eyes on the U.S.

Art, Money And The "Vida Loca" Mingle In Miami Beach

Art Week and the sumptuous events around its star show, Art Basel Miami Beach, was a perfect showcase not just for art, but also guiltless expenditure of vast amounts of cold hard cash.

Hank Willis Thomas, Ryan Alexiev and Jim Ricks' "Truth Booth" at Art Basel Miami Beach
Hank Willis Thomas, Ryan Alexiev and Jim Ricks' "Truth Booth" at Art Basel Miami Beach
Mercedes Pérez Bergliaffa


MIAMI — Some 1,000 private jets landed at Miami's Opa Locka Executive Airport in early December for Art Basel Miami Beach, Latin America's most important art fair, where more than art was on display.

There was abundant evidence of facial and other surgical procedures meant to embellish this less-than-proletarian, rather tanned crowd here — 73,000 art world "workers" alone — to celebrate the marriage of art and investment in one of 24 events surrounding the most glamorous of fairs.

The public can attend, of course, and have four days to visit Art Basel. But VIP guests have a week to visit the 267 Art Basel galleries, before visiting hundreds of others and attending meetings, parties and permanent sales where prices this year did not fall below hundreds of thousands of dollars. Pieces were sold within minutes, no haggling.

It was a common sight to see collectors walking around with their advisers — they don't deal directly with gallery owners and dealers — quickly selecting and reserving artworks. Overhead in Art Basel's VIP section (which I entered with a press card and my "collector's" tag), were comments like, "I don't know if I should buy two pieces for $100,000 or one for that price." And the response, "You've seen them already. Buy the two for a hundred, and you can just buy another one later."

That was merely peanuts compared to the $35 million said to have been paid to reserve Alexander Calder's Rouge Triomphant, shown by the Helly Nahmad Gallery, or a Basquiat painting that Van de Weghe Fine Art sold for $5.6 million. The Mnuchin Gallery sold an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao for $4.5 million, and the White Cube Gallery unloaded Damien Hirst's Love Remembered for a cool $4 million.

Serious collectors and pop culture converge

A strange mix of artists, celebrities, art consultants and historians mingled at some of the fabulous parties thrown by companies and collectors, typically for some 400 people. Argentine businessman Alan Faena, who's opening an art center in Miami in 2015, brought 12 assistants from Argentina to organize his much-commented-on barbecues.

Guests at some of the lunches included Paris Hilton, Leonardo di Caprio, Kim Kardashian, tennis player Venus Williams and Ivanka Trump. There were also museum directors, tech and dotcom billionaires, and more "ordinary" billionaires such as Francois-Henri Pinault, the owner of Louis Vuitton and Gucci.

The jokes at these parties were about, well, art and money. One English billionaire hailed another of his kind, art dealer Ivor Braka, as the "richest man in the world." No, "You're the richest man in the world," Braka answered, laughing and giving me a little wink. Braka later told me his friend was rich, but shy. He "always goes around with a little camera taking pictures. It's his way of making contact with other people."

Faena, our Argentine host, described Braka as the "rock "n" roll" art dealer, perhaps because of his leather trousers and jacket. His business sense is anything but crazy, given that he sells works by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

Meanwhile, on continental Miami, the Pérez Art Museum was celebrating its first birthday with a musical party, DJs and all, and displays of "flying" dancers over Biscayne Bay in front of the museum. Art Basel night parties are intense, and breakfasts tend to be devoted to business.

One key daytime event was organized by Don and Mera Rubell. "To Have and to Hold: 50 Years of Marriage and Collecting Contemporary Art" was a celebration of the Rubells' marriage and their mutual passion for art. Besides displaying their collection in 20 rooms, the couple hosted a "performance" in which they spoon-fed their guests portions of 50 different cakes. Collectors like to be seen as original, and generous.

In another show of generous expenditure, "art lover" Craig Robbins had the Miami Design District's pedestrian street closed off so 400 guests could enjoy a dinner in honor of architect Peter Marino. Seventy waiters ensured no champagne glass was ever empty.

As art writer Sarah Thornton told me once, the art world is an exclusive club. In Miami, life itself seems to be a big raffle.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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