Sunday Reflections: Miami Art Basel

Sunday Reflections: Miami Art Basel

December 09, 2019

On Sundays I reflect.

I didn’t drink alcohol this week. Miami is a weird place to be sober.

This is my third time attending Miami Art Week, better know by the name of the main event; Art Basel. In addition to Basel there are at least another dozen major shows, along with more pop up galleries than you could count and endless art happening in every corner of the city. 

It’s been a non stop week. If you’ve never been down here during Art Week, it’s unlike any other experience I’ve had. No two years have been the same for me, and I’m starting to get a grasp on the insanity.

Major thanks to my brother and his roommate Uri for opening their incredible apartment to me. Waking up on the 20th floor every morning to have my tea on their wraparound balcony overlooking South Beach is a dream, and I’m so grateful for their hospitality.


I arrived Tuesday night and met my brother for tacos after dropping my bags at his place. J showed up in a suit looking fly as hell, to contrast my more casual “artist chic” look. After a quick bite we attended the grand opening party of the Rubell collections new location. Dior sponsored the party so waking in felt like an outdoor nightclub taking up a full city block. They had dueling DJs across the lot from each other, spanning the size of what felt like a football field with every inch of the walls painted. Once inside we viewed one of the most unique art collections on the planet, most of which I was not particularly interested in. As we entered we saw down a very long hallway an enormous Keith Haring centered at the end hundreds of feet away from us. We came to discover an entire room dedicated to Haring’s work, and it was not a small room. I think this was the most impressive room of art I’ve ever been in. I would need days to digest the work fully, but we did our best in the hour or so we spent at the event.


Wednesday I spent bouncing around Wynwood. I linked with a collector friend of mine and took a few laps around the rapidly developing arts district, visiting pop up shows and galleries. It’s hard to explain this to someone who hasn’t been, but it’s one of the most over stimulating experiences of my life. It would be impossible to take everything in so I did my best and hit some blocks multiple times. The energy surrounding this space during this week every year is explosive and the streets are full of artists and celebrities, blending in with everyday people. I bumped into Wizard Skull and Chris Dyer just to name of few artists who have influenced me and who were completely down to earth. I also got to link with my homie Don Mega who tagged my studio. He helped produce an event with Cake Collective out of Chicago in Wynwood during Art Week.

Wizard Skull and I

Over the course of the week I attended Art Basel, SCOPE, Aqua, Prizm, and Design Miami art shows. I skipped some shows I’ve done in prior years like Art Miami and Context and I didn’t have time for a few shows I’ve wanted to attend including NADA and Untitled. At this point the shows have become repetitive to me, though with some effort I’ve been able to find some art that makes it worthwhile. Design Miami was the highlight for me this year, featuring handmade furniture and home decor. I came across a metal table some friends of mine fabricated, as well as some South African hanging chairs I loved. I saw a sound healing happen in a geo-dome which was by far the most interesting location I’ve ever seen that hosted (in the middle of the convention). My friends from Skye Gallery in Aspen had one of the most unique booths I saw all week at Aqua. Spencer Hansen creates characters and masks from old Japanese boats and upcycled vintage furs. The creatures range from teddy bear size up to “lifesize.”


I saw a banana duct taped to a wall and people lining up to take pictures with the $120,000 object (which sold, and was subsequently eaten off the wall). An entire security team was added to keep people from stopping in front of the banana, the most talked about piece of art of the year.


Let me tell you a little story about bananas. When I was a kid, I did not like bananas. I did like banana flavored runts. Once I got to college, I developed an appreciation for the fruit, which I consider to be one of the easiest to eat on the go. I’ve eaten a banana almost every day since then. When I lived in New York I was living on my friend’s (and some stranger’s couches) and I couldn’t even afford the train tickets to work at the studio on Long Island nor band practice in Brooklyn. I walked and ran instead of using the subway to save $2.50 each time I had to go somewhere. Every morning I got a large iced coffee and a banana on my way. The fruit stand at the corner had bananas for a quarter, which I often borrowed from my friend Yoni’s change jar. I could not afford to spend twenty five cents on a banana most days in 2014.

