Short and sweet: three days in Basel during Art Basel week
Jun 23, 2023
This year’s Art Basel in Basel began with an hour-long wait in Messeplatz (exhibition center) to get into the preview of the Unlimited section in the late afternoon on Monday. After a slow security process, flutes of Ruinart put art professionals and collectors at ease while catching up with each other in the entrance hall. Welcoming the visitors to Unlimited was Adel Abdessemed’s Jam Proximus Ardet, la dernière vidéo (2021), in which the artist himself is standing at the head of a burning boat moving toward the audience. Filmed in a single shot and played on a loop, the work conveyed a sense of infinity, as if to set the mood for the rest of the week.
“Standing alone at the front of the ship, I wasn’t running away from the fire, yet the fire didn’t touch me either. [...] What I wanted to say is that when your neighbor’s house is burning, the artist cannot remain indifferent to the fire – he is not seeking to provoke it but to approach it.”
- Adel Abdessemed
Large installations such as Ibrahim Mahama’s KWAKU MINOONA 2 (2012-2019) and Cornelia Parker’s PsychoBarn (Cut Up) (2023) took up each side of the entrance, making a statement as to what the Unlimited sector represents: impressive, gargantuan projects that sit outside of the conventional scope of art fairs. Equally ambitious in size, yet more subtle, were works like Carl Andre’s 47 Roaring Forties (1988), an arrangement of steel squares that stretched out for nearly 50 meters on the floor, on which people walked all over, leaving behind shoe marks, and Franz West’s 100 Stühle (100 Chairs) (1998), which invited the tired legs to rest - some people not realizing it was an artwork.
In terms of performance art at Unlimited, Augustas Serapinas’ fully functioning DIY gym titled Čiurlionis Gym (2023) grabbed the attention of many with loud gym music accompanying the performance throughout the day, while Olaf Nicolai’s Ménage de la maison (2022) was less obvious, with the performers in cleaning uniforms sweeping and scrubbing the floor as if they were just getting on with their day. Thanasis Totsikas’ Nestor’s Ancestry (1994/95-2022) invited visitors to perform by playing with a large kinetic musical sculpture. When the metallic-pipes were turned by hand, they made loud yet low-pitched calming sounds that called upon the listener’s memories, evoking cross-cultural rituals that commemorate the past.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ poignant booth, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the monumental-scaled works in Unlimited, showed 13 photographs of memorial engravings of the 26th U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. 12 of the photographs can be hung in any order without any curatorial rationale each time the work is shown, escaping from the history and the context of the famous historical figure by questioning the permanence of ideology. Another space that allowed visitors to have moments of reflection was Nancy Holt’s Mirrors of Light I (1974), where the sensory experience with light and mirrors generated a unique perspective, as if one were in a portal to an alternative reality.
Also creating a passage to another world was Christian Marclay’s fast paced video work Doors (2022), which meticulously extracted and seamlessly collaged scenes from multiple movies that the artist had collected over ten years. Adam Pendleton’s Toy Soldier (Notes on Robert E. Lee, Richmond, Virginia/Strobe) (2021-2022) also had visitors' eyes glued to the projection, depicting the controversial Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, Virginia through powerful visual effects and music composed by Hahn Rowe.
“The door is of course very symbolic, but I see it more as sculptural, [...] My video is a sort of mental architecture that the viewer might or might not follow and get lost in.”
- Christian Marclay
After the traditional collectors’ Champagne breakfast on Tuesday morning, the main fair welcomed VIPs to roam through the halls as they took in this year’s booths. London-based Sadie Coles HQ’s unique approach showcased Laura Owens’ solo presentation, with the untitled centerpiece made specifically for the fair and slotted into the wall at a right angle. Although shown in a two-dimensional format, the work created an architectural and immersive atmosphere that kept dragging visitors' eyes back to the monumental painting, inviting them to look for endless stories. The list of works by Owens was not shared with the collectors of the gallery prior to the fair, bringing back an element of mystery and excitement reminiscent of how art fairs used to be.
Another gallery that took advantage of the structure of the booth was Antenna Space, Shanghai, presenting Düsseldorf-based artist Stanislava Kovalcikova’s solo project Carnal Control: A Proposal for A Waiting Room. Tapping into her personal story of fighting cancer and going through the pandemic, Kovalcikova connected with the audience through familiarities of the hospital with elements such as medicine cabinets and chairs typically seen in waiting rooms. With each painting telling its own narrative, perhaps of political and societal problems within the healthcare system, the presentation as a whole offered a space to both critically engage with the works and find comfort in the concept of healing.
In the Statement sector, Hua International in Beijing and Berlin, a gallery founded in 2017, showcased a solo presentation of New York-based artist Gordon Hall. One of the very few performative booths this year, the show took the audience beyond the fair walls through poetic and intimate articulations of minimalistic sculptures and their interaction with performers. Due to the highly abstract nature of the presentation, the concept was not obvious to grab, but like any other abstract art, it engaged with each visitor, allowing them to have unique spatial experiences.
Only a year younger than Hua International, Soft Opening, London presented works by London-based artist Sin Wai Kin, who eventually won the 24th Baloise Art Prize, a prestigious award in which the winning artwork is acquired by the Swiss insurance group on behalf of Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt and Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean in Luxembourg. Kin’s project titled Portraits (2023) was specifically produced for the fair and consisted of five video portraits of the artist themself. Exploring the subject of binaries through fantastical storytelling, the booth delved into Kin’s ongoing dialogue about the ideology of constructed identity.
