The big daddy of fairs is always on time.
Basel is a cosmopolitan city with the air of a provincial, and even bohemian burg—until the world’s biggest contemporary art fair comes to town. The art-world equivalent to the Davos summit, Art Basel is still the place to take the pulse of the international market as well as artistic production. The calm, compact city graciously allows visitors to concentrate their energies on the stellar offerings of the four simultaneous fairs—including Liste, Volta, and Scope—not to mention Design Miami/Basel as well as the excellent and eclectic exhibitions on show at various museums. That is, if you stay the entire week, wear good walking shoes, and resist the temptation to indulge in the innumerable dinners and parties thrown by corporate sponsors and dealers around town.
With 285 galleries from 34 countries exhibiting this year, the fair was nearly as big as it was at its height in 1975. It was the high-quality artwork on display that was smaller, more homogenous, and less risky than usual, if just as consistently investment-worthy as ever. Richard Nagy’s booth resembled a museum exhibit with works to match—“You are not the first person to say that!” the dealer responded jovially to the observation. The walls, adorned in quiet shades of gray, flaunted exquisite German Expressionist paintings and covetable Egon Schiele drawings, starting at €85,000 for a sensuous nude in pencil bending over from behind, along with a painting on panel by the artist going for as little as €850,000: “It is not a female nude, and disproportionately, sex sells,” Nagy explained. Schiele’s watercolor Woman Hiding Her Face (1912) was priced at €2.2 million, as was Ludwig Meidner’s mesmerizing 1915 The Incident in the Suburbs, recently released by an American collector who bought it in the 1960s. “You see basically the same things here every year,” Giovanni Gasparini, of Christie’s Education, observed. “But this time there is a lot less photography, virtually no video, and more works on paper.”
Yet there are always wonderful discoveries. Notable finds were an unusual single sculpture by Doris Salcedo, on sale at Alexander and Bonin for US$750,000: as provocative as the artist’s typical large-scale installations, the deceptively ephemeral Disremembered (2014) is a suspended garment woven out of silk thread and 12,000 needles that evokes the prickly horror of the infamous hair shirts used in the Inquisition. Rare lamp designs by Alina Szapocznikow, whose appealingly whimsical yet politically disturbing sculpture casts from her own body were exhibited in a recent survey at MoMA New York, were available: Sculpture- Lamp (1967) was on sale for €800,000 at Polish Gallery Starmach, and several polyester-resin Lampes-Bouche at Andrea Rosen Gallery, for €350,000 each. “She made only about twenty and most of them have been destroyed,” dealer Andrea Cashman explained. Tony Cragg’s striking sculptures, resembling sci-fi desert landforms, lurked around nearly every corner. The darkly powerful work of eminent French artist Pierre Soulages was creating a buzz, also showing concurrently in New York at both Dominique Lévy and Galerie Perrotin—a dealer that epitomizes the trend among European galleries to establish footholds in America and Asia, where it has recently opened in Hong Kong.
It may be that the proliferation of art exhibitions around the world, including foreign offshoots of established fairs, is making these events both more local and international at once, so that ultimately they are tailored to the taste of regional buyers. “The work on sale at Art Basel Hong Kong had a much brighter palette,” Gasparini said. “Whereas in Europe it is more subdued, reflecting local cultural tastes.” It also means that there may be more interesting things to discover in relation to context, rather than the same things everywhere. Swissspecific delights were on hand in the Art Basel Collectors Lounge at Audemars Piguet’s display of new handmade watches featuring large sporty bezels that bely the painstaking precision within, some fashioned of heavyweight stainless and others of elegant, impossibly light white ceramic. The only Swiss watchmaker still operated by its founding family, in the remote mountain village of Le Brassus, it also had on hand one of its record firsts—the incredibly complicated fiveminute repeater in an impossibly small case. If you could not afford to buy one of these masterpieces, starting at €20,000, there was always a soothing glass of Ruinart Champagne on hand.
The size was “Unlimited” at the new Art Basel forum of the same name, curated by Gianni Jetzer and hosted in a cavernous black hall designed by Herzog & De Meuron. With an appropriately disjointed pathway, suggested by Carl Andre’s underfoot Steel Peneplain (1982), the exhibition was nearly impossible to take in all at once on so many levels given its impressive scale and range, yet there were nice dialogues between various works, seemingly encountered almost by chance whether you chose to proceed one way or another. Pascale Marthine Tayou incorporated cultural context into his multimedia installation Tayouwood (2014), a re-creation of his Cameroonian hometown as distorted by the jumbled viewpoint of a world traveler, a sort of immersive self-portrait. In the attempt to throw Asian artists into the mix, an amusing thread of West versus East emerged, expressed monumentally in Eternity, by Xu Zhen, a reproduction of the Parthenon’s east pediment with the missing heads of the iconic Western figures replaced by those of Chinese Buddha figures (Long March Space, Beijing).
Yang Fudong’s five-channel video installation portrayed Japanese women juxtaposed with Occidental props such as Roman columns (Marian Goodman Gallery); Yasumasa Morimura had displayed a roomful of self-portraits depicting him as pop icons like Marilyn Monroe (Luhring Augustine). In her video Zone, artist Bethan Huws felicitously quoted a line from Guillaume Apollinaire’s eponymous poem, “You have had enough of living in Greek and Roman antiquity” (Galerie Tschudi, Zuoz).
While “Unlimited” displayed artworks that were too big to sell in fair booths, the ephemeral exhibition “14 Rooms” provided a foil to the market in living sculptures hidden behind closed doors, curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach, arguably the two most powerful curators in the world.
The show, an experience that recalled Alice in Wonderland, featured performances orchestrated by artists such as Damien Hirst, who hired identical twins to sit together and read books while mirroring each others’ gestures. Roman Ondak’s Swap lampooned the art market by inviting visitors to place value on a spurious “artwork” by proposing exchanges. The performer even made fun, if unintentionally, of fellow show artist Tino Sehgal, who forbids photographs of his performances, when he explained: “You know it’s not allowed to take photos, but in this room it’s tolerated because there is no guard here and it’s not part of my job.” In one case, participants entered an all-white empty room that was unexpectedly locked until the next customer entered. A sexy transsexual robot, whose uncanny glance followed your movements with the aid of sensors, could be patronized for fifteen unnerving minutes by reservation only, in a fifteenth chamber at the end of the long space. The whole thing resembled a peep show, with long queues forming in front of the mirrored doors that lined the long white corridor. In Marina Abramovic’s Luminosity (1997), a naked actress was suspended awkwardly atop a bicycle saddle and pinned against the wall under a spotlight, like a butterfly in a collection. It did not seem like fair play, then, that Swiss artist Milo Moiré, who caused a commotion in the Messeplatz one day by sporting clothes only in the form of their words written on her nude body, was forbidden entrance to Art Basel.
Although other fairs may have more edgy ambience and wild poolside affairs, Art Basel remains the stalwart barometer for art lovers. The archetypal Swiss city with clockwork efficiency and a bucolic periphery, Basel is the perfect host, and antidote, to the fair’s mindboggling spectacle of artful wonder and splendid chance. So while the party people go to Art Basel/Miami, the epicenter for posers and players, discreetly sophisticated Basel is the perennial destination for connoisseurs.
Article by Cathryn Drake