It can be frustrating to see the way people behave in a setting like this. I represent artists who pour their heart and soul into pieces that consumers balk at when I tell them the price (usually under $1,000). I watched people spend this much money on single meals this week, and of course on “Art” in the form of a banana duct taped to a wall for $120,000. We’re talking about a derivation of a Warhol piece (the banana) being sold for more money than most people make in a full year, and of course today’s “homage to the banana” would be rotten on the new owner’s wall within days or weeks. It can be discouraging.

Keith Haring might be my favorite artist of all time. He created his art in public spaces, most notably in NYC subway stations. It is my understanding that this decision was an act of defiance before “street art” was a thing. He believed that art was not only for the elite, who could afford to spend $120,000 on a banana but for everyone regardless of age, race, nationality, sexual identity, HIV status, or any identity. He created his art in public spaces so that everyone could enjoy it. He didn’t overly complicate the work and his messages were very bluntly written into his work which featured images of hearts and people embracing each other among other subject matter. As he rose in fame, he stayed committed to providing art to neighborhoods and schools that were not “elite” and despite the high price on his work, he gave out hand drawn cards to people as gifts often. His work was not inaccessible. 


Put yourself in the position of your favorite artist for a moment; someone successful like Keith Haring. Imagine if your art became so valuable that you and your friends couldn’t afford it. Imagine being forced to interact with people who waste more money than you make in a year or ten, and telling them thank you for supporting you as you watch them purchase a banana taped to the drywall. Imagine having to hide your true self to appease these people, knowing that if you don’t play their game you might not eat again for a few days and paying rent would be out of the question.

So a lot of people talk shit on these shows and the “joke” that is the art world. Many suggest that it’s all just one big money laundering machine, and it might be. Maybe it is only for the 1% who can afford to enjoy it at any expense. Maybe it’s too sophisticated for the masses to access, as the question driving the industry remains “how can I get the most money for doing the least amount of work?” Or maybe public art and street art like in wynwood captures the zeitgeist of our time. 

Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes? The king who had everything money could buy, was then tricked into wearing no clothes after demanding the most exclusive outfit known to man.

Maybe the banana was just a publicity stunt for attention. What’s $120,000 to the 1%? What’s $120,000 to you? For me, $120,000 would change my entire life. I would be able to pay off my entire debt. I would be able to buy drinkware from artists who are struggling to feed their families. I would be able to feed myself for a year. I would be able to purchase virtually every tool I need to operate my studio, including a drill because the one I had went missing. I can’t afford a fucking drill. The one I had was on loan from a friend because when we started building my studio he had two and realized it was something I would need to have around. If I could afford to buy one I might duct tape it to a wall and try to sell it for $120,000. That might require more duct tape than the banana, but at least it wouldn’t rot. Obviously my next purchase is a drill.

I feel the need to contextualize the banana, mentioning Andy Warhol’s vision to make the mundane into art. His art featured images so recognizable and simple that he believed everyone could relate to them. This included a Campbell’s soup can, Marilyn Monroe’s face, and of course a banana.

I remember a few years ago at my first Miami Art Week, I was wearing a hand me down hoodie that zipped over my face with a pair of holes for my eyes to see through. I walked around the conventions “zipped up” and posed in front of art while my friends took photos. Upon seeing this, crowds of people gathered and photographed me, thinking it was some kind of intentional performance art piece. It became unclear what the art was, between my performance and the items I stood next to and in front of.

Before I keep rambling, I want you to think about what art means to you. Is there a piece or an artist that has changed your life? How so? Do you care about art? Have you ever bought a piece of art? Have you ever been to an artist’s studio and experienced their process? Are you the kind of person that tells artists “you should just make this” insinuating you might give them money if they just did what you wanted?


Is it still art if it’s just made for the paycheck? Is it only art if the artist is starving? Will my art suffer if I achieve success? Will I lose touch with reality if I get past the struggle and find creature comforts comparable to a roof over my head and food in the fridge?

Our society is obsessed with consumption. We can’t ever get enough. We had to have people come up with machines to make more stuff faster just so we can buy it. There is a growing concern about the planet and waste. I believe that when people start placing value and appreciation on handmade artisanal objects rather than paying the machine to make things for you, we will experience a shift in how humans coexist with our planet.



