Yann Leto’s “The Night is Young” (2023)

Here’s What Happened at Art Basel Miami Beach 2023 (+ The Rock)

BY Adam Robb | December 11, 2023

Art Basel Miami Beach is legal this year. The December edition of the Swiss art fair turned 21, which meant it was finally old enough to party with Sofi Tukker at LIV, with Cedric Gervais at E11even and with Juvenile at Soho Beach House. However, it was also inundated with that other unavoidable rite of passage into adulthood: credit card offers. 

Corporate sponsorship has never been more ubiquitous at the festival than it was last weekend. Chase Sapphire card holders received a first taste of Austin chef Paul Qui’s Chunk-brand plant-based cheesesteaks at Dirt’s Dive and Florida artist Kelly Breeze’s immersive homage to the memory of coastal dive bars at the Faena Project Room. My VIP pass scored me a reservation at the Resy lounge at the Untitled art fair, but if I wanted a proper table to sit down with a glass of champagne and Chicago chef Stephanie Izard’s five-spice muffin donut, it helped to flash a Delta SkyMiles American Express card. By the end of the week, as the VIPs scattered and the public swarmed the most tenuous corporate art world happenings, Mark Ronson deejayed a block party on Lincoln Road in celebration of artist Alex Israel’s frozen yogurt pop-up Snow Beach Frozen Treats — presented by Capital One Dining. Those without good credit could relegate themselves over the river in the Design District, where Kith Treats, with no art world pretext whatsoever, celebrated their latest collaboration with Chips Ahoy. 

Still, art stood out among the saccharine advertising glut. Sometimes it took the form of all-women’s Japanese quasi-wrestling, many times it was some fucking delicious food and sometimes it was the surprise of artists I discovered while reporting on the war in Ukraine. It was also a literal skewer of a figurative Jeff Bezos, and a few other thumbs in the eye of the mega-rich that were nonetheless for sale. This is what my credit card, boosted by my press credentials, got me during Art Basel Miami Beach 2023. 

Sun., December 3: The Rock in a foreclosed mansion

My most surreal art week experience, and ice cream fix, preceded my arrival in Miami. I flew in from Los Angeles where I had just interviewed Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, inside a foreclosed upon Beverly Hills mansion temporarily repurposed as the Teremana Tequila Holiday House, a pop-up party space celebrating the wrestler-turned-action hero’s favorite time of year. I signed a risk waiver on an iPad, received a stamp that ran the length of my forearm, and crossed a velvet threshold, entering the living room where a pianist sang beside a life-sized grinning effigy of the Rock dressed in a festive cardigan. From across the room the mannequin looked toward a flatscreen television on which the Rock, dressed in the same festive cardigan, spoke at length about his tequila. 

A designer adds the finishing touches at Rock’s inside a Beverly Hills mansion temporarily repurposed as the Teremana Tequila Holiday House, a pop-up party. Photo by Adam Robb.

Finally, I entered the courtyard where I was introduced to the Rock in person and listened to him expound further upon his tequila until the public began to pour in. The Rock and I escaped, taking refuge in a sunken vestibule off the kitchen where he stood with his back to the wall, while I loomed over him, one step up, to meet his gaze. We spent thirty minutes, inches apart, discussing the war in Ukraine and his early days on the wrestling circuit, touring through my New Jersey hometown. Afterward, I received a firm handshake and a small cup of his latest collaboration with Salt & Straw, a Teremana tequila spiked eggnog ice cream. To interact with so many forms of a singular pop culture superstar in different media — on film and in sculpture, living and breathing — was an adventure in commerce, celebrity, media and pop art. Marina Abramovic could never, let alone Kith Treats.

Following our interview, I caught a redeye from LAX to Miami and arrived early at the Arlo Wynwood, kicking off Miami Art Week cityside. The Arlo is the first hotel to open in the rapidly gentrifying arts district best known for its muraled walls. The panoramic view from my bedroom window revealed a fast shifting urban landscape: Old men on low rooftops, kicked back on lounge chairs and smoking cigars behind chain link fences; they overlooked open air dayclubs walled with video screens abutting blockwide construction sites where cranes swung at sunrise. Three-wheeled Polaris slingshots, neon rental roadster-motorcycle hybrids, ripped through the streets, and the two pairs of complimentary earplugs, on both sides of my king-sized bed, made so much sense.

