Is this the most narcissistic city on Earth?
After four days of divine gastronomy in Miami’s Latin American barrios I needed some brain food. Fortunately, the resurgent city is awash with options, from the new Artechouse and Feana art space on Miami Beach to the impressive Pérez Art Museum (PAMM) downtown.
But just when I was cooling off in the air-con and allowing myself to be absorbed by the interactive, enveloping abstracts at Artechouse, I was distracted by Russian girls filming themselves in one of the dozen or so light installations. Not content with the complex patterns programmed by French digital artists Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne, the wintering Muscovettes proceeded to take over the space and shoot their own “art”. One of them was, apparently, an aspiring modern dancer, letting her arms drape around the touch-sensitive curtain like a Diaghilev in hotpants. The other was more of a face photographer, filling every take with a gurn.
I met them later on in a sort of 3D cinema, once again blocking my view and demolishing the optical illusion of travelling through space.
At the Pérez, which is big enough to accommodate ten times its number of daily visitors, you’d think there was plenty of room for quiet mediation. But no, now intruding on my view were gangs of teens. Not the schoolgroup chaos of, say, the Tate Modern, nor even the caption-snappers and Van Gogh hoggers of the National Gallery, but the more assertive, ambitious, annoying selfie-ists of 21st century America: boys and girls garbed in garish bermudas, baseball caps and summer dresses standing in front of huge canvases in order to place themselves in prime position. Me, me, shoot me, like this, like that, no like this!
You could call this a new kind of interactive – or interruptive – art, but, is it, really? A recent anti-travel book by Argentine rising star Andrés Neuman is titled How to Travel Without Seeing. The author makes lively reference to jet-speed, advertising, 24-hour news feeds and his own hectic schedule to show how we can whiz round the globe and not observe much more than our own navels. But the narcissistic escapades of the digital generation have honed this nihilistic approach by seeing everything – fine art, contemporary architecture, manicured gardens and historic landmarks – as mere props to their own mono-thematic story. And the theme is always: Me. Me, with arms akimbo. Me, with my new clothes. Me: saturated, cropped, improved, shared – multiply by a thousand thousands.
But Miami has something to do with it, too. A city gifted with eternal sunshine, under permanent construction (or demolition), where gentrification takes place seemingly overnight and is shamelessly superficial and absolute. Witness Wynwood, formerly Little Puerto Rico, latterly street-art central, all posh shops and fusion eateries – and where life is lived uncovered, with car roofs down, sleeves off, pants shorn and feet flip-flopped, display and exposure are everything. Day and night feral males make their Mustangs and Ferraris growl just to get looks on Ocean Drive, big silver yachts cruise ostentatiously close to the harbour to appear in other people’s sunset shots and small props, sea-planes and choppers nod and pitch to say hello/goodbye to the earthbound minions.
Beach culture is generally vain. Musclemen, frescoball-players, surfers, bethonged joggers, and the kinds of yogi who just must do it in public, are not known for their demureness. The competition is vicious and with all those Brazilian and Argentine holidaymakers in town, as well, the youth – and youth-hungering not-so-young – of America have plenty of rivals on Miami’s sandy strand.
One morning, taking a pre-breakfast stroll along the edge of the surf, I was horrified to see a twentysmomething runner struggling to film herself while jogging. Skyping or live streaming, she was floundering along in soft sand while trying to keep her face in the phone’s lens – and see herself in its screen, and deliver a pithy commentary. Her gait, lack of puff and choice of route gave me the impression she was no runner at all – rather, she was projecting an idealised version of herself for enviable consumption in Lima, Mexico City, Pittsburgh, who knows.
Perhaps the fullest expression of vanity in Miami (etymology: My, Am, Me) is to be found in the uppercrust of South Floridan latinas. Here you get that heady mix of American self-centredness, Latin American body culture, and, above all, the ability to make an entrance – wherever I stopped to dine, at some stage, a group of wannabe female models would arrive for, always, ceviche to share, green salads, water off the rocks. The reason for this stoicism: well, they were in fact models, or almost. Miami is, alongside LA, one of the USA’s numero uno wannabe cities. Everyone comes to the world’s busiest transit lounge to start a new journey, to find themselves, to get a tan, make a buck. No wonder it makes your average British sandal-wearing, sunburnt tourist feel insecure.
There is, though, a solution – or, at least, an available exit strategy – and it’s not that far away, physically or culturally, from the above. For Miami possesses a rather Old World vibe notwithstanding the doubly New World angle. Retired Cubans don’t preen. Colombian diners don’t stint on the corn or the oil, or the meat, or the cheese. The Uber-driving, hard-grafting generation of immigrants from Panama, Venezuela, Honduras, don’t have time to surf or shop.
Here I found my casa, my home from home, and even a couple of art galleries where phones were kept in pockets, egos inside heads, and eyes switched on to see, feel, learn, look at something other than self, self, self.