It is the first week in December and everyone has fluttered down to Miami Beach to experience Art Basel Miami Beach. There the skies will be awash with unconflicted pastels. The air will be soft and heavy as well-modulated steam. Throngs of carefully wardrobed people will swell into the streets, into the restaurants, into private residences, into the various venues themselves in order to ruminate, postulate and rhapsodize on the commercial/emotional miracle known as contemporary art. It is a kind of feeding frenzy fanned by the extraordinarily cagey marketing of "the art fair" and the equally remarkable financial cache now ascribed to the act of buying art, most particularly contemporary art.
In short, it's all about commerce.
Of course beauty is involved somewhere in all this buzz and ado. Beauty always is. However, these days, what is seriously handicapped is the time-bending moment of seeing and the time-stopping moment of feeling what it is you have seen. What's crazy is that these two semi-concurrent sensations are the actual reason for needing, lusting, loving and then, if the bank permits, buying art. In this scenario, purchases are a natural outgrowth of an unreasonable and entirely mysterious communion between object and human.
In short, it's not about commerce.
In the midst of this peculiar post-Miami reverie, my visual rolodex spins back to New York in November. Again, post yet another art fair, this one uptown at the Armory, with the same issues of commerce versus content running circles round each other in full- throttle existential combat, I happen upon Times Square and Elinor Milchan's video installation Light Lands. All around me a highly convoluted audio/visual comprised of traffic, ticket hawking, idle chatter, neon-powered flashing ads, poorly amplified rap and every manner of shuffle-footed step and swagger plays at full volume. I look up and see absolute silence. Inside an oddly old-fashioned golden picture frame, atop a tall matchbox building, a sepia-tinted ribbon tumbles across the screen. It moves like air but is the color of blood. The screen splits. The light changes. The stream of blood has become Pacific Ocean blue. Now I am sure the cascading lines are made of water. They descend and intersect in fluid inexplicable rhythms; abstractions of dolphins at play in some unknown Asiatic ocean perhaps. Then the screen splits again. Multiples of three splinter into other multiples of three and the light folds itself into shadow. Across the screen the ghost of a lone figure, maybe, half appears and then evaporates into a myriad of dusk-colored radiating lines. I lose all awareness of the noise adjacent to me. Nike hammers home its just-do-it-and-that-means-buy-me messages on the advertising screens next door. Somehow Milchan's enigmatic abstractions have silenced the thundering commerce all around Times Square.
One of the premiere achievements of Milchan's installation is its ferocious willingness to remain undefined. None of the imagery is simple. It uses no previously codified products or objects to dictate its meaning. Furthermore, the artist's complete commitment to her own idiosyncratic abstract expressionism separates the piece from a raft of other public installations. While a number of site-specific urban art projects co-op the context of the environment to help them acquire relevance, Milchan trusts in the pure persuasion of her images to capture the viewer's imagination and, ultimately, its heart. Though her work and the ads are adjacent, Ms. Milchan is not riffing on the vulgar commercialism of Samsung mobile phones. She is making poetry with light. Then she is using all available technology to send her meticulously constructed poems out to a huge unsuspecting audience. Her art simply is and its "is-ness" offers a welcome refutation to the increasingly desperate sales pitches surrounding her installation and us. In essence, Milchan has commandeered a billboard to give us back the openhearted sensation of endless light.
In contemplating Milchan's accomplishment, funded by full-tilt corporate money, one realizes the extraordinary potential of public art. Her demonstration of the poignant co-existence of "art" and "commerce" invigorates the public's access to wonder and then, personal opinion. The artist's vision is empowering, particularly in contrast to the dictatorial style of all the adjacent adverts. It's enough to make one want to go out and boldly, bravely, passionately buy art that ‘speaks' as freely as this installation does. The sheer beauty of Light Lands has routed me directly back to commerce. On the strength of that memory, I feel something like buyer's desire arising in me. Thanks to Ms. Milchan, I may have to go to another art fair after all.
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