirst works spilling out of them, a supposed joke on the art market crash. Upstairs at the Rubells were sober Barbara Krugers and Louise Lawlers. The next time some fool academic tries to argue that Lawler "critiques the codes and conventions of art display" in some anti-capitalist way, just think of the Rubells showing off her photos of their trophies as a trophy.

At any rate, that exhibition made me think that what is really lacking is definitely not ironic commentary on the art world, but some kind of meaningful attachment to the real, non-art world. Maybe Powhida’s next series will be about the state of the public schools.

In the end, though, there is no ultimate guarantee that even serious content can serve as a firewall against cooptation. Without a doubt, the works that stay with me the most are the amazing photos on view at the Margulies Collection warehouse space. It was a wildly eclectic show, though it contained a lot of the same product as the collections of the other Miami barons (a Jason Rhoades much like the Jason Rhoades at the Rubells; a Bill Viola video that was the same as the Bill Viola video showcased at the Cisneros Fontanals collection; etc.). Special attention, however, was lavished on Marty Margulies’ deep photography holdings, starting with one entire wall devoted to works by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and the FSA gang from the 1930s. There is something odd about showing such works as decontextualized trophies, a fact tacitly acknowledged by the way that these photos, unlike the racy, baffling contemporary art works on view, were accompanied by paragraph-long didactic texts, to ground them in some sense of reality. I spent a long while in front of a grid of Danny Lyon’s 1968 images of Texas prison life, moved by their mixture sobriety and empathy.

If you had to ask me the best thing I saw in Miami. . . I would say that it was the close-up magic of the amazing Mark Mitton, world-class magician who had been flown in from NYC to perform at some special events for the weekend! Seriously, if you ever get a chance, go see Mark Mitton. Very few artists are as good at their craft as Mark is at what he does. He has some interesting things to say about art too.

If you asked me to pick an actual piece of art, I would have to go with a project that I stumbled upon, by chance, in the garden café across from the Convention Center. In the botanical gardens, an artwork had been set up for ABMB in a small alcove by Brazil’s Galeria Nara Roesler. The work, by Cao Guimarães (b. 1965) is titled Nanophany. Run on a three-minute loop, it consists of fleeting clips of soap bubbles, each one captured pretty much at the instant of its bursting, as it collapses in on itself. These images alternate with close-ups of flies, at the instant that they take off and dart out of the frame. An esthetic woven of minute, almost subliminal observations, it was perfect for the art fairs, where you have to uncover treasures hidden in corners and in unexpected places.

And finally, speaking of bubbles bursting. . . As the big fair closed up shop Sunday night, the dealers tallied their successes, the Miami crowds filed out, and I headed out towards the beach to clear my head. There I stumbled, by happy coincidence, on Karmelo Bermejo’s closing night performance, The Grand Finale.  A handful of people waited in the darkness, with the waves moving in the background. The artist puttered around in the darkness, as the crowd became restless. At last, the stunt came off, a fuse was lit, and enormous letters reading "RECESSION" caught fire, burning briefly, and then quickly fizzling out, to scattered cheers on the beach.

It was hard to know what exactly people were cheering; the spirit was neither critique nor celebration, but some undecided other thing. Bermejo’s piece captured a mood of the fairs in 2009, strung out between empty spectacle and an easy cynicism, but with sparks of ambiguous profundity snatched from in between.

BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine. He can be reached at Send Email