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.
Held at the Miami Beach Convention Center, ABMB features 250 top-flight galleries from 29 countries representing North and Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, exhibiting 20th- and 21st-century works by more than 2,000 artists, including Bert Rodriguez.
During Basel week, Miami transforms into a sprawling installation covering the area from Ocean Drive to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and points in between.
In addition to the arts glitterati gathered at the convention center, where everything from bleeding-edge projects to museum-quality works will be on display, a dozen additional fairs will run at the same time, including NADA, Pulse, Scope, Red Dot, Art Miami, Design Miami, and indie expo Fountain Miami, among others. Those ancillary shindigs house countless other galleries and visiting artists from South Beach to Wynwood. (For a list of fairs and locations, see "Art Basel satellite fairs" in this issue.)
For local talent such as Jessica Laino, Limchoy Lee, Jose Felix Perez, and Sleeper — all poised to graduate from the New World School of the Arts and become the next generation of Bert Rodriguezes — the stakes couldn't be higher.
Those four young artists (see "Fountain Miami artists make a splash" in this issue) will perform at the Fountain Art Fair as part of "Hotbed," a 24-hour project featuring an installation and performance by each of the artists. Organized by Miami's Wet Heat Project, which has also produced a full-length documentary about Rodriguez himself, the event will be broadcast live on the Internet and chronicled in a documentary film scheduled for release in 2011.
With nearly a half-billion dollars expected to swap hands during the mega-art fire sale, the pressure on South Florida artists to break through the noise is intense, and the competition is beyond fierce.
Bert Rodriguez sits behind a fastidiously ordered desk in his capacious Wynwood studio with rows of receipts lined up in front of his computer to forward to an accountant. He's a commercial success now, selling just about anything he makes, often sight unseen.
The 35-year-old says he has built his career in slow increments since his appearance at the Whitney in 2008. He has always exhibited works on the art fair circuit, riffing on rampant consumerism with neon signs trumpeting, "Xmas — it's closer than you think," or "The true artist makes useless shit for rich people to buy," or a wall of individual drawings emblazoned with the phrase "Like hotcakes."
Today he is no longer a starving artist relying on Basel to get fat. Rodriguez credits Basel's presence for his financial turnaround but exposure outside of Miami for his career taking off to another level.
"I made a real chunk, selling a piece for ten grand during Basel rather than my little shows with Fred [Snitzer]. But for me, it's always been a slow and steady climb," Rodriguez says.
"For my last show at Snitzer's — "I'll Cross That Bridge When I Get to It" — I opened the exhibit with an empty gallery space. The concept was for me to make a different piece each day of the show. I made 25 pieces in 25 days."
All the work was offered beforehand to collectors as a set of futures, Rodriguez says. Buyers could secure a piece for about $2,500.
"It forced me out of a comfort zone, because I usually don't make art that way. But I sold 60 percent of the show," he says. Nonetheless, Rodriguez admits to "shitting my pants the whole time since I never work that way," yet he's satisfied the exhibit was "conceptually sound" as well as successful.
"The show had to do with the concept of faith," he says. "Now that I am thought to be like some kind of important artist by some people who place a higher value on my work for some reason, I figured I could subvert that somehow. I was surprised that the few works I didn't sell at the show were offered by the gallery afterward in the $12,000 range," he adds, eyebrows raised. Some later sold at their full market value.
Next to the receipts on his desk sits a plastic bag full of bent twigs. He pulls out a piece of knotted wood and palms it gingerly as if it were a Fabergé egg.
"I collected these over the summer when I was in Seattle for an arts residency, and I'm going to dip them in resin to harden them and make a circular coat-rack-type installation for my new place. Maybe I'll have Fred show them at the fair," he cracks.
The truth is, it's six weeks before Art Basel 2010, and Rodriguez has no idea what he'll be showing this year.
But he isn't worried and neither is his dealer. Rodriguez has a reputation for pulling a rabbit out of his hat, and collectors and observers of the local scene will just have to guess what he'll come up with for Basel this year.
"Most people think I pull work out of my butt at the last moment," Rodriguez says. "But the truth is by the time I present something in public, I've already worked it out way in advance. That's how I work. I make things in my head."
It's been two years since Rodriguez's career took off at the Whitney Biennial, where he offered 45-minute "therapy" sessions inside a white cube at the Park Avenue Armory during his installation-performance piece, In the Beginning.
