art basel miami beach 2012

I Almost Died at Art Basel Miami Beach

Hitting the wall; Q-Rage in the house
South Beach. (Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for W South Beach)

South Beach. (Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for W South Beach)

Days after I returned from Art Basel Miami Beach, a question continued to nag at me: could I have somehow known that the innocent-looking glass out of which I drank a lukewarm Diet Coke at the Bobby Vans Steakhouse in Terminal 8 of JFK last Monday night was the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun, the one that, by dint of hanging on the wall in Act One, is bound to go off in Act Three?

Let’s talk about that gun. Skip ahead to Thursday night. It had been a good night, Thursday night. A pleasant night, by Miami standards. An elegant cocktail party at the Setai penthouse apartment of young collector and Lincoln Center supporter Maria Baibakova found its perfect foil in the Terry Richardson-enhanced OHWOW exhibition opening farther south along the beach on Washington, teeming with sweaty kids.

Then there was the everybody’s-so-happy-to-be-here vibe at the dinner Absolut Vodka gave for the speakers in Art Basel’s series of Absolut-sponsored panel discussions.

And then there was artist Jonathan Horowitz’s “Free Store,” a pop-up bartering project at the SLS Hotel and possibly the best thing about Miami this year. By the time I got there, just about the only thing left was a dubious-seeming TV set looking tragic, sitting on the floor. “It still works,” said Cecilia Dean of Visionaire magazine, who had helped put together the project. “We should move it somewhere better.” Publicist Brian Phillips dutifully hefted the thing over to a table.

It was late(ish), around 11:15, and I very nearly retired to my hotel, but thought, why not swing by and check out—cue ominous bell tolling in the distance—the party at Wall put on by Vito Schnabel, Stavros Niarchos and Dom Perignon?

The party at Wall! Three checkpoints and a hand-stamp later, there I was standing outside a velvet rope with a small cluster of would-be partygoers. There was some sort of problem, said a burly bodyguard. It might have had to do with a fire alarm, which went off a moment later, flashed and mewled, then ended. They couldn’t let people in yet. Which was fine, it being a pleasant night.

Not for long. In quick succession, two women arrived and pleaded their respective cases for entry. They pressed their bodies into the rope such that the rope bulged bodyguard-ward. Tough to feel any compunction about outing these two, so loudly did they repeat their own names so close to my ears. Liliana Cavendish. Dori Cooperman.

Wordlessly, I backed up; noisily, the two of them were ushered in. And then things devolved further; Chekhov’s gun resoundingly fired. A man who had been standing calmly by, holding a glass containing some beverage or other, hurled his glass onto the pavement just in front of one of the bodyguards and, as it happened, next to my right leg, where it smashed to smithereens, sending shards of glass in all directions and prompting the bodyguard to leap through the rope to tackle the man, who was all too ready for a fight.

What to call this mania, this hot-blooded rush of desperation, this particular Miami Beach breed of the dread of not getting in, I wondered, inspecting my leg for cuts and splinters, of which, mercifully, there were none.

When I mentioned the incident to a British colleague the next day, her eyes widened and she christened it “queue rage,” which had a considerably better ring than “line rage.” Still, it wasn’t quite right. Artforum’s online gossip column, Scene & Herd, has already waxed eloquently on the presence in Miami of “Fear of Missing Out,” and given it the groovy and downright adorable acronym FOMO.

In deference to the recently Jay-Z- and Diddy-fied nature of the proceedings at Miami Basel, it seems only proper that the glass-shattering, bodyguard-wrestling phenomenon be dubbed Q-Rage. Now, FOMO and Q-Rage are, it’s hardly necessary to say, intimately related. Having been to a full 10 Miamis, I can admit to having myself experienced FOMO to varying degrees, but now that FOMO’s terrifying corollary, Q-Rage, had put the fear in me, would there be any going back to something more benign? Let me tell you something about Q-Rage. Q-Rage’s brass knuckles wear brass knuckles. Q-Rage’s posse has a posse. Q-Rage makes FOMO look like a Teletubby.

Once inside Wall, anyone could tell it was the place to be. With bodies pressed in tightly together—all the right bodies, mind you—there was barely room to dance, although people did dance. One reveler reported the next day that she, deep in joyful dancing, had to be alerted by Wall staff that it was 4 a.m. and, well, time to go.

