The year might be coming to a close, but in Miami 2017 ended in a writhing mass of beauty, terror, political fury, artistic serenity and, of course, an insane amount of money changing hands. How else could anyone sum up Art Basel, one of the world’s largest art festivals. As Eric Minh Swenson at HuffPost put it, Art Basel is “where the Museums come to shop.” It’s also where some of the art world’s biggest spenders come to stock up on new additions to their collections. As for the artists themselves – well let’s just say you never quite know what to expect at Art Basel. One moment, you might be admiring some delicate sculpture; the next, a few toilet bowls suspended a few feet from the floor, or a painting of Ronald Reagan vomiting everywhere. You never know what’s around the next corner, and that’s the beauty of it.
What Just Happened?
Despite its current degree of pomp and eclectic grandeur, Art Basel Miami actually started from humble beginnings. In 2002, Switzerland’s biggest art festival in Basel was looking for an event to wrap up the year on a high note. A relatively small satellite festival was organized for Miami. At first, this end of year event was mostly just a taste tester aimed at whetting the art world’s appetite ahead of the following year’s main festival in Switzerland.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and Art Basel Miami is today easily the most notable annual art festival anywhere in the Americas. An estimated 82,000 people attended this year. To illustrate Art Basel’s explosive growth, in 2015 attendance was closer to 77,000. Over that time, the festival has garnered a controversial reputation. On one hand, it’s often seen by Miami locals as excessively elitist; indeed, the festival can feel like a grocery store for the richest of the rich collectors, and investors eager to snap up works from the next up and coming artists before they hit their peak value. Small fortunes change hands, artists are made, destroyed, enriched and rejected.
Art Meets Technology
This year though, the classic confusion and insanity of previous events was noticeably toned down and focused. If Art Basel Miami 2017 could be summed up succinctly, it’d be something along the lines of art-meets-tech.
“For the core of the art world, most digital art seemed overly enamored with its own technology, and often felt conceptually lightweight,” global director of Art Basel, Marc Spiegler recently argued in a CNN editorial.
That’s something many artists at this year’s event seemed determined to change, and the question of how to integrate emerging technology with art was one that came up time and time again.
That question reminds me of a Far Side cartoon where two cavemen artists are standing in front of their cave drawings and they look over at another caveman who’s painting on a canvas and easel,” artist Brian Bress told Los Angeles Confidential.
“One cavemen artist says to the other, “Sure, it’s cool, but is it art?” There are no lines,” he said.
One example of this was the eye-catching display put on by Dutch artists Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta. Late night visitors to Miami beach would have been surprised to see hundreds of drones rising over the shoreline. Against the inky night sky, they glowed as they danced in an arching formation. Cynically dubbed “Franchise Freedom,” the display was nonetheless awe-inspiring. The 300 drones appeared to imitate a flock of migrating birds, swirling and dancing in a sophisticated pattern that was as much a mathematical beauty as it was an aesthetic delight.
Art Basel Miami takes place every December. More information about the next festival can be found here.