Staying cityside before Art Basel kicked off on December 6 made good sense, too. The big show didn’t open to VIPs until Wednesday, while grand openings in the nearby Design District, at the Rubell Museum and Superblue, and the New Art Dealers Alliance fair, meant there was no reason to sit in Miami Beach traffic before midweek. Sunday wasn’t the official start of anything except a new week, so I fucked around, chasing margaritas at the hotel’s rooftop pool.  A bottle of Teremana tequila, which I had never heard of before last week, held pride of place behind the bar. Post-tequila, I scored a pie at Fratesi’s, the best pizzeria in Miami, which just reopened, Sundays only, inside downtown Vietnamese joint Tam Tam, before finishing the night with a gingerbread cookie dough cone from Salt & Straw, while contemplating how ice cream, like Art Basel, is an ephemeral guilty pleasure. Unlike the fair, ice cream parlors are staffed with friendly faces eager to sell you what you want.

Mon., December 4: Part feminist folk art, part Pussy Riot, part all-women’s Japanese wrestling league

The New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) fair at Ice Palace Studios on the edge of Overtown is where gallerists who can’t afford a booth at Art Basel show artwork worthy of Art Basel at Art Basel-inspired prices. While hiding with the Rock in LA, I told him about my time reporting on the war in Ukraine, and, at the eastcontemporary + Raster Gallery booth at NADA, I spotted a series of wooden figures by the Belarussian Ala Savashevich, part feminist folk art, part Pussy Riot. A quick check of Savashevich’s Instagram confirmed my hunch: she’s part of the scene of Belarussian-Ukrainian refugee creatives I fell in love with while abroad; it was a pleasant surprise. I concluded the first day of the fair feeling inspired by Savashevich’s representation here and left with a photograph by Michella Bradahl obtained at the Shoot the Lobster booth, a nude woman resting her head on a pillow the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Klara by Michella Bradahl.

Afterward, I shared a crowded elevator with mega-dealer Jeffrey Deitch on my way up to the Design District offices of Craig Robins, the real estate developer and art collector who shaped the aesthetics of the surrounding neighborhood, essentially an open-air mall of luxury boutiques, furniture showrooms and restaurants. His reach was everywhere, from my dinner at Korean steakhouse Cote — it played host to “Art After Dark” (“presented by American Express”), an opportunity to eat four cuts of steak and two kinds of stew surrounded by works from Robins’ private collection, including a pair of hip-hop geishas by Iona Rozeal Brown — to the debut of the latest mural from French artist JR, “The Chronicles of Miami,” which was celebrated with an impromptu DJ set by Brazilian megastar Anitta. She spun records while her dancers threw down like they were auditioning for an all-women’s Japanese wrestling league.

Brazilian megastar Anitta performs at the debut of the latest mural from French artist JR. Photo by Adam Robb.

Tues., December 5: A mockery of art collectors and especially Jeff Bezos

Yann Leto’s “The Night is Young” (2023)

On Tuesday, I hit up Untitled art fair in South Beach, not just for Stephanie Izard’s dim sum buffet, but to see new works like French artist Yann Leto’s “The Night is Young” (2023) a wall-sized triptych of strip club bad behavior set on a lazy summer day in the south of France. It depicts a bartender in a white dinner jacket pouring red wine, a harlequin succumbing to a private dance and the jarring addition of a rando in a Miami Heat cap. It’s a reminder that some artists have a sense of humor about showing here; the rando serves as a reflection of a potential buyer viewing the piece. I’d be embarrassed to be that guy, but it made me like the work so much more. Similarly, the following day at Art Basel, I would view Sarah Miska’s Sodashi (2023), which features a close-up of the mouth of a slobbering horse, its head restrained in leather and steel. Of course, it’s a mockery of every collector at the fair.

Sebastian Errazuriz’s “Battle of the Corporate Nations.” Photo by Adam Robb.

That night, I dropped my bags at the Fontainebleau and headed downbeach to Faena for the reveal of two works by New York artist Sebastian Errazuriz. “Battle of the Corporate Nations” featured a gold arrow pierced white marble Jeff Bezos, a defeated champion in a dystopian future. Defeating Jeff Bezos in art is having a moment. A few months ago, I was invited to attend the final dress rehearsal of Danny Boyle’s modern dance reinterpretation of The Matrix at Aviva Studios in Manchester, England, where an anthropomorphized Amazon delivery took to battle in the final act. As the sun set, we headed to the beach to enter Errzuriz’s high-walled maze, “MAZE: Journey Through the Algorithmic Self,” which was a little too easy to navigate and maybe a sign we’re all just overthinking our journeys through life.

