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How Peter Tunney (Sort Of) Dug Through Donald Trump's Trash to Make His "Craziest" Art Basel Show Ever

In July, hundreds of visitors began flocking to the defunct Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey, despite the hotel and casino, once owned by Donald Trump, closing its doors nine months earlier. A liquidation company had organized a sale of the items on the property, sold on a first-come basis, from the rugs on the floor to the chandeliers on the ceilings.

Peter Tunney—known for his creation of "Tunney Money"; formerly residing inside the nightclub Crobar; his close relationships with the rich and famous; and for being one of them himself—was one of these people. The famed visual artist, who is friends with a new owner of the hotel (which will become the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino), visited the space in August while the sale was still in process. "A friend of mine bought the Taj Mahal hotel, and called me up and said, 'You got to see this,' so I got in a helicopter, walked around and really had a 'Holy cow' moment," Tunney, who will debut Excerpts From The Taj Mahal (The Truth Always Happens) during Art Basel inside the Wynwood Walls, explains. "Vast. No one there. There's so many different warheads going off in your head. It's like, what happened?"

The juxtaposition of Atlantic City—from the broken Ferris wheel and dilapidated oceanfront property to the colossal looming hotels—was Tunney's initial motivating inspiration behind his new show. But it was his access to the Taj Mahal's remnants that was the most important factor. "My friend said, 'Peter, you can have anything you want,'" Tunney reveals. "And I'm a real dumpster diver. I love to take things out of some guy's garbage on 80th Street and make some connection with it, and then you can turn it into something that will last for 100 years. And this was the greatest pile I've ever walked into in my life!"

Items that Tunney acquired from the Taj Mahal include two golden marquees that weigh approximately 1,000 pounds each, oil paintings, wallpaper torn right off the walls, headboards, rugs, and a 30,000-piece chandelier. (Less than a week before his show for Art Basel, he was still attempting to have a crane extract three 15-foot-tall letters off the exterior of the building, which he hoped to have shipped down to Miami.) "A lot of things I overshot," he admits.

Tunney took pieces from the Taj Mahal to a farm in Princeton, New Jersey, to put together his art show.

-- Elizabeth Lippman

A live performance piece, which will represent the sinking of the Taj Mahal and take place on the beach in front of the Faena Hotel, will round out Peter Tunney's vision.

-- Elizabeth Lippman

The amount of effort needed to install a chandelier from the Taj Mahal into his studio in Miami may have been one of those things. "I said, 'Can I get one of the chandeliers? I would love to put one of the chandeliers in my studio in Wynwood.' And you have to remember where we are: It was one of the worst neighborhoods in Miami about eight years ago. Talk about incongruity," Tunney laughs. "This chandelier goes from the ceiling to the floor. It came in five crates the size of automobiles. I'm so committed; I didn't realize, I think it's going to be about 1,000 hours of man work."

Tunney is so committed, in fact, he has what he's dubbed an entire "chandelier team" to help him reconstruct the lighting fixture which once hung in the Taj Mahal along with 16 others. "They all came to my house for Thanksgiving," he says of his team. "And everybody's so into it. But it's just a stop-you-in-your-tracks moment." It took Tunney and his team five days to get the platform for the chandelier on the ceiling, due to the fact the glass alone weighs two tons. The effort, according to Tunney, is worth it, however. "I have dreams about this chandelier," he says. "I think it's a work of art."

Those venturing to Tunney's gallery searching for obvious jibes at Donald Trump, due to the nature of the materials used in the show, might come up empty-handed. "I have not used Trump in my narrative at all," says Tunney, but he admits "there’s an obvious connection. I kind of wish he didn’t own the Taj Mahal, because it’s too easy of a target."

Still, Tunney feels confident that visitors won't be disappointed. "It's pretty f**king crazy and over-the-top," he asserts. "It's the craziest thing I've ever done." Considering Tunney's past work, that certainly says a lot.

Excerpts From The Taj Mahal can be seen starting December 5th at The Peter Tunney Experience (located at 220 NW 26th Street, Miami, Florida 33127; 10 A.M.–12 A.M.)