A sense of relief abounds at the 44th Art Basel in Basel as we finally reach the finishing line to a manic 2013 art world Grand Prix that started in New York, moved to Hong Kong, crossed Venice and ended in Switzerland. As expected, the calendar has become a hot topic amongst the bleary-eyed. Discussions on bringing forward the 2015 Venice Biennale’s opening to the first week of May are already raging.
Yet, with exhaustion comes renewal. Having launched Hong Kong successfully, Art Basel is clearly using the momentum of 2013 to re-launch itself in the city where it all began. Originally, Art Basel was known simply as ‘The Art’. It has long been, in the eyes of the art world, a benchmark – the top of the pile. Art Basel’s pre-eminence is historical. Launched in 1970, it quickly surpassed Art Cologne (the first modern and contemporary art fair established in 1967) in popularity precisely because of its international focus.
Forty-four years on, the focus is global. This year, aside from shaking up the floor plan (galleries have been moved around to people’s delight and disdain), with the Statements, Magazine and Art Unlimited sections taking over Herzog and de Meuron’s newly-designed extension at Hall 1, Art Basel (in Basel) includes the largest number of exhibitors with spaces in the Asia-Pacific region, with galleries from Singapore and the Philippines present for the first time (Tyler Print Institute and Silverlens, showing Maria Taniguchi at Statements, respectively).
Art Unlimited is curated for the second time by Gianni Jetzer; with large-scale works including the realization of Lygia Clark’s aluminium plate sculpture, Fantastic Architecture, devised in 1963 and realized now. In truth, the section feels, at times and as one curator from a reputed European institution quipped, ‘a collection of set designs!’ Yet high points include Teresa Margolles’s cadaver-infused water dropping onto hot metal plates, (Plancha, 2010); Liu Wei’s cities cut out of books (Library II-I, 2012); Karla Black’s world of paint and bath balls on cellophane surfaces (Doesn’t Care in Words, 2011); and the best of the best, Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s Artichoke Underground (2012/13) – a sprawling environment that includes a Chinese takeaway with objects composed of rice in one room.
Then there is Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s 1972 installation, Enough Tiranny; objects from vases, fake plants and a disco ball highlighted by certain fluorescent tones (lights) evocative of those used in Rob Pruitt’s Unlimited offering at; Not Yet Titled (2013), a series of rudimentary portraits scribbled over the same acid-hued gradiations featured in Jeremy Deller’s 2005 work Bless this Acid House showing at Art: Concept in the Galleries sector. Deller’s work fits perfectly with other gestures in Galleries; from François Curlet’s neon, Western (2005/06), in which the words ‘SPAGHETTI CONCEPTUAL ART’ are spelled out at Air de Paris, to Jeppe Hein’s neon Happiness Does Not Come from the Accumulation of Things (2012) at Galerie Johann König, around which a collector was overheard exclaiming, ‘happiness is expensive!’
Aside from these light critiques, Art Basel 44 packs some heavy punches. In Unlimited, Johan Grimonperez’s The Shadow World (2013), unflinchingly uncovers the violence of trade and consumerism in a film that splices interviews with an arms dealer (Ricardo Priviterra) and an ex-war correspondent for the New York Times (Chris Hedges). It is one of those works – like Alfredo Jaar’s offering The Sound of Silence (2006) that acts as a memorial to photojournalist Kevin Carter (responsible for the Pulitzer Prize winning image of a baby girl being circled by a vulture during the famine in Sudan, 1993) – which reminds the viewer of a certain web of implication.
There is talk about this year’s Basel marking a shift towards abstraction (so The Art Newspaper reports). Apparently, this is a sign that the work of the ‘boom times’ – the ironic, Richard Prince one liners, for example – have fallen out of favour. But rather than a ‘move to abstraction’, selections and presentations have really just complexified; a reflection on the urgency of the times and the impact the economic crisis has had on both the commercial and institutional sectors.
Artist Tunga’s Unlimited film installation Ão (1981) – a 16mm black and white film of the curved interior of the Dois Irmãos Tunnel in Rio de Janeiro – provides some respite to the moral dilemmas wracking many a conscience stalking Art Basel’s labyrinthine corridors. The film reel rolls around a demarcated space within a darkened room where the work is projected, as Frank Sinatra’s Night and Day plays in a seemingly eternal loop. It recalls what András Szántó observed during an Art Conversations talk on Museums and Austerity (in a fair Szántó described as ‘a mecca for corporate sponsorship’) that these days, when we talk about art, it feels like we are speaking about ‘two art worlds’.
