I think there is a subconscious reason why Art Basel began hosting a secondary fair in Miami Beach nine years ago. Given that it is a winter event, Miami certainly had a huge draw due to its temperature range (hot and hotter), not to mention the long beaches, vibrant nightlife, and almost decadent Cuban coffee that would be welcome respites after a long day at the fair. I think there was something else though, something so obvious that people probably didn’t even recognize the connection….neon lights.
I didn’t notice it at first, but it became blaringly obvious last night when we pulled up at the Pelican Club to meet David Bailey, the interim director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas, and were bathed in a sea of neon lights that were affixed to the facades of all of the art deco hotels along Ocean Drive as soon as we got out of the cab. There was something oddly familiar about these lights.
Their acidic, artificial color provoked a moment of déjà vu. All of the sudden I was transported back to the Miami Beach Convention center where Art Basel is held. I had seen neon lights there too! In fact both Andrew, another Nasher Museum intern, and I had noticed that several booths in the fair and a considerable number of the private collections we visited had neon lettered works on display. The text of these light-tube signs varied from love to social and political commentary but their color and piercing luminosity was exactly the same as the famed bright lights of South Beach. No wonder Art Basel Miami Beach and contemporary art have thrived in this city; people have been coming to see the lights and the chaotic exoticism that comes with them for years. Why then wouldn’t people flock to the city to see this beloved vibrancy in the form of extraordinary and thought provoking art?
There is another category of lights in Miami–those of the flashing variety. By this I mean the taillights of the car that has slammed on its breaks in front of you and the out-of-commission stoplights that dot the city grid. I was fortunate enough to procure a car for the week from my mother so that I could easily travel around the city. The car, while larger than any car should ever be (it’s a Toyota Sequoia), proved extremely useful. It gave us a freedom to visit private collections and museums around the city that other fair goers shied away from because of the hefty cab fare it took to reach them.
What shocked us all, though, was the actual driving experience. The streets were overly crowded with a mix of natives traveling to and from work and an overwhelming sea of cabs. What they all had in common was the most charged case of road rage I have ever seen. I don’t think I have ever been honked at or aggressively swerved around as much as I have in the past three days! It’s almost as if they expected that I would be willing to defy all odds and drive across any street of oncoming traffic simply because my car looked like a tank compared to theirs. There were certainly a few tight squeezes and moments of pure terror but the car and all of its passengers made it through the trip unscathed, although I have vowed never to drive in Miami again!
The moral of the story here is that while driving in Miami is definitely not on my list of favorite things to do, it was completely worth it because we not only got to see the wonders of the fair proper, but also the art gems, like World Class Boxing, The Rubell Family Collection, The Margulies Collection, The Bass Museum of Art and The Miami Art Museum, that certainly enriched our experience. In the end it was the lights that tied it all together. We followed the neon for enjoyment and braved the flashing for adventure and further mental saturation.
Image: Jason Rhoades, “Untitled (Chandelier)” (2004), the Rubell Family Collection. Photo by Laura Pierce.