Art Basel Miami Beach 2015

Muscle Men and Free Cash: Xavier Cha and Pope.L Shine at Art Basel’s Public Sector

Scene from Xavier Cha's "supreme ultimate exercise"

Scene from Xavier Cha’s ‘supreme ultimate exercise.’


After being inside of a massive and hectic art fair, the scene at Collins Park on Wednesday night for the Art Basel Miami Beach Public program of performances—which premiered privately on Tuesday but opened for the general public last night—felt downright serene. When I arrived a bit early, there was still a yoga class happening behind the stage, and throughout the night, folks took turns taking photos inside of the big thought bubble that is the 2015 Hank Willis Thomas’s sculpture Ernest And Ruth. I overheard someone refer to Tuesday night’s opening audience as “more curated” (what that means, I’ll let you decide), but this crowd had a pleasant, all-ages feel. Among the performances, work from Xavier Cha and Pope.L stood out as highlights.

Cha’s piece, titled supreme ultimate exercise, used two adjacent paths within the park to stage concurrent performances that explored very different but equally extreme modes of movement. On one path, a trio of heavily musclebound men performed choreographed feats of strength involving two large tractor tires. It reminded me of those strongman contests they used to play on ESPN2 and seemed appropriate for Miami. The next path over, the tai chi master Ai Ikeda worked through a series of slow, deliberate movements–all quiet and fluid. Among the honking horns and wasted “woos” of Miami Beach, Ikeda’s tai chi felt like a calm in the middle of the storm.

“I just knew the whole event is just kind of a spectacle anyways, and a lot of performances I think get lost in the mix,” Cha said to me after the performance. “So it just felt like it would be appropriate use of the space and the energy and match the context.”

The pieces weave together showmanship and quiet mastery, all with an intense energy that Cha remarked could be seen as metaphorical of art practices in and of themselves. The younger spectrum of the audience was especially taken with the strongmen, who posed for photos at the end of the performance, some with Ikeda on top of a tractor tire. “I think it’s accessible on different levels without trying to be too spectacular either,” Cha said. “So there’s layers to it. There’s the surface, like, ‘Ooh, whatever, muscle guys,’ and then there’s a more conceptual end for people who care,” Cha said.

Centered around the small stage in the park was The Beautiful, a new performance by the 60-year-old Newark-based artist Pope.L. At the start of the piece, two men in Superman costumes and black face paint flanked both sides of an empty stage. They were seated and holding guitars and effects pedals at their feet. A rumbling sound started to blast out of the PA. It felt a little like noise music and was texturally pretty interesting. The two Supermen started to play guitar over this noise—dissonant psych rock that was heavy and kind of bleak.

Shortly thereafter, four more large men dressed in pretty much the same uniform—in addition to the Superman costumes and black face paint, they also had miners lights strapped to their foreheads—started to approach the stage, two of them pulling the others on skateboards. (That was where that rumbling sound was coming from: a contact-mic under the board.) The men then crawled on stage and performed a heartbreaking version of “America the Beautiful” in a diminished key, throwing out a mix of real and fake money like confetti as the pre-recorded sounds of fireworks played intermittently through the speakers.

“[Pope.L has] done thought-provoking evocations that get people to talk about things that are a little too harsh to talk about otherwise,” Luckner Bruno, known by many as Lucky, who played one of the singing Supermen, told me after the performance. Take, for example, the artist’s 1991 piece Tompkins Square Crawl (part of a bigger body of endurance-based “crawl” works), wherein Pope.L donned a business suit and crawled through the gutter at Tompkins Square Park in New York City.

During the performance, Lucky continued, “You see how everyone goes from this nice, ‘Oh I’m watching something,’ to—” and here he cut himself off, mimicking the frenzied noise of the crowd.

Anyway, money being thrown into the air in the middle of a public park was a fine way of inaugurating Art Basel Miami Beach.

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