Güiro: an art bar installation by Los Carpinteros in collaboration with Absolut Art Bureau, installation view, Art Basel Miami Beach, 2012
Güiro: an art bar installation by Los Carpinteros in collaboration with Absolut Art Bureau, installation view, Art Basel Miami Beach, 2012

ART BASEL MIAMI Beach is the winter destination for the art world’s global players, who descend on the city for what is essentially a high-end popup shop the scale of the Burj Khalifa. It is a place where the art world can come together in one place for a short length of time with the aim to deal in the business of art, on the beach. But despite its reputation as Art Basel’s “party fair,” this year’s was a staid affair: a signal of the fair’s growing maturity, some said, considering this was ABMB’s eleventh year.

Indeed, since the fair’s inception, the city of Miami has changed considerably; there are arts districts, museums, foundations and collections, as well as over 25 satellite art fairs, including Miami’s older fair, Art Miami, which has since fallen into ABMB’s shadow. But how can you compete with an art fair that has been, since its inception, been sponsored by UBS, which itself has been in partnership with Art Basel proper since 1994? Absolut Vodka is also a prominent fair sponsor, a collaboration inaugurated in 2012 with Absolut Art Bureau as Associate Sponsor and Presenting Partner of Art Basel Conversations for the next three years.

For this year’s ABMB, Absolut commissioned Cuban-born duo Los Carpinteros to build an art bar installation, The Güiro, named after a traditional Cuban percussion instrument, to compete as one of the myriad gathering spaces and sponsored events that crop up annually around Miami’s South Beach during this week-long liaison. It was a simple, beautifully constructed wooden domed structure inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: a prison roundhouse designed so the prison guard can see all inmates by positioning himself at the center of the structure. It was apparently inspired by the Presidio Modelo in Cuba, built under the presidency-turned-dictatorship of Gerardo Machado (1926-1928). This was an interesting reference to make within the context of the art fair, a verifiable social spectacle contained within a very specific model. It was like a microcosm of ABMB itself: A social, transactional platform in which questions of society and institution, control, production, the market, labor and population management are all lubricated by alcohol, advertising, and distraction. Could this nod to Bentham’s incarcerating architecture have been an underhanded comment on art fair as a Foucaultian apparatus of security in which the circulation of goods and people are managed within a controlled, market-valued space? Perhaps.

For Holland Cotter of The New York Times describing Frieze New York 2012, art fairs in general create an “engulfing phenomenon” that produce a “Stockholm syndrome-like mentality.” Cotter deplored the fact that people would prefer to attend such events than to explore the art of the world (not the art world per se) for themselves: “But the fairs say: don’t bother. We’ll do the editing. We have what you need.” For Cotter, the art fair essentially becomes a space where “the whole word passes through the filter of the culture industry.”

This view recalls Paul Werner’s critique on the rise of the Guggenheim as a global brand. In this, the Gehrydesigned Guggenheim Bilbao, the museum’s first venture into establishing itself in a foreign locale, played an “ambiguous role, as art often does,” promising “alignment with international culture…” According to Werner, the Basque government’s aim in bringing the Guggenheim— and Gehry— to the region was to replace a collapsing industrial base, encourage tourism, weaken cultural and economic isolationism, and relieve political pressures for autonomy.”

Here, the Guggenheim, which currently has a site in Abu Dhabi under construction, presents an example of an exportable museum model. It is a model designed to be a global platform that employs art as a facilitator for global relations, with the ability to deliver an audience, attract patrons as well as financing institutions functioning as a key selling point. In Werner’s words: “The Guggenheim’s stated mission was no longer making art available to an audience, it was delivering ‘its’ audience to a new sponsor.” Similarly, as a reproducible space (or franchise), Art Basel operates a brand that provides the infrastructure necessary for a city to become a premier global art center and annual destination on the art world calendar. Of course, this has always set Art Basel apart, which might explain why Art Miami simply could not keep up with its competitor. Art Basel even surpassed the first modern art fair, Art Cologne (established in 1967), as the preeminent art fair dealing in modern, postwar, and contemporary art— just three years after it started in 1970, precisely because of its expansive, international focus.

And with the inaugural Art Basel Hong Kong slated for May 2013, this global expansion looks set to continue. At the Art Basel Miami Beach press conference, Art Basel Co-Director Anette Schonholzer announced her new role as Director of New Initiatives, a role created specifically to foster new connections and collaborations worldwide. Emphasis was also made on the cultural composition of Art Basel Miami Beach’s presenting galleries: roughly fifty percent from the United States and Latin America, with the rest made up of European, seven Asian, and two African galleries. Hong Kong’s line-up will be over fifty percent from Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, from Turkey, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent to Australia and New Zealand.

The increasing prominence of Art Basel is no doubt influencing how art is produced, discussed, and valued globally. This is problematic in that Art Basel, with all its power and prestige, could easily become a controlled or sanctioned space, where a specific image of what contemporary art is from a global perspective might be constructed, controlled, and inevitably monitored— like a Panopticon. Perhaps this is what Los Carpinteros was getting at with its ABMB installation. As Vadim Grigorian of Absolut Art Bureau noted, The Güiro was after all a space for artists. In this metaphor, it is people like Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker— who thought that they could do without art fairs, but in fact, cannot— who become the figurative inmates.

Indeed, when observing Frieze New York 2012,’s Ben Davis defined the art fair as the new “event-based” way art is experienced: the way art functions and relates to society. For Davis, background and foreground switch places here: objects become secondary to the social nature of the event itself. It is networked cultures in practice; a culture we in the art world know well. Even still, despite the dominance of such a culture, it is the people who define how, why, and for what purposes a space works.

By way of example, Creative Director of Vitamin Creative Space, Hu Fang, chooses to look at the art fair as a social space that can be molded and adapted. Approaching its participation in art fairs as projects, complete with title and concept, at Miami it was: “Contemplate Shanshui—Sunny after Snow—The Great Visionary Transformation,” named after individual works by featured artists Zheng Guogu and Hao Liang. Here, Zheng’s New York Night Landscape No.2 (2009), a painted street scene evoking Hopper and Rauschenberg stenciled over in thick paint with advertisements taken from Chinese magazines, was a visual metaphor. It visualized cross-cultural interactions between artistic movements informed by similar material concerns and divergent cultural references and perspectives.

Considering this, it will be interesting to watch how Art Basel— a Western institution— navigates its presence in Hong Kong, and how local practices will respond. In the end, perhaps it is a case of the inmates turning their gaze on the central power structure itself.