People could sign up online for the free sessions. "I would meet this random stranger waiting on a couch outside the cube," Rodriguez says.
He found himself facing attorneys, stockbrokers, teachers, and students. The cube space was equipped with two chairs, a coffee table — complete with a decorative cactus — and a clock on the wall, the typical accouterments of a therapist's office.
"Most people would come in and I would explain to them this was an art piece, and they would fidget in their chairs uncomfortably for the first 15 minutes," he says. "But after a while, most of them would loosen their guard after they figured I wasn't just some artist who was trying to dupe them. I would engage them sort of like this warm ear, and they began to open up and unload these emotional whoppers on me."
During the Whitney, he spoke with more than 100 people who taxed his emotions in a way he had never expected. His sessions became so popular that after the first of four weeks, he was booked solid and had to turn away the Whitney's director.
"It was grueling. After reaching a level of intimacy with these people after 15 to 20 minutes, almost like clockwork, they would lay some serious shit on me, like, 'My grandfather killed himself when I was a kid and I didn't go to the funeral and have felt guilty ever since,'" Rodriguez says. "I found myself holding back tears at times and would wake up crying in my hotel room for no reason every morning. It was as if I was purging everything I heard the day before."
The project received widespread critical acclaim. "After that, I didn't stop," Rodriguez says. "I literally had a project after that every month in a different city in the world. One month I'm in New York, the next month I'm in Paris, then in London, then in Berlin. Then I come back in time for Basel, and it's like bop, bop, bop," he says, snapping his fingers.
A few months after the Whitney, he gave art patrons, including Guardian critic Adrian Searle, ten-minute foot massages in a performance titled Where You End and I Begin at London's 2008 Frieze Art Fair.
Rodriguez's approach hasn't changed over the years: He thrives on unpredictability. It helps him handle the pressures of increasing critical and commercial success.
For his first solo exhibition at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery in 2001, Rodriguez filled the space with hand-crafted furniture and hired a feng shui priestess to display his work.
"That kind of put me on the map as some kind of artist," he says. "I had the feng shui priestess curate the furniture for me. It was my first show in a commercial gallery, and I thought that people in the class bracket that might buy the stuff just might be the sort to hire a feng shui person to display the work in their homes. I was just doing it proactively for them."
For those who might think Rodriguez is suffering from a swollen head, forget it. The self-deprecating artist remains a conceptual prankster known for knocking the starch out of the art world's stuffed shirts. He sits in his studio approaching his career like a plumber, accountant, or any other ordinary businessman.
If anything, the artist is more laid-back than when he began. But as it turns out, there's a story behind this — a near-tragedy in 2009.
Rodriguez was riding his bike to see Snitzer, zooming along, when a driver clipped him and sent him hurtling to the curb in front of the Bacardi Building on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 21st Street. As Rodriguez lay there, watching the front wheel of his bike spin to a stop, he poked a finger into a gaping head wound. Then he tore off his shirt to staunch the blood flow. The motorist never stopped.
Rodriguez was rushed to the hospital in critical condition with his back broken in three places and a nasty, half-moon laceration on his forehead reaching from ear to ear and requiring 47 stitches. Doctors told him it was a miracle he didn't end up paralyzed.
"I kept being told that if I would have landed a centimeter off at another angle, I could have spent the rest of my life in a wheelchair," he says. "I recovered miraculously fast and didn't have to undergo physical therapy or anything like that.
"Now my fear of death is so low," he says. "I have had this weird feeling that I'm not done yet. It's strange. It's like now I know that if something else happened to me, like losing an arm or something, I'd still be doing what I do, still making art somehow."
Rodriguez continued making art in his head while bedridden for several months. Afterward, he left postcards of his bald head at restaurants and lounges so strangers could alter his appearance and mail it back to be used in a book and an exhibit.
For a solo show in early 2009 at the Bass Museum of Art, he shocked visitors at his opening in a performance titled What a Tree Feels Like, in which he had himself buried like a Hindu ascetic near the exhibit's entrance.
Sitting inside his apartment recently, he pauses to look up from his computer, where he's designing a minimalist soundproof cube bed for his swank new digs overlooking Biscayne Bay.
"I work late at night sometimes, and my girlfriend is moving here from Seattle and I want her to be able to sleep without being disturbed," he says. "The bed is something else I can exhibit at the convention center."
Rodriguez wasn't remotely stressed about what he would produce for Basel. "I joined a band and might be performing during the fair," he says.
