High Crass

Scott Rothkopf on events in Miami


On the left: Artforum editor Scott Rothkopf talks with Yoko Ono. On the right: A Miamian.

Day two of the art fair began with a phone call from Yoko Ono. “Hello,” I said tentatively, picking up the receiver. “Hello,” she replied. With the easy part behind us, we talked about the weather. “Is it warm in Miami?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered. “And sunny.” I couldn’t believe it—not that I was actually chatting with Yoko, but that the conversation was virtually indistinguishable from one I might have had with my grandmother. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, though, since she had absolutely no idea who had answered the ringing phone of her Talking Sculpture, perched on a table at an event celebrating the release of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s appealing exhibition catalogue-cum-artist’s book, do it. And, more to the point, just about all the other, live panel participants had practically phoned in their contributions, too.

But who could blame them? At this sort of event—and at Basel Miami there were many of them—short and sweet was the name of the game. And, besides, the invitation to the 11:30 AM book launch promised cocktails. The sooner it was over, the sooner we could get to the next panel, the next opening, the next glass of chardonnay. I shouldn’t be so cynical. After all, the panel offered a certain madcap fun, and it was events like these that gave one an excuse to commingle with immensely talented artists and curators in immensely beautiful surroundings, often with immensely beautiful (or, at the very least, beautifully dressed) people. Who wouldn’t, myself included, spend a few minutes on a panel in exchange for a trip to Miami, courtesy—as we were repeatedly reminded—of sponsor Bulgari’s extraordinary largesse? Still, something about the series of “Art Basel Conversations,” which would officially begin later that day, was already beginning to rub me the wrong way.

The real series premiere took place Thursday night at “Conversation Stream—Experimental Artist Q & A,” a red-carpet-style event in the burgeoning Design District’s historic Moore Building, which was kitted out for the occasion with more velvet ropes and bouncers than opening night at The Producers. At first it seemed heartening, if difficult to imagine, that the stars that night were artists, rather than peripatetic “locals” like Shaq or J. Lo (the latter’s Miami manse was pointed out to me more than once by cabbies swelling with civic pride and tawdry tales of a four-thousand-dollar waxing spree at the Mandarin Oriental). Once I managed to hustle my way inside, however, it seemed that the bulk of the security budget was directed toward protecting a row of Plexiglas cases, each containing spot-lit and sparkling Bulgari jewels and each ostentatiously appointed with its own impassive guard. At one end of the space stood a low stage and at the other, of course, stood a bar. Between them, row after row of well-heeled collector types squeezed onto plastic chaise lounges, translucent Philippe Starck chairs, and enormous inflatable rubber balls, while waiters in sailor suits circulated colorful cocktails.

On the left: One of the Bulgari displays, complete with two armed guards. On the right: Panel moderator (and Artforum contributing editor) Daniel Birnbaum and artist Janet Cardiff.

Around 9:30, an all-star cast of artists took the stage, including (in order of appearance) Janet Cardiff, Jenny Holzer, Liam Gillick, Ernesto Neto, Trisha Donnelly, and Jeff Koons. Artforum’s own Daniel Birnbaum gamely served as moderator, or as he put it, “manager of chance.” One by one, he pulled questions at random from a box:

“Jenny, should art be political?”

“Janet, who is responsible for art?”

“Jeff, can art be original?”

One waited in vain for him to ask, “Trisha, what is the meaning of life?” But even with such weighty questions on the table, no real “conversation” took place, since the event’s organizers kept a lid on the pontificating by providing an enormous timer to ensure that no response exceeded a minute. As the seconds ticked by, some artists mustered earnest replies, but the crowd demonstrated a marked preference for the saucy numbers, laughing loudly when Cardiff replied to a question about the importance of location by remarking that it’s “pretty important when you’re having sex,” and when Neto fielded the perennial “does size matter” stumper by commenting, “big size, small size, it depends on how you do it.” Only Koons seemed somehow above the fray, buoyed by irrepressible optimism and two decades spent disavowing any personal ambition toward “critique.” Amid the sparkle of photographers’ flashes and Bulgari rocks, it was clearer than ever that he understands the collecting class the way Boucher understood Pompadour.