View from my room at Fontainebleau, not Fontainebleau Aviation in Opa-Locka. Photo by Adam Robb.

Afterward, I had dinner at Uchi back in Wynwood where I learned people old enough to be my parents have no problem sitting down to an omakase at 10 p.m.  I called a Lyft to take me back to the beach, except I clicked on Fontainebleau Aviation in Opa-Locka, not Fontainebleau, the historic luxury beach hotel and backdrop of “Goldfinger” and “The Specialist” and “War Dogs.” When I corrected course in the app, the driver refused to lug me across the bay, threw me out at a Valero station and canceled my ride, giving the matrix the last laugh after all.

Wed., December 6: Madonna, Marc Newson and molten chocolate cake

I had dinner at Queen on Wednesday night. The former Paris Theater in South Beach is a reminder that so many locations across the city have and maintain a cinematic lore. But here the golden, glowing dining room doesn’t so much transport you to its turn as a backdrop for Madonna and Jennifer Lopez music videos, so much as it resembles a members club owned by a John Wick villain who, on any given night, is having a blowout party, complete with electric violinists and aerial acrobats, celebrating the demise of John Wick, unaware that John Wick is waiting outside. 

It does look like a scene out of John Wick. Violinist performs at Queen in Miami Beach. Photo by Adam Robb.

I can’t pay a higher compliment to a restaurant in Miami Beach, but I arrived too early to see how the plot advanced. Polishing off my molten chocolate cake glazed in bukkake of creme anglaise, just shy of 10 p.m., I was due at a Sukeban title fight, a fierce night of high fashion Japanese women’s wrestling in a deserted skate park beneath a highway overpass. Women dressed in Olympia Le-Tan designed latex bloomers —kittens, goths, punks, nerds, sailor girls — squared off for a Marc Newson-designed championship belt like it was the last one left at a sample sale. As I sipped a shitty margarita, I thought about the Rock recalling his less glamorous early days grappling on tour through the kinds of Jersey towns Springsteen once eulogized, and I couldn’t help but wonder which one of these girls would look back fondly on this moment, twenty years and a billion dollars later.

Sukeban wrestling at Lot 11. Photo by Adam Robb.

Thurs., December 7: “where is KMS?”

Ribeye at Mirabella at the Fontainebleau. Photo by Adam Robb.

After a week of omakase and a pizza, I was so excited to order off an a la carte menu at Mirabella at the Fontainebleau, the latest restaurant from Marea chef Michael White. My 24-oz bone-in ribeye was $105 and perfectly charred and seasoned. I ate every last ounce of it, which may explain why I next put on a robe and blew off the “Ocean Drive: Art of the Party” party taking over at least one of the Fontainebleau’s eight to 11 pools, even after getting a friend added to the list. Instead, I told them I just left as they arrived and watched the scene from my balcony. Thursday was also the night of Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine’s Boiler Room party, and I was tempted to tag along with my party reporter friend Marlowe Granados, but then I remembered an anecdote from earlier in the week. She texted me, “I’m so hungry, I’m going to KMS,” and because invitations are everything during Art Basel, I started to write back, “where is KMS??” before deleting it and deciding I needed some rest.

Fri., December 8: There is no preparation for it

After checkout, I booked a late lunch at Los Fuegos by Francis Mailman, the Faena restaurant conceived by the famed Argentinian chef behind Alan’s Salad. “Alan’s Salad,” named for the hotel’s owner Alan Faena, is more still life than lunch fare. It’s an egg, a beet and an avocado, on a deep bed of shredded carrots. Even with the waiter’s warning, there is no preparing you for it. There was also no preparing me for what happened next. There were plenty of empty tables in the light of the veranda, but I was snubbed, seated in the back corner, cool as Siberia. Or so I thought. I looked to my right and Will Smith was sitting at the next table.

After starting the week eye-to-eye with Black Adam, I found myself sitting shoulder to shoulder with Mike Lowery. He didn’t say a word to me, but he shared so much more than if I had tried to interview him. Smith held court in the back corner taking his calls on speaker, holding his phone inches from his mouth, his trademark voice booming across the tundra. No trip to Miami in my adult life had been complete without touching down to the chorus of “Welcome to Miami, Bienvenidos a Miami,” but I never expected Will Smith to signal it was time to go home.