Snitzer, for his part, shows little concern whether Rodriguez will be able to generate some last-moment magic. Rodriguez doesn't owe his accomplishments to Basel, the dealer says.
"Basel is good. It brings an international audience to Miami. But the work has to be good," Snitzer says. "Bert's career has evolved internationally not because he was in Basel but because of the Whitney and Frieze instead.
"It's important to have a career outside this place and outside of Basel, and that's going to be the test for any artist."
Rodriguez is on his way to guitar practice, and he offers his opinions about the pressure of Art Basel and how it's affecting a new generation of local talent.
"These kids coming out of art school now, with Basel already present, some of them have it in their mind that the second they graduate, they are going to get into a gallery, get a show, and make money. It doesn't work like that," says Rodriguez, a graduate of the New World School of the Arts.
"I mean, quien carajo tu te crees que tu eres? Some 23-year-old, piece-of-shit, little punk that doesn't know anything yet? They have to get out there, fuck around first, and pay their dues."
Rodriguez says some of the students have the right attitude to deal with the expectations Basel can breed. Instead of trying to get into "20 group shows during the fair after not working hard the rest of the year, the smart ones are working steadily at preparing for their careers," he says.
"I see them talking about sticking it to The Man, talking about going and doing a little show at a hotel room somewhere, getting out there and doing something interesting with the right attitude. When you see them with the right approach, I think, All right, this one is going to be OK. The other ones you feel like telling, 'C'mon, man! Success happens to one in a million. You have to work hard first and not worry about the rest.'"
With Basel just around the corner, Rodriguez seems more interested in channeling his inner 15-year-old guitar hero.
"I kinda have that hot-dog, big-hair rock star still making noise somewhere in my head," he muses. "I was making music way before I made art, starting when I was in about third grade." At one point or another, Rodriguez says, he dabbled in 14 instruments, including the piano, saxophone, guitar, oboe, clarinet, and violin.
"I gave it up when I began making art, which turned out to be a better creative outlet for me," he says.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Rodriguez takes a seat in the living room of Ed Matus's fourth-floor apartment overlooking Biscayne Bay, twanging the bass during a rehearsal with his friend's band, the Waterford Landing.
Matus's band is undergoing a lineup change and has invited Rodriguez to join its ranks. "Lately, I've caught myself creating this character of who I'm supposed to be," Rodriguez says.
"I know what you mean," Matus chimes in.
"Dude, fuck that guy," Rodriguez says.
"It's bad to think of yourself in the third person," Matus says.
"The former bass player had big-ass fingers and could do things I can't do," Rodriguez says as he launches into a whining lick from a song called "Shotgun to Heaven."
Asked if he'll do something music-oriented during Basel, Rodriguez stops to think. "I'm not sure yet," he says. "Maybe I'll do a photo piece in which I dress up like one of those teenage guitar freaks with big hair and write a guitar lesson like the ones you see in those weird music magazines."
When the artist launches into a solo riff, Matus's Dalmatian, curled up on a rug in the next room, cocks its ear.
"Dude," Matus crows in disbelief, "this guy has come in cold and already knows three of our songs by ear. Then he lays it on me that he hasn't picked up his instrument in three years."
It is now Thanksgiving week, and Rodriguez, true to form, is ready for some razzle-Basel sleight of hand.
He decides he wants to shave his body, paint it silver, and re-create for New Times a page in W magazine's recent art issue featuring a naked Kim Kardashian. "I'm going to blow up the photos into posters and plaster them on a booth wall at the convention center during Basel," he says. To him, the gesture represents everything inane about the art fair circuit and contemporary pop culture.
"Think about it," he says. "She's famous for releasing a sex tape, and now here she is on the cover of W with a work by an iconic feminist artist [Barbara Kruger] from the Seventies with strong political views, and here she is 40 years later covering Kardashian's beaver and boobs. There is no irony in it at all."
Rodriguez says his stunt reflects the type of posing that goes on during Basel each year. All the glitz, glam, mirrors, and smoke can fuel irrational expectations for artists.
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But this artist isn't swayed by the hype. All he has to do is think of Basel 2006 — and those five Chinese brothers.
"If I do something really stupid and business takes a drop, if I get shot in the face or can't speak, if something happens that I stop thinking — then I'd be fucked," Rodriguez says.
"But unless that happens, I'm good."
View our slide show of Bert Rodriguez cover shoot outtakes.