It is easy to make fun of, or rail against, Art Basel Miami, the annual artfest, public display of wealth, and parade of questionable outfits that descends on Miami Beach and environs this time of year. I would be happy to join the crowd protesting the excesses of capitalism effects on the art world, except for the fact that the fair collects—both within its own realm at the Miami Beach Convention Center, and in the many ancillary exhibitions and events—an amount of good, or least interesting, art that is astonishing. Only the Venice Biennale and the original Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, rival the sheer amount of visual pleasure you can find a few days each year in Miami Beach. 

Truth be told, I missed most of it. It couldn't be helped: Even if you concentrated on nothing but looking, and started as soon as the fairs opened, you would never be able to take it all in. That is part of the point: It is like drowning in art, which, though it creates a certain sense of visual bloat after a few days, it can be immensely pleasurable. Moreover, the event is as much about that activity known to scientists as networking, and which comprises a combination of seeing old friends, making new ones, selling or buying exhibitions or ideas as well as artwork, and even just seeing and being seen. In and of itself, all of this makes an argument for the importance of place in an era in which everything seems to happen in the ether. 

First, there is the setting. Miami Beach’s beauty is its liminal, contained quality. It is a place apart, off the shore of Florida, and dominated by the presence of the beach. That in itself gives being there an aura, and it gives you an excuse to shed some of the formality and barriers—both in buildings and in behavior—that might limit interaction in other places. It also means that the infinite and the beautiful are always available at the end of the street, and not just in art’s evocations. 

Second, there are the goods themselves. No matter how many images you show on an iPad or on the computer, there is nothing like the real thing, at least when it comes to good art. My museum was about to purchase a major work of art by a very good artist, sight unseen (or rather, from digital images). At Art Basel, we saw the real thing, and it just did not hold up. On the other hand, the images by Markus Am, heavily worked but ephemeral, one of which my partner and I purchased for ourselves, do not translate to the screen. 

Third, there is the event character of the thing. You have to be there at a particular time (Tip: It is not when the fair opens to the public, but in the preview days; a little bit of work and begging will get you in), giving the place a sense of urgency and immediacy. 

There is also a freedom that comes from wandering through a temporary architecture of stalls and tents, as well as outdoor installations. There is no sense of weight and pressure from such structures. I would argue that this is, in many ways, the future of architecture: the construction of temporary structures on liminal sites built around the notion of art, which is to say, around and perhaps of objects whose inherent value is not their use, but a worth and importance based on the actual thing, image, or space. We can try to imbue buildings elsewhere, of a permanent nature, and of use, with the qualities of architecture, but we know it works in that time and space. 

So what about the art? There was too much to even enumerate. Let me just cite two opposite examples: At the fair, a block of alabaster by Anish Kapoor, a semicircular bowl carved into and leading to a sharply defined void just shy of the block’s back, so that an immense space seems to be possible; and the paintings of Ged Quinn, part of an exhibition at the Bass Museum of Art, that combine idyllic landscapes with decayed and graffitied structures, as if the beginning and end of the world were coming together in one place. Between these two poles, everything at Art Basel Miami existed.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.