And so these are the kinds of things that keep me up at night after the long days of art exploration and the long nights of dancing. Despite the fact that this was a work trip and that I have virtually no work/life balance, and speaking of dancing, I was able to fit in a few parties this week that I need to mention. My favorite club was a place in Miami that closed this year called the Electric Pickle. Favorite club is a strong term for a person who doesn’t like clubs in general, but the Pickle was unlike any other. My favorite DJs are a duo called Soul Clap (Eli and Charlie). I’ve seen them around the country, and nothing compares to the dance parties they throw. I spent both Wednesday and Thursday nights from about midnight to six a.m. dancing with Soul Clap and friends completely sober and it was an absolute blast. I used to be unable to have fun in a social setting without drinking, and I spent a lot of energy worrying about other people around me. Recently in my sobriety I’ve been able to just dance and listen to the music in these settings. You’ll find me and my terrible dance moves in the middle of the floor, and I’ll have a smile from ear to ear.

Thursday night’s dance party was at a new club ATV Records from the people who brought us the electric pickle. The decor carried over, and the new spot has a lovely outdoor area for cooling down between dancing. They even brought the spaceship disco ball for the center of the room to keep the vibe.

While that party was an absolute blast it was nothing compared to Wednesday night’s party which I didn’t even know about until I was on my way there. A few Burning Man camps booked a venue a bit outside the city and created a fully interactive art show featuring three stages in what felt like a mini one night festival. Soul Clap had a stage the entire night and I’ve never had so much fun dancing by myself. None of my friends came with me, and I couldn’t have cared less. I made some new friends and I enjoyed myself.

I met a girl at Wednesday’s party and she told me about her various hustles. I bluntly asked her how much money she would need to stop hustling, as I pondered the question myself. She told me she wouldn’t take a job paying less than $60,000 a year, half the price of that god damned banana.


On my last night I was taken to the Fountainhead collection at a private residence for the third year in a row. This is a party hosted by folks who support the arts in many ways, primarily through their artist in residence program. The whole house is a living piece of art, always evolving. They own the house across the street where they host artists providing them a space to create with no financial concerns. The party is almost exclusively artists along with some gallerists and collectors. They feed us pizza and beer. This party is consistently a place where I encounter people full of gratitude for the family hosting us. It was nice to just be there for an hour or two and remember that people like them and the Rubell's have dedicated their lives to supporting artists. It’s people like these who provide a light at the end of the tunnel, and remind me that not everyone in the scene are buying bananas just to flex their cash.

This has been an extremely difficult reflection to write. I began writing at 3:30 am on my brothers couch in Miami. I continued on the plane at 6:30 am waiting for take off. I finished in the hotel restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in Denver waiting for a client to wake up and drive me to Vail. This week was way too much for me to cover in its entirety, so this essay will simply be a glimpse into my exhausted brain.


Today I get to hang out with one of my favorite collectors and his girl (when they wake up). It will be my first time showing them my studio, as he’s had to cancel his trips to my Vail Cup Collectors Club both of the last two years last minute. He says this year it’s happening no matter what, and we’ll get to take laps together on Vail. I cherish the time we get to spend together, as we’ve become friends over the last few years of serving as his drinkware broker. What started out with the delivery of a mug made by Stephan Peirce and Rye to LA and an afternoon by the pool of a Beverly Hills hotel, has turned into a great friendship and a collector who not only employs my services as a broker but also collects my art. He may have the most expensive collection of my personal art. I struggle daily with the balance between being a broker and being an artist. This collector is single handedly responsible for allowing me the privilege to create more of my own art work than any other person has afforded me, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I’m sometimes so intimidated by my perfectionist tendencies that I can’t even bring myself to start a project out of fear of failure. Matty loves every flaw and every maker’s mark in everything that I make, and he gives me the assurance I need to keep going. This is a gift far greater than the money I earn when I sell him my art. I always send him pictures of my work before anyone else, and it brings me such a sense of excitement to share with him because of how much he appreciates my work.


I don’t have a cupdate for you right now, because my brain is too fried.

This week was bananas!
Ben



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