In the Feature section, New York-based Garth Greenan’s solo presentation of Rosalyn Drexler showcased works from the early 1960s, recognizing the importance of the time period during which the artist established her practice in the realm of Pop Art. Bright and saturated colors drew much attention to the booth, with works like Intimate Emotions (1963) uncovering the reality of masculinity and violence of the time. Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London also focused their booth on a female artist’s works from the 1960s. Highlighting the era when the avant-garde art scene was systematically dominated by male artists, the booth showcased Jacqueline de Jong’s rarely seen works including her Accidental and Suicidal series, which she started to paint in 1964. During this period, de Jong used acrylic paint for the first time, lending her paintings more fluidity and a sense of speed, as can be seen in La vie privée des Cosmonautes 'le cosmonaute invisible' (1966).
It is not easy to bring conceptual art to art fairs as it takes a certain kind of earnesty to dedicate a booth to ambitious yet not necessarily commercial works, though if done right, such a move can result in great success and well-deserved exposure for the gallery and the artist. One gallery that stood out in this context in the Feature section was Millan from São Paulo, with three walls of the booth covered in works by São Paulo-based artist Ana Amorim. Consisting of 318 stripes of cloth, with a piece made almost everyday in the year of 1991, Large Canvas 4 (1991) stretches out to almost 20 meters in length. On each cloth, Amorim’s daily routine is depicted with various elements, including personal items. Highly conceptual, yet undoubtedly tangible, the work was made during Amorim’s Ten-Year Performance Project (1991), in which she laid out strict guidelines stating that only inexpensive materials would be used and that she would not sell her work for ten years. Testing the boundaries of everyday life and art and taking control of the commercialisation of her own work, Amorim is considered to be part of the avant-garde movement of her time.
Wednesday was spent in a more relaxed setting outside of the fair grounds. A short tram ride from Messeplatz, Fondation Beyeler presented Bogotá-based artist Doris Salcedo’s first museum show in Switzerland, displaying eight of her major series. Using a wide array of inconspicuous materials such as rose petals, grass, water, and stone, the exhibition spoke softly of the extensive research Salcedo had conducted in socio-political subject matters. Although the basis of her work is derived from social conflicts, especially violence, the poetic nature of the presentation engaged with the audience on an emotional level, allowing them to reflect on themselves while interacting with the space. Among over 100 works in the exhibition, Palimpsest (2013-2017) stood out the most with a somewhat eerie setting of the installation, reminiscent of gravestones. Situated in the exhibition’s largest space, the work had a surreal atmosphere with disorientating qualities - as if one had just stepped onto a boat. As suggested by the title, the floor of the room was made into a giant manuscript, re-written over previous information. The texts on the stone were in fact names of those who lost their lives at sea trying to flee their countries. With water constantly circulating with hydraulic equipment, the installation became a space for mourning and a chance to pay attention to ongoing tragedies around the globe.
“It is like witnessing the disappearance of a life happening again and again in front of your eyes. So when the name that evidently signals a complete life is there, because of the water, it shines with clarity.”
- Doris Salcedo
In the city center, Kunstmuseum Basel presented solo exhibitions by Shirley Jaffe and Vivian Suter, in Neubau and Gegenwart respectively. Jaffe’s Form as Experiment showcased the artist’s entire oeuvre, from when she first moved to Paris from the U.S. in 1949 and her time in Berlin from 1963 to 1964, to the early 1980s when white void spaces became prominent in her canvas. As much as the chronological journey of Jaffe’s works showed a significant variation in style and technique, her determination and constant desire to break her own boundaries were equally evident in the show. What did not change throughout her long career as an artist was Jaffe’s patience as she worked with small brushes for precision, even when creating big paintings.
Vivian Suter’s soft and fluffy is my soul - my tommy juices don’t worry - are sweet like a liquorice roll presented the Swiss-Guatemalan painter’s works from the 1980s to now. Although she is now based in Panajachel in Guatemala, Basel holds a special place in Suter’s heart, having moved to the city from Buenos Aires in 1949 when she was thirteen. Her early artistic career in Switzerland was more conceptual, but her paintings became more gestural and expressive from the early 1980s after she left for Panajachel. The way the paintings were hung like sculptures in the exhibition was not merely for curatorial purposes, but also a reflection of Suter’s attitude towards her works. By not constraining the canvases in a frame and allowing elements such as humidity and light to add a layer to the work, Suter re-constructs her autonomy as a painter.
“I love the tension between the precision of working on a stretched canvas and then how the paintings get their own life when I unstretch them. They move around in the wind and become more like objects.”
- Vivian Suter
The next edition of Art Basel in Basel will be in June 2024, unless otherwise stated. For more information about the fair, please visit here.
Doris Salcedo’s solo exhibition at Fondation Beyeler is on until Sep 17, 2023; Shirley Jaffe’s Form as Experiment at Kunstmuseum (Neubau) is on until Jul 30, 2023; and Vivian Suter’s soft and fluffy is my soul - my tommy juices don’t worry - are sweet like a liquorice roll at Kunstmuseum (Gegenwart) is on until Oct 1, 2023.