Every edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, it seems, can be marked by that year’s viral artwork. You know what I mean. 

In 2019, there was Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian, a banana duct-taped to a wall, that promptly sold for $120,000. Go back over a decade earlier and dealer Gavin Brown had a booth occupied solely by a crumpled cigarette pack dangling from a fishing line (Urs Fisher’s Nach Jugenstil Kam Roccoko). Then, last year, of course, there was MSCHF’s ATM machine: slide your card in and have your bank account contents ranked against everyone else at the fair. (Diplo got the top spot with $5 million in his checking account before getting booted by someone with $9.5 million). 

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This year, nothing and everything seemed to be making a bid to be the fair’s next viral work.

At the center of the UBS Lounge sits a claw machine titled Fantasy World (2023), a found object filled with toys and candy by Nigerian American artist Anthony Olumbunmi Akinbola. Beside it is a table with a fishbowl full of quarters, dropping the barrier for participation from fifty cents to zero. The game does not appear to be rigged. The machine’s attendant told ARTnews that over the previous hour and a half, she had seen five people win a prize. In the few minutes I watched people play, five failed. Seemed like normal claw machine odds. 

Larry Ossei-Mensah, the co-founder of UBS partner ARTNOIR and the curator of the lounge, told ARTnews that he first encountered the work at Night Gallery in Los Angeles. His friend won on his first try but,when Ossei-Mensah played, he lost three times in a row. “I got really pissed!” he said, and became intrigued by the machine’s affective abilities. “[Akinbola] is really interested in that moment of chance, how value changes depending on context. If you win this game at a fair, or at Basel, is it different?”

As I said goodbye to Ossei-Mensah, a journalist from the Spanish newspaper El Nacional walked up.  “Ah,” I thought. “We’re all looking for the next banana.” 

While the gallerists that I spoke to insisted that they didn’t bring work for the sake of spectacle, there was some acknowledgment that Art Basel Miami Beach isn’t the worst place to bring a fun, perhaps gimmicky work. As long as it walked the line.

A massive image of the classic painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware river made up of Legos.
Washington Crossing the Delaware (2023), Ai Wei Wei.
Shanti Escalante-De Mattei/ARTnews

At Berlin-based gallery neugerriemschneider, a large work by Ai Wei Wei was surrounded by people taking photos with their phones—a sure sign of potential virality or newsworthiness, especially since Ai has a knack for the iconic and memey. The work in question was Washington Crossing the Delaware (2023), a 12.5 x 21 foot work made entirely of tiny Legos. 

“He’s having his Lego moment,” neugerriemschneider’s press liaison, Jonathan Freidrich Stockhorst, told ARTnews. Stockhorst added that, while this was the inaugural display of this particular work, Ai has been showing other pieces from the series. In October, the gallery displayed’s AI’s Sleeping Venus (After Giorgione) (2022) at Paris+ par Basel.

“It’s very accessible, he’s asking, where is the threshold between the highly regarded art canon and the highly accessible?” Stockhorst said. I suggested that that threshold typified Miami Art Week. “Yes, exactly, exactly,” he responded.

An imitation stone crab spins on a metal pole beside a lemon.
Another work in Los Angeles-based artist Andrew J. Greene’s Timeless Symbols series at The Modern Institute’s booth at the 2023 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach.

Over at Glasgow, Scotland’s the Modern Institute, a Negroni–sadly imitation plastic, not real– slowly spinned atop a silver pole. The work, Timeless Symbols (Negroni) (2023) was by Los Angeles-based artist Andrew J. Greene, who has made plenty of cheeky sculptures with implicit capitalist critiques. When I spoke with a passerby in the booth, he responded, “Oh if you think this one is very Miami, see the one in the back.” Indeed: the work in question had the same revolving pole, but, sitting upon it, a replica of a dish of stone crab, complete with a lemon wedge. It was a tad gimmicky, but in a way that I found to be very cool and sexy. 

When I asked Calum Sutherland, an artist liaison for The Modern Institute, if the gallery tried to pick works with, let’s say, a Miami sensibility, he excused himself to talk with his superiors. “Well the series is called ‘Timeless Symbols’ so they’re universally understood, but the stone crab is, yes, a little nod to Miami,” Sutherland told ARTnews upon his return.  “I think that’s fair to say.” 

A viral work needs an attention-seeking unit behind it, so I guessed the crab wouldn’t be it. 

While other artworks at the fair walked the line, none took the bold step to try to get all of Miami’s attention for themselves. This in-between vibe fit the character of this year’s fair, which, all things considered, appeared a little slow. Before I left for sunny Florida, many people in New York told me they wouldn’t be going this year. They’d just been “so many times before.” When I mentioned this to a gallerist friend at the fair, they fact-checked me: “They just don’t have the money right now,” the gallerist said.

In these financially unimpressive times, in this year’s subdued market, Miami’s charms are subdued. It’s a place made alive by excess and the lack of spectacle this year, I’ll admit, brings a tear to my eye.

Maybe next year will bring back the $120,000 bananas.