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Miami Art Basel Through the Eyes of a Virgin Attendee

Miami Art Basel banner on a lamp post outside, on Dec 3 2011. (Photo Credit: Ray Figlewski)

It seemed to happen in a whirlwind, one minute I was walking through the grey streets of Chicago trying to protect my face by the whipping wind only to find myself six hours later on a flight to my second home.  One of those sudden explosions of opportunity that could only come from determination, circumstance and despair—I was headed to South Beach to cover Miami Art Basel, one of the largest art gatherings in the world for its final two days.

All my life I have spent my summers in Miami. Being from a Cuban family, the white beaches of southern Florida are the closest thing that I can get to the tiny forbidden island of my forefathers—an artificial Cuba.  Though typically my trips to this oasis is filled with beach naps, Cuban cuisine and societal gossip that only Cubans are capable of, this particular visit was quite different. From the moment the plane left the cold Chicago runway and I was able to calm my thoughts for a second I realized that I was not only nervous for arrival back to my second home, but I was worried.

Not only was I supposed to be covering a massive international event which includes its own distinct worries and stresses, but I was even more anxious that I would miss it. That I would be so caught up trying to get the best coverage that I would miss why thousands of people fly from all over the world to crowd the bustling South Beach streets for a week. That in the short time that I was there I would for some reason be unable to capture what is at the essence of these artistic gatherings.  A superfluous concern, but a concern nonetheless.

After a connector flight in Nashville, a shuttle ride crammed with enthusiastic cruise participants I finally reached my apartment in Miami. With the nostalgic ocean scent  guiding me, I quickly began navigating the frenzied, car soaked streets headed to the Miami Beach Convention center – into the heart of the madness.  The minute I pulled up to the enormous building my worries had started to dwindle, when I parked and began walking to the entrance, they had vanished completely. It was enthralled chaos. Having ventured to many music concerts and festivals, I have learned that the atmosphere of the parking lot seems to be a telltale sign of what to expect when you go into the venue—this was no different.  The car hive was fluttering with people from all over the world, from those whose attire reeked of affluence to glittering black fairy outfits—a fashion battle royale. Yet this eclectic horde all maintained this indescribable energy. An aura that seemed to give the art inside a supernatural stimulant of the soul, the anticipation and angst to see the production of humanities most important, yet unappreciated characteristic was something I had never witnessed before. I was hooked.

The Larger Art Pieces were on display with an outdoor section of the convention on December 3, 2011. (Photo Credit Ray Figlewski)

Once inside I met up the artist Angelbert Metoyer and after talking for a while about the future and current state of art and conventions like this we began to walk through the dizzying forest of art and gallery outposts. Being a virgin attendee I was privileged to walk around with a veteran like Angelbert. It was like walking with a spirit, an entity that did not guide me or try and influence me in any way, but instead simply walked with me through the crowd, cutting through galleries, allowing me to get drawn by the art. He would randomly suggest a painting or a gallery that we check out, but for the most part we lost ourselves floating around the art and people, every step seeing a drastically different piece than the one just passed while at the same time hearing every accent imaginable from the bustling crowd.  It was an astounding experience, being part of such an event that housed not only fantastic work from around the world, but also a massive collection of people energized to see art.

Soon the closing bell rang and the vibrancy of the crowd shifted to the streets of Miami Beach. A world like none other, where over the top is vogue and money is simply paper.  I on the other hand had a date with my favorite Cuban restaurant and a bottle of Spanish red wine. The next morning before my trip back to Chicago, I decided to attend the Art Basel Conversation: The Future of Artistic Practice/ The Artist as Poet. With dreams of the glory of being a poet, I was thrilled to attend this conversation and see what visual artists felt about the forgotten art of poetry. To my surprise it was not simply a conversation on poetry, but the panel of five visual artists/poets read their work to the crowd.  It was not only inspiring, but one of the most alive acts of artistic expression I have ever witnessed. You could feel that each artist was a practicing poet; that the art form was a distinct and separate release than their visual art work and the intensity and energy that each one gave was staggering.

Jonas Mekas reads his poems, during Art Basel Panel, on December 3, 2011.. (Photo Credit: Ray Figlewski)

The most memorable came from Jonas Mekas, one of the founders of American avant-garde cinema. His poem was in the form of a letter to a friend where he described life around him while he was in a park.  “Their beauty was beautiful,” declared the Lithuanian genius, his tone ringing like a heavy church bell but in complete contradiction to the violent shaking of his hands as he held his typed manuscript. This drastic contradiction struck me to my essence; the pure, artistic energy that radiated from a man so tenured, in a small room in Miami, amazed me. This was the heart of the convention, the chance for people like me to come and witness true genius—a chance to feel the wonder of art. It was then that I realized why people come from all over the world for Miami Art Basel; I had found what I was so scared to have missed.

The trip back to Chicago was a humbled one. Filled with reflection and gratitude for what I participated in during those couple of days and with the heart of a giant. It had given me aspirations that I could have never received in any classroom or book, it was by actually seeing what can come of art, that art still had hope, that filled my heart with the dreams of being able to one day read a poem with such energy that my voice declared strength while my body shook in passion, to one day capture the spirit of art and to lead another with that spirit, to live from the soul.

Writing this now, I am sure that some will find my experience as a glorification of the regulation of the art world, a dramatic interpretation of events, a romantic view of someone reading a poem. Maybe it is. Regardless though, it is Miami Art Basel through the eyes of a virgin attendee, an innocent bystander who was simply attending an art convention—a sudden explosion of opportunity that could only come from determination, circumstance and despair.

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