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Art Basel 2021: The mega-fair is unnervingly reassuring while Liste offers appropriate absurdity

Chloe Hodge

Sep 28, 2021

Last week, after three pandemic postponements, Art Basel took over this small Swiss city once again. The crowd were much the same as usual, perfectly coiffed and draped in all black to the ankles, where chic met functional via the obligatory pair of high fashion trainers, ready for several days' slow art-watching saunter. Additionally, this year was marked by one particularly iconic must-have: a single black ribbon, wrapped around the wrist and marked ‘Covid-19 Certificate.’ 


The last European art fair was Tefaf Maastricht, March 2020, which shut down after just three days as one of its gallerists tested positive. Meanwhile, the pressure is on as global sales dropped 22% last year. And so, quite understandably, the commercial art world is nervous. Our little silk wristbands seemed at first little strict, a little controlling, however in fact they created the reassuring calm most definitely needed. 


At the fair, apprehension was heavily mixed with elation at being able to “do this again,” tainted with a slight mournful sadness as all revived events may well be for a while. The artworks mimicked this, as we entered Art Basel’s gargantuan Halle 1 via a series of transparent zorbs by British artist Monster Chetwynd, titled TEARS (2021). Inspired by Dali’s crying crystal brooch The Eye of Time (1949), Chetwynd’s giant teardrops rolled gently across Messeplatz for much of the day, until performers in face paint, leotards and tutus took charge in a “play of poetic absurdity” as a nod to our utterly bizarre times. On the second day of the fair, the play took an even more absurd turn, as a performer narrowly avoided a collision with an oncoming tram. As anyone who has visited Basel will know, the trams run smoothly and cleanly on time, everywhere, making travel across the city utterly serene. In a way, this near-clash with a performance of the moment highlighted just how odd it felt to be coddled in the peace and organisation of this small Swiss city for those coming from London, New York or any large international city - still living life in a disorienting sphere of confusing and contradictory pandemic restrictions.


Luckily, moving inside the fair, we were able to completely forget the past 18 months. “Reassuring” is the one word which sums up this year’s Art Basel, with its walls dominated by paintings and sculptures by 20th century greats – and almost entirely uprooted from September 2021. Art fairs are not curatorial feats, though the level of comfort intentionally generated across these softly carpeted floors was possibly just as unnerving as it was enjoyable. Had the Covid-19 Certification tent actually transported us back to September 2019?


Painting dominated, sculptures were scattered, and new media was almost absent which made sense given its less commercial personality. Still, this isn’t to say that there wasn’t an array of brilliant works on view. Alison Jacques showed stunning paintings by Dorothea Tanning, David Zwirner brought sheer joy in a series of CY Twombly works while their enormous Neo Rauch pieces roused a feint and familiar discomfort, and Sprüth Magers shared a series of John Baldessari scripted prints which, with soothing humour, located viewers in the domestic – as we all know, we have recently come to know our homes rather too well. 


John Baldessari, Picturs & Scripts: Thanks. Craig helped too., 2015.
Courtersy of Sprüth Magers


A particularly welcome stand was Kasmin Gallery, which exhibited a series of rarely-seen charcoal works by American painter Lee Krasner, which marked the beginnings of her movement into abstraction. Krasner’s early drawings bear slight similarity to the works of the Cubists, yet are deeply sensual, brimming with dynamic, multi-directional movement, and sliced and collaged to enhance this effect. It is discoveries like these that make art fairs worth the visit.


Lee Krasner, Imperfect Indicative, 1976.
Courtesy of Kasmin


Ben Brown Fine Arts was one of the few booths to share an entirely sculptural presentation, with a mini retrospective of Lucio Fontana’s terracottas and bronzes from the 1930s-60s. Covering his movement from figuration to abstraction, the works drew from a near-life-sized female statue, cradling a burst of expressive floral shapes to loose terracotta forms springing out of their plinths to evoke dancers in motion, before closing with a late series of perfectly smooth and sealed egg-like vessels.


One of the most relevant, and indeed poignant, stands came from Garth Greenan, exhibiting American artist Howardena Pindell’s Autobiography series. These collaged paintings were made in the wake of a life-changing car crash in 1979, following which, Pindell experienced severe memory loss. Pindell had collected postcards, photos and books for many years before the incident, and so here we see her piecing together fragments of a life led before. Although having emerged from very different times and circumstances, these paintings remind of the disjointed nature of our past year or two: processes in work and life have been broken and reformed, there is a small yet palpable sense of grief, and - marked in Pindell’s dense diagonal brushstrokes - we have developed our strength and resilience.


Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: India (Shiva, Ganges), 1985.
Courtesy of Garth Greenan Gallery


Across Messeplatz, there is Liste - Art Basel’s younger, rowdier sibling. Here, at Osnova Gallery, visitors could engage in Kirill Savchenkov’s Pandemic boardgame, moving beautifully sculpted pieces to solve our ongoing global problem; at Super Dakota, explore online cancel culture; or, at Laveronica, examine Daniela Ortiz’s contemporary votive paintings to consider the ongoing implications of colonialism in Peru. While Chetwynd’s performances attempted to express the absurdity of our times in costume and clowning, this is arguably carried out in a far more detailed and analytical way amongst Liste’s diverse roster of cutting-edge artists. Surely capturing contemporary ludicrosity most successfully is Gabriel Abrantes, exhibiting with Francisco Fino, whose film Les Extraordinaires Mésaventures de la Jeune Fille de Pierre sees a Greco-Roman statue fall apart at the state of politics today and run away for an escapist Instaholiday with her miniature hippo lover. Although utterly surreal, in a few short minutes Abrantes points to the vacuous yet damaging nature of social media, the futility of political engagement now and the human search for love and meaning which has existed since the very beginning. 


Where Art Basel sold reassurance, Liste brought us back to reality with a thud, ready to remove our wristbands and re-enter the absurdity of September 2021.


Gabriel Abrantes, Les Extraordinaires Mésaventures de la Jeune Fille de Pierre, 2019.
Courtesy of Galeria Francisco Fino