Visiting Art Basel and Santa’s Enchanted Forest on the Same Day

It hurts my head the idea that census takers could be correct. Are there actually eight billion different people on this planet, each one the center of their own completely different universe? This past Saturday I went to two wildly disparate settings, only twenty miles apart, showing the full range of humanity.

My day began with a mile walk to the Miami Beach Convention where for the first time ever I visited Art Basel. The whole first December week in South Florida that is filled with art, music, and parties has been collectively branded as Art Basel. But the actual Art Basel is at the Convention Center where galleries from all over the world display their art for sale.

I’d been in the space many times for the comic book convention and the home show, so I know intellectually how big the Convention Center is. But to see every inch taken up by art is really quite overwhelming. I started off with excitement. Are those paintings by the actual Henri Matisse? So that’s what a Basquiat painting looks like?

Within an hour it all doesn’t start to look the same, but it might as well to my limited attention span. I try to get a second wind and give random works of art my focus, but it quickly wanes again. It happens every time I go to a world class museum. I start off stunned to be surrounded by such history and skill and then I slowly get numb to it.

But Art Basel has a completely different vibe from most museums I’ve entered.

The event staff are dressed in fluffy white outfits that have them look like an amalgam of a cloud and an avant-garde cult member.¬† Each section of Art Basel is run by a different gallery. The gallerists come from all over the world, but they all follow the same rule. They type away at their computers, suddenly popping up if they see someone who might have the disposable income to purchase one of their works. I don’t know how, but they sense it. I don’t often get intimidated, but even though I desperately wanted to know how much the Picassos went for, I couldn’t help but feel I didn’t have enough of a financial portfolio to be worthy of their time.

There’s much more variety with the patrons. There are the fashionistas, the scenesters, the ultra-wealthy. A twelve year old boy was brought by his mother who scolded him for saying it was boring. “You think it’s less boring just sitting in the hotel room?”

A grown man was scolded by a Russian couple for wearing a t-shirt that read, “Russia is a terrorist state”. It had me wondering what kind of outrage it would cause if his shirt read, “Israel is a terrorist state”.

I heard one woman complain that she “hadn’t really been wowed by anything.” Another said, “It’s unique because¬† all the art is in one place and so are all the buyers.” The biggest brag I overheard was, “The wonderful thing about my art is it sells all my homes and then I get to keep the art.” Eventually I found my way out and walked home, but my day wasn’t complete.

We promised our daughter a trip to Santa’s Enchanted Forest.

I hadn’t been to the seasonal carnival since I was close to her age of ten. Back then it was held at Tropical Park which at night could kind have been seen as a forest. Now it’s way out west of Hialeah, where remarkably for the flatland of Florida there were a couple of mountains in the landscape. I assume they were molded out of garbage. But I’m not a geologist.

Getting there in the daytime right when Santa’s Enchanted Forest opened at 5 pm there was an apocalyptic feel to the enterprise. The asphalt ground was covered in muck, the rides made squeaking noises, and the vending machines selling drinks needed to be punched to plop out bottled water.

But while the gallerists at Art Basel saw right through me, I was getting all the carnies attention. “Come on play this game, you can’t lose”.

The wonderful thing about getting there early was there were no lines. We got to do the bumper cars twice in a row, they let the carousel rotate for a couple extra minutes. The bad thing was I told my daughter I’d go on one of the insane rides.

I love thrill rides to an extent.

I’ll go on nearly any permanent roller coaster or water slide, however these temporary attractions scare the hell out of me. As she pointed out one shoddily crafted torture chamber after another, I welched. How about I do the ride that looks slightly dangerous instead of murderous?

Perhaps the most endearing thing about Santa’s Enchanted Forest are the old timey sideshows. They had a magician. He was very low energy as he slowly chopped up his female assistant in a box. But I did appreciate one line of dialogue he spouted out, “You never know when you might need some magic in your life.”

More fascinating, if less poignant was the Dominguez family circus. One by one the family members show off their skills. First Mom twirls a dozen hula hoops. Then their twelve year old son does flips. Uncle Joe rides a bike across the forty foot high tightrope. Dad’s role just seems to be to menacingly glare at his castmates to inspire them not to mess up. But then he shows up on a motorcycle and rides upside down in the globe of death. His wife joins him in the globe, one mess up could lead to an awful injury, but she doesn’t flinch.

It seemed like our outing was done.

Time to head home, but my daughter brought up a promise was a promise. In a momentary lapse of reason perhaps inspired by the can-do fearlessness of the Dominguez family circus, but more likely due to the class clown in me still looking for acceptance by amusing people through my humiliation, I agreed.

Eventually she picked out The Claw, a contraption where they strap you and twenty other people in to spend two never ending minutes swinging left to right ninety feet in the air. I didn’t know what would come out first, my heart out of my chest or vomit. Through a combination of breathing exercises and prayer to change my ways I somehow survived. When it finally ended I clutched at my shirt for somewhat exaggerated effect. But on the walk out I couldn’t help but notice a crew of teenagers on the ride with me got right back in line to ride The Claw again. How each of these people were given the right to be the center of a universe I’ll never understand.

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David Rolland

David Rolland edits the Jitney blog. He is the author of the novels Yo-Yo & The End of the Century.