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Last Wednesday night, after Iggy Pop’s free concert kicked off Art Basel Miami Beach (Dec. 6-9), an art fair that’s the centerpiece of the world’s largest conglomeration of art dealers, I came across a gaggle of women in short dresses scaling a fence to crash a more exclusive party in the back garden of the city’s Raleigh Hotel.

Inside, thousands of designer-clad artists, patrons, dealers and hangers-on were gathered around the pool and in semi-private outdoor lounges — I crashed the party through the regular entrance — sipping cocktails and sometimes watching a female rock band in tiny hot pants, body paint and not much else. The next night, pro skater Tony Alva, of Dogtown fame, busted disappointingly few tricks as part of a special event called Concrete Waves: Homage to Skate Culture. Paris Hilton was meanwhile hosting a party in a South Beach nightclub, which had nothing to do with art whatsoever.

Maybe it’s still not Mardi Gras, but Art Basel Miami Beach has rapidly ballooned into an enormous fiesta of culture and socialites. Dubbed an “art Costco for billionaires” by the New York Times, it is a whirlwind display of art, parties and huge sums of money. Even with prices high this year, sales were brisk. One of the most notable was an Andy Warhol Mao painting from 1973, listed at US$12.5 million by Acquavella Galleries (final sale price undisclosed).

“We need to be here,” says Sueo Mitsuma, director of Tokyo’s Mizuma Art Gallery, with major emphasis on the “need.” “The Japanese local market is too small, and too conservative. If we want to be an international gallery and develop wider support for our artists, we have to come to events like this.”

Mizuma was exhibiting at Pulse, one of 20 satellite fairs that have sprung up like mushrooms around the central Art Basel Miami Beach event, which was launched in 2002 by Europe’s largest and most select art fair, Art Basel. The 21 fairs comprised around 1,200 international galleries and work by thousands of artists. Art Basel Miami Beach alone drew 43,000 visitors.

At least a dozen Japanese galleries presented in Miami last week, up from five or six in 2006, as did a handful of Korean and Chinese galleries. While the Asian proportion was minor, with an oddly weak presence of Chinese art, at least three special projects made very big splashes. These were the international launch of Takashi Murakami’s Geisai art fair; a full-size Chinese convenience store replica by Chinese artist Xu Zhen; and an online game city by Chinese artist Cao Fei that will probably break all records for virtual real-estate valuations if it successfully sells its space — which includes replicas of the Shanghai Tower and the Beijing Olympic Stadium and a giant panda bear — in the game Second Life for the asking price of $80,000-$120,000.

Increasingly, Asia’s gallerists are finding new eager buyers abroad and leveraging prices they can’t raise at home. Mitsuma quickly sold a large painting by Makoto Aida — “Harakiri School Girls” — for $100,000 to an international buyer. The manga-inspired work mixes gore with kawaii as super- cute school girls that wink as they disembowel themselves with swords.

“Western buyers are less hesitant to pay a lot of money. They’ll consider a work’s spiritual or social meaning,” said Eri Hamaji of Tokyo’s Yuka Sasahara Gallery, which was exhibiting for the first time internationally. “But Japanese buyers are more materialistic. They will think that a drawing for US$800 is just a piece of paper and wonder why it costs so much.” Among Westerners, she added, “there’s a lot of interest in Japanese art.”

The Japanese art on offer came in two main styles, the slick, manga-inspired Superflat aesthetic and a new naive, regressed version that draws on cuteness in a more painterly way. Superflat pioneer Takashi Murakami sold in a number of booths at Art Basel, though galleries contacted would not reveal prices. In satellite fairs, Kenichi Yokono’s anime-carved skateboards were hot-selling eye candy at Mark Moore Gallery. And Tokyo Gallery + BTAP sold Dragonball-style portraits in the $30,000 range by Hiroyuki Matsuura.

Tokyo’s premier Tomio Koyoma Gallery represented the folksy naifs with 28-year-old Makiko Kudo, whose two broad-brushwork paintings of a forlorn little girl are in many ways reminiscent of Yoshitomo Nara (also in the Koyama stable), though without the lurking deviousness. Her day-dreamy style is in many ways a rejection of Superflat’s heavy graphic emphasis, while also offering the possibility of a more personal, nuanced interior world.

Korean art on hand was as alluring, but much harder to peg and in many cases held fewer obvious cultural cues. Seoul’s Gana Art Gallery showed striking full-size animal sculptures made out of discarded automobile tires by the young artist Ji Yong Ho. These included a 3-meter hammerhead shark (unsold at $50,000, though most of his smaller $30,000 ram and bull heads found buyers). The combo of hunting trophies with our planet’s ubiquitous industrial waste was by turns both cool and spooky.

“The Korean market is so strong right now, both for domestic and international artists,” said Gana’s Jean Kim. “You have people both with money and an international perspective, and that’s a relatively recent phenomenon.”

One of Asia’s biggest wave-makers in Miami was Murakami’s Geisai, which he founded in 2001. In Japan, it has allowed hundreds of young artists to rent cheap booths and sell directly to the public.

In Miami, the Pulse fair adapted Murakami’s concept in a special section for 20 young artists, including three Japanese, who’d been selected by a jury. Prices ranged from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, and works sold like hotcakes in the carnival atmosphere. Three hours after the opening, Akira Ikezoe, who claimed he’d never had much opportunity to show in Japan outside of Geisai, had sold six of eight paintings — oils that wove tiny figures into flower stems — and had several more clients on a waiting list.

Though work ranged from quirky to cliched or immature, Geisai Miami’s symbolic triumphs were its indie spirit and the possibility of artist-to-buyer relationships, which almost never occur in this otherwise elitist sphere.

“This is very different from Geisai Japan,” said Shino Tagaki, of Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki studio. “In Japan, it’s about upstarting the art market. Here, it’s about giving artists a chance to represent themselves.”

Visitors and artists sometimes found the new arrangement uncomfortable.

“You walk into the booth, and the artist is just standing there. There’s no buffer. It makes it hard to comment on the work,” said Matt Luem, a young collector from Los Angeles. “To be honest, it’s a little strange.”

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