But anyone with, let’s say, relatively conservative ideas about personal space and whose system is surging with the fight-or-flight adrenaline prompted by proximity to Q-Rage might have felt compelled to curtail a visit. I made one slow and difficult circuit through the place and emerged back onto the plaza fronting the W Hotel, where a light rain was falling and KimYe had just arrived, entourage in tow.

What happened to Miami? A few years ago, someone showed me a Massimo Vitali photograph reproduced on a magazine page, and jabbed a finger at its lower left quadrant. The photo was, unmistakably, of the bustling but civilized brunch at the Sagamore Hotel during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002, the first year the fair took place. And there, in the corner, seated at a table, was a figure all in black wearing black-rimmed glasses. Myself. I’ve never been given to black as an art-world uniform, but the photo was taken shortly after I’d decided to retroactively mourn my mother’s death, already three years past, by wearing nothing but black for a full year, and not even Miami could inject its electric colors into that dour palette. But I didn’t think that when I looked at the photo. Instead I thought, Ah, right, people used to actually go to the Sagamore brunch. The fair attracted a more limited crowd then; things were more sedate. You could lie in bed in your hotel room on Saturday night and compose an email—because composing emails is what people did before iPhones and BlackBerrys—that contained the sentence “Some people went over to the ‘Design District’ for something but I’m staying in.”

Anyhow, back to 2012. Here are some hazy memories from Wednesday night, transcribed from my notebook without embellishment: crowd outside Chanel Art.sy party at Soho House. They tell us, move back 10 feet. Pushing, shuffling, elbowing. We move back 10 feet. We are told to move back another 10 feet. The person with me leaves. Collectors Phil and Shelley Aarons leave. Art adviser arrives with resourceful husband. Aha! Running with few others through underbrush. Palm trees. Back alleyway. Hidden entrance! Down a set of stairs. Into tent. Music blaring. Food smells, people smells. Shuffling, elbowing. Out of tent, back up stairs. 12:45 a.m. Brant sons leaving. Mugrabi, Aby Rosen arriving. To Raleigh. Deitch MoCA party finished. Broody conversation with a curator over cigarettes in adjacent poolside deck chairs. Sighing. Head shaking. Brow furrowing. Winds of change blowing in art world, I propose. Neither of us going to Twist.

Here are some other things that, for whatever reason, stand out: The ubiquity of Damien Hirst. Everywhere you turned, there was Damien Hirst. Not the art, the artist. Damien Hirst at the White Cube party. Damien Hirst walking into Wall. Damien Hirst meandering down an aisle of the fair, between Gladstone and Gagosian. Damien Hirst hobnobbing at the art-filled home of Yankee hitter Alex Rodriguez.

A Barbara Kruger piece at the booth of L&M Arts that consisted of nothing more than the words, in tall block capital letters, “Greedy Schmuck.”

In the bedroom of Ms. Baibakova’s Setai penthouse apartment, directly above the bed, hung a photograph of her face, her expression quizzical. I happened to be observing this in the presence of an auction house specialist, who, without missing a beat, pegged it as a Roe Ethridge. At that party, I ran into the same curator with whom I’d had that broody poolside conversation the night before. “It’s dangerous to get introspective here,” he said of our talk. “You have to stay in the zone.”

But let us remember that our Art Basel’s house has many Miamis. Did you see Betty Tompkins’s show, “FUCK,” put on by Observer columnist Adam Lindemann in the Wynwood District? If not, too bad. Many of the pieces, from the early ’70s, had never been shown before. Here is something else that was great: finding out that a colleague had taken a fistful of hotel toiletries to Jonathan Horowitz’s aforementioned “Free Store” and traded them in for $300 designer sneakers. In a week of raging crowds, I will remember best standing outside room 845 in an empty hallway of the Deauville Hotel, which housed, on its ground floor, the NADA fair (someone had told me to go Room 845 for a “secret show” of lace paintings by Mark Flood), knocking tentatively on the wedged-open door, and calling out, “Is anybody there?” No one was, but there was art inside, propped on the floors and on the bed, and I sat down, and looked around, and stayed for a while.

Maybe it is dangerous to get introspective in Miami, but can we help ourselves? It is not, after all, a car show in the convention center. Something was teetering on the beach this year, something that those winds of change have started to dislodge. Time to step out of the zone.

sdouglas@observer.com