Feminism, the New Luxury Brand Revitalizing Miami

Words by Whitney Mallett

On the first day of Art Basel Miami Beach, two works by feminist art pioneer Hannah Wilke sold each for more than half a million dollars. It’s nearly 25 years after the artist passed away, around the time when her works began to be acquired by major permanent collections, and nine months after the first season of I Love Dick premiered as a TV series on Amazon, though without the book’s original musings on Wilke. In the autofiction novel adapted for the screen, Chris Kraus laments that “the fact she was a genius” was never recognized in Wilke’s lifetime and “the controversy around her work never agglomerated into major stardom.”

Today, however, the late artist’s legacy is agglomerating into six-figure sales. Alison Jacques, the London-based gallery known for representing major women artists in the market, registered early sales of two of Wilke’s sculptures, both approximating something vaginal with their ripples, creases, and folds. Mellow Yellow (1975), an organic cluster of buttermilk-yellow latex leaves, went to a private collector for $750,000, slightly higher than the artist’s record at auction, and Untitled (1975-79), made up of 60 glazed and painted ceramic seashell-like bundles, went to another private collector for $550,000. These numbers, alongside recent auction results for works by General Idea and David Wojnarowicz, suggest there’s a healthy market right now for major art historical pieces with political content.

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Mellow Yellow (1975) by Hannah Wilke sold for $750,000, besting the artist’s record at auction.

It’s hard to deconstruct all the social and societal factors that go into the value of an artwork. We can’t say for sure whether the recent mainstreaming of feminism is some significant part of the pricing of Wilke’s work today, but traces of the gender-conscious pop culture moment were everywhere in Miami, not least in the inaugural all-women art fair staged at a luxury shopping mall off the beach in the redeveloping financial district.

Fair. curated by Zoe Lukov and Anthony Spinello framed itself as a non-commercial exchange of ideas exhibiting works by a multigenerational group of female-identifying artists, including Guerrilla Girls, Yoko Ono, Jillian Mayer, and Pia Camil, presented at the Brickell City Centre, billed throughout the alt art fair’s press materials as “Miami’s newest urban shopping epicenter.” There was a 5,000-square-foot storefront space you’d enter through a doorway like any other mall retailer with different art works installed like a mega-gallery group show as well as other large-scale public works infiltrating the mall’s main commercial space which boasts shops like Armani, Cole Haan, Dyptique, and Agent Provocateur. “Dear Art Collector,” began one billboard, hung above the Victoria’s Secret and Pink storefronts, “Art is sooo expensive even for billionaires. We completely understand why you can’t pay all your employees a living wage!” it continued, with the signature “Guerrilla Girls” scrawled in hot pink cursive at the bottom right corner.

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One of four Guerrilla Girls billboards in Brickell City Centre part of Fair., the first time the group is exhibiting work in Miami.

“The art was intentionally curated for the shopping mall,” Lukov explained over email. “Our goal was to select works that were text-based and appropriated the visual strategies and display tactics of advertising and marketing in order to advance a feminist or activist agenda.” Labor, gender inequality, power, and marketing tactics were the subjects of many of the works. There was a tension, however, between the discussion of wealth inequality they aimed to provoke and the high-end shopping mall environment. While the project made art accessible in the sense that, as Lukov notes, “you didn’t have to be looking for art to come into contact with the massive billboards,” the audience was also determined by who identified as a customer of the mall’s upper-tier retailers.

Art today is a luxury brand. “The Guerrilla Girls in particular,” recounted Lukov, “found that showing art in a luxury shopping center was the most precise venue for pointing to the way that art is now bought and sold.” The crass commercial exchange of art fairs and auctions underscores how private collectors buy art for opulent home decor and stock-market-style investment. But Fair., sponsored in part by the developer behind the shopping mall, Swire Properties, suggests how “Feminism” is becoming a luxury brand too, a marketing tactic for developers to align themselves with a socially-conscious cause, especially when trying to gloss over the less socially-conscious impacts of their developments.

The highly publicized Fair. makes the billion-dollar Brickell City Center look good while past press focused on the mixed-use development raising the ire of local retailers for allegedly spewing debris onto and intentionally diverting traffic away from surrounding businesses or the development contributing to the neighborhood’s soaring rents. While Fair. ticked off all the boxes of a “woke” show—diverse artists, trans-inclusive language, works with political content ranging from Taja Lindley’s eulogy for victims of police violence to Juana Valdes’s meditation on trade and colorism—real estate was the elephant in the room. There was no art about how developers drive up land value and gentrification disproportionately displaces women of color.