There is talk about this year’s Basel marking a shift towards abstraction (so The Art Newspaper reports). Apparently, this is a sign that the work of the ‘boom times’ – the ironic, Richard Prince one liners, for example – have fallen out of favour. But rather than a ‘move to abstraction’, selections and presentations have really just complexified; a reflection on the urgency of the times and the impact the economic crisis has had on both the commercial and institutional sectors. Long March Space, which showcased painting in the Miami and Hong Kong fairs, presents a very different booth at Basel, with a greater sculptural focus, including Xu Zhen’s C-print mounted on aluminium (it looks like a granite landscape sculpture) aptly titled (for the context of the fair): The principal motor of action in this view is self-interest, guided by rationality, which translates structured and institutional conditions into payoffs and probabilities, and therefore incentives’, water, proteins, glucose, mineral, salt (2012).
Then there is Galerie Hans Mayer, (whose Hong Kong booth was small in reflection of the local context), with one of the most ambitious booths of the fair (Mayer is a founding gallery of Art Basel). An entire section of the booth has been devoted to Robert Longo, including a gigantic bronze slab of what looks like an enlarged version of Jasper Johns’s American Flag works blown up and painted black, filling half the booth’s space; The Last Flag: The Ballot or the Bullet (1990).
In general, Galleries highlights include Air de Paris (with an incredibly considered curatorial); Modern Institute (one of the best selection of film works on show courtesy of William E. Jones); Dublin-based Kerlin Gallery (a creative layering of minimal sculpture); Thomas Dane (showing an exquisite grouping of works evocative of the Istanbul Biennale 2011 including Kutlug Ataman, Akram Zaatari, Hank Willis Thomas); Timothy Taylor (showing a lot of Susan Hiller); Sean Kelly (showing an exquisite oil on wood panel diptych by Laurent Grasso, Studies into the Past (2013)); and also Galerie Greta Meert, Andrea Rosen, Paula Cooper, Galerie Nordenhake, Galerie M Bochum, Massimo Minini, Magazzino, and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, presenting an extraordinary Robert Longo bronze, Heretics (After Goya's Procession of the Flagellants) (2013). Galleria Christian Stein, has isolated key works in the design of the booth, including a Jannis Kounellis and a marvellous Pistoletto, while Galerie Nelson-Freeman, presents artists including Pedro Cabrita Reis, David Adamo and Jan Dibbets in a wonderfully composed group of works, and at Mai 36, John Baldessari has been paired with Manfred Pernice.
Meanwhile, in Features, mfc-michèle didier’s collection of works by Samuel Bianchini, On Kawara, Leigh Ledare, Allan McCollum, Annette Messager and Maurizio Nannucci is perfectly presented, while Kolkata space, Experimenter, is stand out, showing Bani Abidi, Naeem Mohaiemen and Hajra Waheed. There is also a wonderful installation by Ciprian Muresan at Galeria Plan B, in which cast copies of museum objects are placed over wooden boards that are in fact pressing etchings for the duration of the fair. At Statements, an overview of fresh, contemporary practices include Beijing Commune showing Hu Xiaoyuan, The Third Line showing Laleh Khorramian, Melas/Papadopoulos showing Kostas Sahpazis, Tilton Gallery showing Egon Frantz, and Galerie Hubert Winter showing a daringly minimal installation made up of electric wire and pencil by Judith Fegerl, as well as Baloise Art Prize winners, Jenni Tischer showing at Gallery Krobath and Kemang Wa Lehulere showing at Gallery Stevenson.
And so, with Art Basel entering a new phase of its existence (Art Basel was recently rebranded as Art Basel in Basel/Hong Kong/Miami), what is ‘The Art’s’ evolving global function? During the opening night for Parcours, we chanced upon a performance by Michael Smith, Avuncular Quest (2013). He first acted like a typical art fair visitor (carrying a tote bag filled with so much ‘stuff’ everything gets lost within it), before turning into an infant. Overcome by choice, we can become infantilized by abundance; but ‘The Art’ is still a place to gauge how society looks from the perspective of those whose profession (and passion) it is to reflect it.
But what we have to keep in mind, as Szántó noted, is that ‘it’s not just about money, but about the status of art in society.’ In other words, the social value we place on ‘Art’ – an idea worth revisiting, if the works by readymades belong to everyone® showing at Jan Mot’s excellent booth are anything to go by. The title of one 1988 work reads: You can change it all by saying yes, the letters printed over an empty boardroom table. But yes to what? The ultimate – and eternal – question.