Looking for the Political at Art Basel

0 Posted by - December 19, 2011 - Blog, Editorial, Installations, Performance, Public art, Reviews, Visual art

The politics at Art Basel, one of the largest contemporary art exhibitions in the US, may be hard to find, but they’re there for those who know where to look.  On December 4th Karen Rosenberg wrote an article in the New York Times (entitled “Art Basel: Business Over Activism”) highlighting the lack of political art at Art Basel.  The only exception was mention of Andrea Bowers and Olga Koumoundouros’ work “Transformer Display of Community Information and Activism,” which Rosenberg gave a brief, three-sentence nod.

I agree with Rosenberg’s basic premise, and as I more or less ranted in my blog, consumption appears to be the primary lens and motive for the festival.  Overall, it struck me as such a convincing performance of upper class privilege and aggressive interaction that the whole festival should have been labeled its own performance piece.

However, I also think that Rosenberg should have looked beyond the convention center proper where artists like Bowers, Kounoundouros and others were showing their more politically engaged work – still part of the official Art Basel program – and deserving more consideration and context.  The artists whose work is more deserving of attention include Paulo Nazareth, Andrea Bowers, Olga Koumoundouros, Love Yourself, and Jason Florio.

Paulo Nazareth at 2011 Art Basel, Miami Beach, FL

On the Program

Paulo’s work, captioned as “VW full of bananas” was a complex, multimedia consideration of issues of historical violence (specifically the Guatemalan civil war, often elided in general historical consciousness), migration and immigration (bearing the soil of Guatemala, Texas and Mexico on his feet and in wooden cutouts of the countries’ borders, and recreating news articles about migration and border issues), and representation (embodying Otherness and including photos of himself as both invisible and exotic indigenous other).  His combination of drawing, photography, vegetation, earth, and installation created a jarring environment where one feels the literal accumulation of signs and things that emerge in a global environment, but also is forced to see, to some degree, the human beings who are given short shrift in dominant political organizations and media outlets.  His willingness to engage the viewer and explain every piece evinced a dedication to context absent from many of the works.  Importantly, it was in the Art Positions section of the convention center nestled among  work that Rosenberg condemned as “unpolitical.” More of his work can be found at www.mendeswood.com.

Andrea Bowers and Olga Koumoundouros:

Andrea and Olga’s work takes the viewer by surprise as one walks to the beach, suddenly  a series of cabinets, tables, a shack and a billboard emerge, behind manicured lawns, fancy hotels and frantic parking lots.  On a plot of sand the piece looks like it was flung down by a tornado, and in a sense it was.  The product of several months of preparation and communication, and the site of ongoing events and discussions it is political in the most basic sense as being a place that is continually contested.    The piece is basically an information center for local Miami activist organizations that the two artists made contact with, and so the installation was an information clearing house, a location for community activism, and a representation and miniature archive of activism.  It changes with every iteration, based on its locale, because as Andrea persuasively noted: “With these art festivals we often drop in on a city, look only at the art, and suddenly leave.  I want to know what the issues are, who the activists are here, what the culture is.”

Andrea explained that the work functions as an institutional critique of the convention proper, but that it is not based on agitation and aggression, but on inclusivity and celebration.  However, this distinction was ignored by some festival planners who were anxious about the piece.  What was most surprising, difficult, and generative for her, she noted, was “getting to know the neighbors,” learning to share the space with local people who use that plot of sand by the beach in their everyday lives, and so having to make the piece responsive and relevant for them.

They had danishes, coffee and the reading of the newspaper every morning, which made me think of a kind of 18th century Salon, however, the assembly of this morning ritual was, like all kinds of activism, improvised:  Chris, the guard, would brew coffee, Olga would get ice…voluntarism and potential failure lurk at every turn.

It also was a site for protest.  Saturday night a DREAM act rally was held by one of the organizations, they had a performance on Thursday, the Umoja Village held a kind of Occupy rally another night.  The laptop with information and photographs of the events was stolen.  All of it is part of the life of activism Andrea said.  What occurred at the site was a discussion of local issues but “everything local has global application” and the populations of Miami “bring culture, amazing culture.”  This installation created a little polis, a political home based on locality and specificity to an art festival based largely on abstraction and global art market prices.

Off the Program

Wynwood Walls:

The Wynwood Walls, a project related to neighborhood revitalization in Overtown, a primarily black and Haitain neighborhood ravaged by urban development schemes that involved cutting across the community with two highways in the 1960s, for better or for worse substantively change the image of Overtown from depressed urban margin to vibrant cultural center.  The Walls include mural, wheat pasting, and multiple media works on walls adjacent to Wynwood Kitchen, curated by Jeffery Deitz and painted by well-known street and graffiti artists such as Aiko, Ava, The Date Farmers, Faile/Bast, Futura, How & Nosm, Invader, Jeff Soto, Kenny Scharf, Liqen, Logan Hicks, Nunca, Os Gemeos, Retna, Roa, Ron English, Ryan McGinness, Saner & Sego, Shepard Fairey, and Stelios Faitakais.  During Art Basel book signings and boozing was held there, along with an ongoing screening of the documentary about the creation of the walls every night.  Footage available at www.theregoestheneighborhood.com.

Love Yourself:

A New York City based project by a collective of artists based on promoting self-love through art making, performance, and collective gatherings, “Love Yourself” had a booth in a small garage space sponsored by a music station.  At the booth one could make an origami heart which enclosed a phrase the participant had written about why they loved themselves, look at information, and buy t shirts.  Find information at www.loveyouselfproject.net

Jason Florio: Smiles Find No Boundaries- On the Burmese Border

Jason Florio, a New York based photographer had a series of poster sized photographic portraits of Burmese people living in an over 50 year border war.  Crucially these were not pleading, wide eyed, big-bellied disaster photography children but rather dignified and often levity-filled portraits of survival, humanity, and agency.  The most striking, of a band of musicians with landmine inflicted injuries showed them holding their instruments with the relaxed competence of someone who finds the instrument an extension of their own self, and smiling.  Jason explained to me that he was tired of “misery tourism” and found living and working with his photographic subjects that many are “more well adjusted than people here.” The project is also based on sound: it is a East-West music remix program where Burmese musicians remix U.S. music and send it back, and vice versa.  His work can be seen at his website.

These are just a small selection of some works that I was lucky enough to stumble across—what the Times article suggests is both a expectation that art is context-less and politically agnostic, and a kind of defeatism.  What I found instead was an emergent, contested, and energetic art scene that offers room for hope.


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