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At Art Basel Miami Beach, The Stars Line Up To Be Seen – And Be Shocked

By David Batty

America's hippest art fair has a reputation for pool parties and hedonism, but sales this year are expected to top £1.5bn

Half an hour into Wednesday's VIP preview of Art Basel Miami Beach, the largest contemporary art fair in the US, P Diddy sweeps in with his entourage. In aviator shades and dressed all in black, bar the Gucci logo on his T-shirt, Diddy is famous enough to turn heads even among the hip and wealthy visitors milling up and down the aisles. Now in its 11th year, ABMB remains the art event to see and be seen at.

For the uninitiated, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by ABMB. If you think London gets too crowded with events during the Frieze fair, stay away from Miami: this year there were at least 17 art fairs happening simultaneously. Art envelops the whole city with pop-up exhibits, new museum shows, film screenings, public sculptures (including a King-Kong-sized black dog) and street art by the likes of Shepard Fairey, the creator of the famous 'Hope' Obama poster.

Then there's the parties, which attract musicians such as Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, movie stars including Will Ferrell and Demi Moore and reality TV star Kim Kardashian.

On the opening night, Wendi Deng, Rupert Murdoch's wife, co-hosted a Chanel event at Soho House in South Beach, while an afterparty at a pop-up recreation of the Club Silencio from David Lynch's film Mulholland Drive attracted queues into the early hours outside the Delano hotel. Judd Tully, a writer for the magazine Art + Auction and veteran of the fair, says: "Miami is a party city. You either have to be young or a glutton for punishment."

At the Delano late on Tuesday night, crowds are streaming from a party at its beach club to the next happening. At the White Cube gallery's soirée in Soho House, the uninvited, hoping to get in, jostle behind the barrier ropes. Inside it's a scrum as punters squeeze through packed bars to get to the beach and poolside DJ sets. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and White Cube owner Jay Jopling are apparently ensconced in an undisclosed VVIP section.

Status anxiety infects the conversation. At the poolside disco, a young Canadian collector complains that he may as well party to the early hours because "all of the good stuff is pre-sold. I'll probably get there and find some 80-year-old woman has bought what I want. "The often hedonistic vibe has prompted criticism of the fair, including accusations that it attracts scenesters with little real interest in contemporary art. Wendy Cromwell, an art adviser and regular visitor based in New York, says the serious collector base has grown in recent years.

"The kind of people who used to come down in the first few years just wanted to party and hang on to the coat-tails of the art world. But the fair has gained legitimacy with collectors. Even New York [art fairs] can't compete. The Armory show's lost its lustre, and at Frieze New York last year people were complaining that it wasn't as good as Miami."

This year, ABMB's commercial significance has been heightened by the damage suffered during Hurricane Sandy by many of the participating New York galleries. Tully says: "Some of the dealers are really counting on this fair to make money to survive."

Nichole Caruso of the Wallspace gallery in Manhattan says that its basement unit – containing hundreds of drawings, sculptures and paintings – was submerged. "It was like a swimming pool. Some of that work will be with conservators for months, even years."

The value of the work offered for sale by the more than 260 participating galleries at ABMB is estimated to be £1.5bn. Notable early sales included Hirst's Capaneus, a kaleidoscopic assemblage of moths, butterflies, spiders and beetles that sold for £600,000, and Jeff Koons's almost life-size sculpture of silent film star Buster Keaton, with an asking price of between £3m and £3.5m.Koons provoked a bigger stir with the news that he would be showing with gallery owner David Zwirner next year in an apparent defection from Zwirner's arch-rival Larry Gagosian, the world's most powerful art dealer.

However, there are more than the usual star names on offer. Although only 10% of the participating galleries are Latin American, the fair offers perhaps the most significant international exposure for artists from the region. This reflects the growing importance of wealthy South American collectors, particularly from Brazil, which the fair has helped to spur. The White Cube opened a new space in São Paulo just before this year's ABMB, with Gagosian set to follow next year.

Among the works on display from São Paulo-based Galeria Nara Roesler is Brígida Baltar's The Singing of the Rebel Bird, a video installation comprising a film displayed in a wooden box that resembles a theatre stage, inspired by a house built by a Brazilian industrialist for his opera-singer mistress. Nearby, at the booth of Lima-based gallery Revolver, José Carlos Martinat's Experimental Protoype Community of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow offers a look at the dark side of Disney, with images of strikes by Disney staff, a rapist who wore a Mickey Mouse costume and a girl crushed between two rides at the Epcot centre in Orlando. Mexican artist José Davila's work, including ghostly photographic cutouts, also attracts deserved praise and attention.

Elsewhere, Cuban art duo Los Carpinteros have created a latticed, circular bar installation on the South Beach waterfront. One of the artists, Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez, explains that the panopticon-shaped space, called Güiro, was inspired by the interior of a notorious Cuban jail – only here the jailer is a bartender and the prisoners are the drinkers.

The installation, done in collaboration with Absolut Art Bureau, an offshoot of the vodka brand, is one of the less bling commercial artworks around the fair. Less subtle, but knowingly so, is BMW's display of a Le Mans racing car custom-painted by the American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer – known for her text aphorisms – emblazoned with the words "Protect me from what I want".

Craig Robins, a Miami businessman who runs a property development firm, sees nothing wrong with this kind of commercial partnership. Indeed Robins, who is also a major collector and founder of the Design Miami fair, says ABMB's example has helped to spur gentrification of much of the city. His revitalisation of what is now known as the "Design District" involved turning abandoned factories into an artists' community and an upmarket shopping centre.

"When you think of Miami, you think of this merger of culture and commerce," he says. Looking around this festival of high-price, high-end art, it's hard to disagree.

See more from ABMB in  our gallery.


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