Since Art Basel Miami Beach arrived a decade ago, it has come to serve a dual purpose. Along with its satellite fairs, it brings the best in contemporary artwork to our doors, turning Miami into the world’s biggest museum for one week a year. But it also has forced Miami’s art community to kick it up a notch. We now expect local institutions and galleries to deliver high-quality goods.
This year is no exception, and the proof is already here, beginning with Soul Manufacturing Corporation by Chicago-based Theaster Gates, a coup for the not-for-profit Locust Projects.
Gates has become an “it” artist, with a recent cover on Art in America magazine, a star turn at Germany’s acclaimed dOCUMENTA exhibition and, just last week, as the inaugural recipient of the New School’s Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics.
Politics play a major role in Gates’ world and work, as visitors learned when he was at the gallery Nov. 10 to set up shop, quite literally.
A trained ceramicist, with master’s degrees in fine arts, religious studies and urban planning, he has made his Manufacturing Corporation just that: a living, breathing workshop where skilled “makers,” as he calls them, craft pottery and pound out bricks. As he tells the audience on this day, he doesn’t make art.
In fact he does, and here in the Design District he was as much a performance artist as anything. He is witty and well-informed about social dynamics, racial politics and urban redevelopment. He talks about projects he has been involved in from Baltimore to his neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. But it sounds much more like a spoken word performance than a lecture.
While holding an unfinished clay pot (he once had a show called People of the Mud), he is funny and self-effacing, but also serious about the merits of production and the importance of rebuilding blighted neighborhoods.
His dedication to the latter won him the Vera List prize, for the Dorchester Projects, in which he bought two abandoned Chicago buildings, determined to turn them into a cultural center and library using salvaged materials. It will happen, he says, “brick by brick.”
Then he returns to a bench in the gallery to continue making pottery and bricks. Visitors are free to ask him questions, and he wonders if anyone has free time — they could stop by and read from a book, maybe some poetry, to keep the crafts people entertained. To that end, he has brought in a yoga instructor and DJ who will occupy the space until the exhibit ends.
Gates does make art pieces, ones that show in his galleries, in museums and at fairs such as the 2012 Armory. Usually they are made from found objects, often from the debris of a decaying structure. One such work, a rickshaw, stands in the front of the Locust space.
Gates himself will return to work at his Soul company for the week of Art Basel, which opens Thursday, sitting at the various work stations and inviting dialogue. He’d like you to take part in this production. Gates also will be highlighted in the main convention center fair at the booth of his Chicago gallery, Kavi Gupta.
The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens has recently instigated a site-specific, conceptual-art project that has exhibited the works of Miamians Naomi Fisher and Ernesto Oroza. This winter, it unveiled a unique artistic and historical intervention from New York-based Josiah McElheny in time for Art Basel.
McElheny, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, is best known for fantastical glass sculptures that address such issues as 19th century Romanticism, 20th century Modernism, the origins of the universe and the relationship of humans to light. And he’s also a filmmaker.
Vizcaya invited him to take a look at the equally fantastical villa and gardens, and asked him to make something of it. The result is a conceptually intense thing of beauty — a film that is part documentary, part historical fiction, part wistful fantasy.
McElheny had no relationship to Miami, and certainly no knowledge of the strange history of Vizcaya, the ersatz Italianate villa built on a swamp by the industrialist James Deering. It’s a romanticized version of something that never existed, the original Disney World.
As Deering was rarely around, he oversaw the construction of his estate between 1914 and 1922 through photographs and blueprints he had sent to him. McElheny discovered a treasure trove of such documents in the archives. As he pieced the history together, he became enthralled with a short story by a German author of the early 20th century, Paul Scheerbart, someone similarly obsessed with a version of utopia.
In his book The Light Club of Batavia, Scheerbart imagined an underground light spa made entirely of Tiffany glass, where people would gather in perpetual light and imagine a brighter future. As McElheny looked over the villa’s courtyard, past the incredible flora to the grotto in the back, he, too, imagined a fantasy underground world. The idea formed in his mind for a historical-fiction film, The Light Spa of Vizcaya: A Woman’s Picture.
On the phone from New York, McElheny talks about the possibilities and limits of utopia. When he conjured this spa, he thought it would be a queer bath, mostly for women, a place where people who couldn’t express themselves in real life could be open.
“People have intentionally glossed over the strange origins of this place,” he says of Vizcaya’s bayfront acres, best known for photography shoots for quinceañeras and wedding receptions (dream-like occasions themselves).
“Over time it was given a ‘safe’ veneer. But here was a house built by a gay robber baron,” filled with an amazing array of eclectic artifacts from all over Europe, always shrouded in an element of mystery. “Deering used Vizcaya very little; he built it from the start as a sublime kind of ruin.”
McElheny says it was an unreal, twilight world from its inception. Combining archival stills and gorgeous contemporary cinematic footage, McElheny added a narration. Referencing real characters who helped make the fantasy villa, he added a storyline about a lost diary, describing a secret glass clubhouse on the grounds where people “out of the mainstream” could meet. There are many more layers to this tale, but you’ll have to discover it yourself.
True to McElheny’s passion, there are many shots of light works – chandeliers, lamps, outdoor lanterns. For one night only during Art Basel, on Thursday, the film will be screened outdoors in the gardens, at a location that references the imaginary passage through which the characters of the Light Club would have traveled to find their way to the electrified spa.
After that, the 30-minute film will be shown every hour indoors. The drawback here is that visitors will walk in and out, observing some nice historical images, without realizing that this is much more than that.
McElheny also created six “movie” posters, mostly based on the original blueprints, that are placed around the villa.