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By Michael E. Miller
Bert Rodriguez settles into an armchair in the back of a pickup truck and pulls out a book: Five Chinese Brothers, the childhood classic.
"The first Chinese brother could swallow the sea," he reads. "The second Chinese brother had an iron neck. The third Chinese brother could stretch and stretch his legs..."
On he goes, reading through a bullhorn to an anemic throng. It's early December during Art Basel 2006, and the artist-provocateur has situated himself under a billboard in Wynwood announcing, "A bedtime story read by Bert Rodriguez."
Rodriguez is cranked about his big chance at snagging the spotlight in the center ring of Miami's humongous art fair. Basel has just opened to a cacophony of cymbals and trombones, with a parade down South Beach that includes 18 blimps. The artist has four nighttime performances during Basel week, and he hopes to make a stir.
"The fourth Chinese brother could not be burned. The fifth Chinese brother could hold his breath indefinitely..."
Rodriguez pauses and looks around. Only a handful are watching now. The Cuban-American artist's lullaby to the Magic City, set against Art Basel's orgy of commercialism, seems to be falling on deaf ears.
Rodriguez, undeterred, flips another page.
The few passersby who happen across Rodriguez in 2006 have no idea the Miami artist's career will soon take off — and that along the way, the talented prankster will display some of the superhuman attributes of the five Chinese siblings.
The artist has had to stiffen his neck like a bar of iron and keep his legs stretched while buried up to his ears in a plot of earth for a bizarre museum show. He has had to hold his breath for indeterminable lengths while massaging hundreds of stinky feet during a four-day art fair. And he considers himself somewhat fireproof after emerging from a cauldron of scrutiny during his flash-boil ascent to the international stage.
Today, Bert Rodriguez is one of the biggest names on the homegrown scene. He can fill his gallery with paid advertising or sell artwork he hasn't yet made.
He earned critical acclaim for his appearance at the 2008 Whitney Biennial and made a name for himself by subverting art world conventions, poking fun at himself and notions of celebrity through his provocative oeuvre.
But he learned his lesson about Basel in 2006. "I'm up there reading this book every night during all of Basel, and there are only five people attending, and most of them relatives?" he says with a laugh. "So now I'm just, like, let the gallery pick the pieces they want, put them in the booth at the convention center during Basel, and sell them. That's the point of the fair, right?"
To Rodriguez, Art Basel is another week at the office. He no longer needs to resort to desperate measures for attention when the art circus rolls into town.
But to just about everyone else on the Miami art scene, it's an opportunity to sign with a gallery, catch the eye of a curator, or sell a piece that can pay a year's rent for studio space. It's a chance to score the winning touchdown and shout, "I'm going to Disney World!" at what many call the Super Bowl of the art world.
For local artists, the first week in December can be the best or the worst of times. It can lead to a season of hope or a winter of despair.
With the art world's rainmakers in town this week for Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), the prospect of success lies before South Florida talent as does the sad reality of getting squashed in the fray.
This week, a few fortunate homegrown artists might find themselves riding a rocket to Heaven, while for the unluckier ones, Basel might leave them plunging down an elevator the opposite way. It's a time when careers can be made or broken.
"For artists who have grown up in or live in Miami, Basel can impact them for the better, but sometimes not so much," says local dealer Fredric Snitzer, a member of the ABMB selection committee and owner of an eponymous gallery in Wynwood. Snitzer has been Rodriguez's local dealer for the past ten years.
"Certainly, to develop here as an artist now and be exposed to an international arts community during Basel each year can help," he says.
Snitzer knows of what he speaks. The graybeard dealer has been in the art business for more than 30 years and is the go-to talking head on the Miami art scene. He has a keen eye for talent and has launched Rodriguez and fellow homegrown art stars Luis Gispert, Hernan Bas, and Beatriz Monteavaro toward successful international careers. He also has seen aspiring locals desperate for fame imploding at Basel. "It all depends on the individual artist and how they metabolize it," he says.
Through December 5, thousands of visiting art dealers, curators, academics, museum honchos, and wealthy collectors will be in town for what has become the planet's largest arts confab. They're gathered here for ABMB, now in its ninth edition, which attracts more than 50,000 visitors to South Florida during the art fair's five-day run.