Puppet Preview

Scott Rothkopf at Art Basel Miami Beach


On the left, a White Cube director speaks with visitors about a new Marc Quinn sculpture; on the right, New York gallerist Michele Maccarone.

In a cab from the Miami airport on Wednesday, I got a call from a savvy collector who suggested in not so many words that the art fair was all but over—before it had even begun. And judging from the diffuse energy at the vernissage that night, the prognosis seemed fairly accurate. By that time, any collector worth his fleur de sel had already breezed through the fair, and not during Wednesday’s afternoon “First Choice” preview either. Clearly, “First Choice” was for latecomers only, or, as promotional materials put it, major collectors, museum directors, press, and “special” VIPs. Shopping, it turns out, was already well underway Tuesday, when gallerists handed over their exhibitor passes to favorite clients, who, one dealer grumbled, showed up before the art was even hung. Early sales reports were inevitably mixed, with some gallerists complaining activity was slower than they had hoped while others were so booth-bound they scarcely had time to visit the restroom. Whatever the case, the extended chain of previews and previews of previews may have explained why so few “special” VIPs—save Tobey Maguire, seen eyeing an Ed Ruscha at Gagosian—were spotted among the opening night throngs swilling champagne from miniature bottles inelegantly fitted with plastic funnels.

The real action, it seemed, was elsewhere—which is where the action at this fair always seems to be. For unlike Basel proper, which comes with fewer private parties and (as might be expected) poolside cabanas, the overabundance of simultaneous events in Miami induces a near-manic paranoia in clued-in visitors endlessly worried that they’re in the wrong place at the right time. While many were off at the frenzied opening of the younger NADA fair across town, a select group gathered just across the street from the Convention Center at the gates of the botanical garden for the world premiere of Dan Graham’s puppet musical Don’t Trust Anyone over 30, the culmination of a more than decade-long project adapted from Wild in the Streets, a 1968 film starring, among others, Richard Pryor.

A little after eight, the confused throng pushed into the modest garden, artificially enhanced with the glow of both theatrical lighting and the free-flowing “Smirnoff Orange Crushes” provided, like nearly everything else at this fair, by corporate sponsors set on intoxicating an art-collecting elite. If art fairs were once simply about selling art, they now seem equally about selling liquor, cars, hotels, cigars, and diamonds. And what could be a more appropriate backdrop for a puppet theatrical both lampooning and wistfully lamenting the squandered countercultural ideals of the '60s? Graham himself may have put it best in his introduction to the first performance, remarking, “I thought why not do a puppet show, where people who used to be hippies can now come with their children . . . But in fact, we don’t have that audience at all.”

On the left, Art Basel Miami Beach seen from above; on the right, Walker Art Center curator and François Pinault Foundation director Philippe Vergne with Perry Rubenstein Gallery director Sylvia Chivaratanond.

The audience we did have was a group of art-world insiders, presided over by the show’s effervescent producer, Sandra Antelo-Suarez of Trans. Packed cheek-by-jowl in the small theater were P.S.1’s Alanna Heiss and Klaus Biesenbach (the latter now also of MoMA), Phaidon publisher and collector Richard Schlagman, Walker curator (and producing partner) Richard Flood, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Chrissie Iles, and the Art Production Fund’s ever-glamorous Yvonne Force, set soon to release her own musical production in the form of a CD by her duo (with friend Sandra Hamburg), Mother Inc. “The album includes my song ‘The Real Skinny,’ which is about my weight obsession since basically third grade,” Force confided before the show. “My real goal is to do it on Oprah and then give the CDs away for free to everyone in the audience.” The crowd also contained a number of dealers linked to artists linked to the project, like the Metro Pictures crew and Marian Goodman. Goodman was improbably poised to see the second puppet show by a member of her stable in just two weeks’ time, the first having been staged by Pierre Huyghe at Harvard. With Team America still in theaters, there’s talk of an incipient puppet zeitgeist, which Obrist commented is also being explored by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Philippe Parreno, but may have been kicked off by Christian Jankowski with last year’s Puppet Conference, which brought together Lamb Chop, Grover and their ilk at the Carnegie Museum of Art. A dissertation topic for art historians, circa 2015.

After the lights dimmed, audience members took in a lengthy spectacle, with marionettes compliments of Being John Malkovich’s Phillip Huber, video projections by Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley, and original music by Rodney Graham and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. The narrative centers around Neil Sky, a twenty-four-year-old, suede-befringed, pot-smoking rocker who’s elected president on a platform of teen enfranchisement. In between stops at campaign rallies and a modernist suburban drug den by way of New Canaan, we witness video footage of intergalactic puppet love and rousing musical sets provided live by the duo Japanther, which was shoehorned—drum set and all—into a tiny aperture adjacent to the puppet stage. But just like money, youth is something that somebody’s always got more of than you do—a moral that our hero has to learn the hard way. Without knowing the '68 movie, it’s hard for me to say precisely what Graham’s puppet show adds to the equation, except, of course, dazzling visuals and appropriately avant-garde credentials, as well as—perhaps most importantly—the frisson of a presumably liberal audience watching the show unfold a quarter-century after the fact, a month after an appalling election, and an hour after a shopping spree across the street.

We adjourned from the show to the garden for an appropriately youthful and real-skinny repast of mini-hamburgers and hotdogs—all this in marked contrast to proceedings poolside at the fabled former residence of Gianni Versace (and current party palace for hire), where the private-plane-sharing firm Net Jets was in the midst of wooing clients with gallon-size martini glasses brimming with Jules Verne-worthy crustaceans and generous dollops of caviar. In Miami, the spectrum of commitment seems decidedly narrow, from radical chic to radical decadence.

Dan Graham's Don't Trust Anyone Over 30. Top left: still from a video projection. Top right: audience members Emi Fontana, Francesca von Habsburg (also a co-producer of the event), Monica Bonvicini and Romana Fabbri. Bottom: performance view.

Top left: a tour group outside of Lisbon dealer Cristina Guerra's booth. Top right: David Kordansky in front of his Art Positions container on the beach. Bottom left: Monica Manzutto of Mexico City gallery kurimanzutto and artist Christian Marclay. Bottom right: David Zwirner with his director-partners (left to right) Hanna Schouwink, Bellatrix Cochran-Hubert and Angela Choon.

Dan Graham's Don't Trust Anyone Over 30. Top left: Japanther and puppeteers. Top right: still from a video projection. Bottom: performance view.