In Search of Wild Nights at Art Basel

Large black birds circle the sky in downtown Miami. I first notice them as I drive into the city from the airport. During the cold months, they come from all over the country, escaping to warmer climes to perch on the many high-rises in Midtown. I later find out they’re vultures. It’s almost too obvious, tooon-the-nose—after all, Art Basel is about scavenging, whether it’s for a driver, a guest list, or a new piece of art that will turn profit. It’s one long week of searching.

Stuck in traffic, my driver quizzes me: “How many hotels do you think there are here? How many bars, restaurants?” He tells me collectively, somewhere around 13,000. I take his word for it. “People come to Miami to make money; the weather is fine, but where I’m from it’s better.” He’s Greek, he laughs. “Hundreds of thousands of people come down to Miami for this. Is that why you’re here?”

The scene in front of the Soho Beach House in South Beach, Miami.

The Washington Post//Getty Images

This is my second Basel. This time around, I have a better understanding of the run of show and develop a methodology which, ahead of my arrival, feels foolproof. I’ve made a detailed spreadsheet containing my schedule of events, separated by neighborhoods. A handful of bridges act as tiny veins connecting the mainland to Miami Beach. Far from the suspended, steel contraptions in New York, the Miami causeways are artificial roads raised just above sea level. During heavy rain, Biscayne Bay’s water laps against them, with an ever-present threat to swallow them whole. These bridges become so congested that often, you’ll see people abandon their rideshares and get out to walk. For this reason, it is imperative to know which side of Miami you’ll be on between 5:00 and 9:00 p.m. It is common to text friends, “I’m staying on this side tonight.” Otherwise, getting across might take an hour—or, worse, you might be stranded.

Art Basel Miami Beach turns 21 this year, roughly the same age of the many partygoers who flock to the elaborate club functions and brand activations. As an event, it is firmly grown up and corporatized. Margot, a musician and classically trained violinist, tells me, “I used to only come to Miami for three days. Now, people come Sunday to Sunday.” I find myself talking constantly, and in the stillness of my hotel room, the party chatter still rings in my ears as I finally lay my head to rest.

112823 autofiction, laurie simmons at youngarts jewel box photographs by rodrigogayacomgayaman visual studio llc

One of Laurie Simmons’ pieces in Autofiction.

RODRIGO GAYA VILLAR

The market here has shifted. After the FTX scandal, last year was the final gasp for crypto and NFTs. This year, that is all one regrettable memory, which no one is talking about. Now we see the nascent presence of artificial intelligence, which can only predict its influence on the art world in the future. Artist and photographer Laurie Simmons showed eight new works for the YoungArts foundation, with support from Christian Louboutin, in a collection called “Autofiction.” The exhibition was held at the Jewel Box, a landmark building commissioned by Bacardi in 1975, with windows made entirely of stained-glass mosaic. Working with AI platforms DALL-E and Stable Diffusion, Simmons created images printed on silk and gave each work analog additions—embroidery on one, a pair of fake eyelashes on another. There is an uncanny, eerie feeling to the works, with visible glitches characteristic of the early age of this technology. The longer I look at the images, the more discomfort I feel. On the night of the opening, Simmons wears a full powder-blue look by Guild of Hands and is in high spirits as we discuss the latest season of The Real Housewives of New York City. She tells me, “I only started watching because of Jenna.” (Lyons, of course.)

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Tourmaline, Jasmin Wahi, and Laurie Simmons.

Courtesy of YoungArts

In Miami’s Design District, every luxury brand you can think of is having an event at its retail store. Glittering attendees line up in front of the boutiques to check in on the guest lists. A woman yelps at the sight of a lizard scurrying into a nearby bush. A block away from its Miami location, Cartier has staged the North American debut of its exhibition “Time Unlimited.” An impressive three-floor pop-up, the exhibit celebrates the house’s storied history in design and watchmaking. Walking through the many rooms feels like being on the inside of one of the brand’s red jewelry boxes, lush and upholstered in soft velvet. As people mill around taking photos of the archival timepieces, Haitian-Canadian music producer Kaytranada deejays, surrounded by Cartier Tanks and Baignoires, encased in glass and awash in gold light.

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Inside Cartier’s Time Unlimited pop-up space.

MichaelStavaridis

On an afternoon I feel a little more centered, I visit the New Art Dealers Alliance Fair (NADA, for short)—the younger, more fun art fair. The space feels better organized this year, with many of the smaller galleries having larger exhibit stalls. Louis Shannon, director of New York gallery Entrance, tells me one of his artists, Elberto Muller, is riding a freight train down to Miami: “He’s a drifter.” The image that comes to mind is Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in the 1941 Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels. I ask Shannon how he’s been spending his evenings. “It definitely feels like being on a cruise ship with everyone from New York,” he says.

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At the NADA Miami Art Fair, 2023.

Sean Zanni//Getty Images

We cross over into Sunset Islands, four highly coveted artificial islands developed in the 1940s by Paramount Pictures exec S.A. Lynch and known for their population of large waterfront mansions. Stepping out of a Tesla, the air thick with sulphur, I am technically not allowed to be at this mansion as “outside press,” but I have learned to tell security I am a “party girl novelist” instead. The house is sprawling and marble, and bartenders serve pre-mixed Negronis and Manhattans. Armed with my drink, I walk past the celebrities and who’s who, to peek into the window of a red chicken coop in the garden. A security guard informs me, “The chickens are sleeping.” I reply, “They must be the only ones in Miami who are!”

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Partygoers at the Harmony Korine and Yung Lean Boiler Room event.

Vanessa Diaz

To avoid the rumored 4,000 RSVPs hoping to get into the Harmony Korine and Yung Lean Boiler Room party, I make a punctual exit and head farther west than I have yet ventured to arrive at El Palenque nightclub. Korine’s chosen name for his new design collective is EDGLRD, which firmly cements him as a member of Gen X. As the set opens, a robotic voice proclaims, “The edge is still out there …” Wherever it is, the edge is definitely not here.

D’Ussé Cognac is hosting a special performance with Offset at Eden Roc. I sip a cognac French 75 alongside Chance the Rapper and Leon Bridges. All I can think about, watching Offset perform, is how only now do I understand the allure of a diamond necklace.

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Offset at his D’Ussé Cognac’s sponsored performance.

Madison McGaw & Shane Drummond/BFA

As if it were my final challenge in Miami, I take my chances at the one last party that night. At check-in, they flatly tell me no, they are at capacity. Undeterred, I still weave through five security checkpoints waving around the wrong-colored wristband at a confident gait. Pleased with my success, I stay for 15 minutes and skip back home to bed.

art hearts fashion presents a starlit finale of glamour at art basel miami

A model in the pool during the Art Hearts Fashion Presents a Starlit Finale of Glamour Fashion Show at Highbar Rooftop at Dream South Beach

Udo Salters Photography//Getty Images

It’s peculiar how nature and commerce live in parallel here. Some argue the commerce side has been animated by Basel, but looking at the history of Miami’s architecture, museums, and even houses, company brands have always been in dialogue with the city, shaping its landscape from the beginning. Try as it might—as far as the rising sea levels can tell—commerce will be the one to bend to nature’s grip. The one and only time I get to the beach, short on sleep and fragile, a boat sails by with a floating LED billboard. What should be an elysian view is now dystopian. I don’t know about anyone else, but I want my oceans ad-free. Is there a subscription for that?

Headshot of Marlowe Granados

Marlowe Granados is the author of Happy Hour (Verso Fiction, 2021).