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Guerrilla Girls formed in 1985 to bring attention to gender and racial inequality in the art world.

Art and real estate have a history in Miami. Each edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, which dates back to 2002, the real estate industry uses art-world events as an opportunity to showcase properties to visiting collectors they’ve targeted as potential buyers and investors. While the “revitalization” of South Beach mostly happened in the nineties, Art Basel’s presence and the spawning of satellite fairs has run parallel to the redevelopment of North Beach and neighborhoods on the mainland. Following the housing market crash, real estate developer Tony Goldman bought up a bunch of property on the cheap, and then in 2009, with art dealer Jeffrey Deitch launched a graffiti-art program to spur Wynwood’s “urban renewal.” While Wynwood’s pretty much gentrified, other neighborhoods are in the early throes of similar demographic shifts. As prices rise and properties start to change hands, grassroots arts organizations and galleries are often given free rent for undetermined periods of time under the condition when-the-building-sells-you’re-out-of-here.

The precarious effects of Miami’s real estate game was a theme of the group show Nobody Owns the Beach, scheduled the same week as all the fairs and staged in a four-bedroom three-bath house for sale on one of the Sunset Islands, walkable from the Art Basel convention center. Curated by Agnes Bolt and Anna Frost, and the first project launching their hybrid fine art and real estate venture Blue Ruin, the nine-artist exhibition, commissioned by Miami’s artist-run space Bas Fisher Invitational, addressed the specifics of Miami real estate where high ground is becoming hot property as climate change and impending environmental collapse play out in the market. Frost gave me a tour of the artworks installed throughout the residence from the bathrooms to the balcony to the in-ground swimming pool while the local Weichert Realtors agent gave prospective homeowners a more conventional walkthrough.

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Co-curator Anna Frost with Untitled (2017) by Sofia Restorp part of Nobody Owns the Beach; courtesy of Agnes Bolt and Blue Ruin.

In the bathrooms, SANKE OF NORWAY’s decorative seaweed arrangements marketed their brand of luxury lifestyle products commenting on the commodification of nature, sourced water and mud in cosmetics bottles packaged in high-end gift bags. Ghastly sexualized figures painted on a sand sculpture by Alison Veit forecast an eerie apocalyptic South Beach. As did a survivalist filtration device, Nicolas Lobo’s utilitarian sculpture that transformed pool water into drinking water, while nearby a spidery stilt house by Sofia Restorp anthropomorphized to look like it’s on-the-run absurdly humanized gentrification and displacement.

The works selected by Bolt and Frost together draw out the nonsensical ways the mechanics of capitalism function, the market calculations of selling juice in a bag instead of a bottle or the price of a basketball player’s shoes on the secondary market. How scarce does drinking water have to be before having a backyard pool is ridiculous? If Miami Beach will be underwater this century why is anyone still building here?

About four miles up the Beach from the two-storey in Sunset Islands listed for just over $2 million, at the Bath Club, a historic private club turned wedding venue, which went on the market this past March for $25 million, digital art platform Artsy collaborated with Gucci to put on one of most star-studded parties of the week. Spotlighting installations by Samara Golden, Jillian Mayer, and Maria Nepomuceno, as well as a performance by FlucT, it was another project that like Fair. aimed to raise awareness around art-world gender bias and another instance of activist-oriented curation, real estate, and luxury brands commingling.

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Monica Mirabile of FlucT performing in BIGGER than you (2017).

FlucT, the performance collective directed by artists Sigrid Lauren and Monica Mirabile, presented a new work BIGGER than you choreographing bodies in violent and intimate intersection, flailing and freaking out to an erratic sample-heavy soundtrack. At the piece’s end, the cast together mouthed the words along to a distorted audio clip “culture is not your friend” — an excerpt from a lecture by ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, it’s also a cautionary moral one could apply to the love story between art and real estate and a refutation to any flat universalizing of creativity as inherently benevolent. But FlucT illustrated a cathartic call to action as well, one especially relevant amidst the absurdities of an adult playground on a doomed island where condos and paintings are flipped like poker chips. The dancers embraced each other as another clip sounded out over the speakers, “It is not our job to fix a broken system but to replace it.”



Whitney Mallett is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. She’s an editor at Topical Cream and her work has been published widely including by The New York Times, ArtForum, Art in America, CURA., PIN—UP, V, L’Officiel, N+1, Nowness, and ArteTV.