Pop Art

(Originally published on MOLI, 12/6/7)

“Thanks for the company! It gets so lonely at these ‘art shows.’” So joked Iggy Pop as he cleared ’bout a hundred fans off the stage that had been pitched by the sea for the opening concert of Art Basel Miami Beach Wednesday. It wasn’t “the burning sands” — not at 10 p.m. this time of year — but that didn’t stop Miami’s most legendary punk rock resident from performing his signature tune with those lyrics, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,’’ not once but twice. It was the first time the skinny 60-year-old had played a public concert in his adopted hometown since he moved here in the early ’90s. For the grand occasion, he not only performed for free (that is, tickets were free; I’m sure the Swiss art fair paid Mr. Pop a handsome sum); he brought the Stooges with him.

It was a propitiously over-the-top start to the annual week of conspicuous spending on crazy amounts of art. In six years, Basel has sprawled out from its MB Convention Center digs to take over diverse parts of Dade County, from the shipping containers and skateboard ramp of the Art Positions show, next to which Pop performed, to warehouses in Wynwood. In a town that likes to make a scene, it is the scene to end all scenes. At the Basel Vernissage, people dressed to, well, something: Alongside the suits staring perplexedly at the pregnant Mona Lisa with the fetus shown in her cutaway stomach strolled a man with full Geico chimp makeup and tail (perhaps he has a nose for art?), a woman with film rolled into her bouffant, and a man in a SS-looking uniform arm in arm with a man in a dress.

With so many satellite shows generally featuring art’s next generation, the official event has almost become beside the point. Still, there’s always something to remark on at Basel. Two buzz pieces this year are installations: A replica market fills ShanghART’s space. But artist Xu Zhen dumped the contents out of all the packages, filled them with air, and resealed them: The empty containers are now art pieces for sale (talk about a metaphor). Another booth is a crammed schoolroom converted into a voting booth, with a junk-strewn alley outside.

Over at the always interesting Pulse show in Wynwood, artmakers themselves are on exhibit. The Geisai show-within-a-show-within-a-show gathers artists from around the world who do not have gallery representation. So Masamitsu Katsu from Japan can explain to you that the undulating paper that looks like Ellsworth Kelly in a black phase is something more interesting: a dense drawing made entirely with pencils.

I’m a Baselmaniac. Even when all the Eurotrash pulling up in limos in front of down-and-out Miami schoolchildren make me apoplectic, I love the art. Sometimes I like it when it makes me look aside from all the ugliness in the world: Zadok Ben David’s box of little stainless-steel flower silhouettes, with their colorful sides reflected off a backing mirror, enchanted me at Pulse (and netted Miami’s Ambrosino Gallery $31,000 from someone much richer than I).

And sometimes I thank it for making us look at what we would brush aside. In the middle of the convention center, there’s a photo of the aftermath of an attack on a building in a nameless Mideast city. The contrast between the stormtrooper garb of the US servicemen and the checked Kafiyahs of the civilians is so surreal, I thought it was a posed tableau at first, until I looked closely at the bodies sprawled on the floor — and the woman holding a limp child. The Dreadful Details, the photo is called, and I was so upset, I left before I could note the gallery or artist.

Outside, Pop was having a real cool time with the Florida fans who were finally getting their pound of his flesh. Basel director Samuel Keller weaved through the audience; this is his last year running the festival he has made an outsized success. “I am you,’’ the singer chanted onstage. I can’t say in a week dedicated to the art of the VIP that that’s a typical Basel sentiment. But it’s a good one.

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