Art | 40 | Basel

Shortly after graduation, I spent a few days in Basel to visit friends and see the art fair – (probably?) the largest in the world – before continuing on to Berlin to start the OSU summer study abroad trip.

Art Basel occurs every year, lasting about a week every June. It’s a wonderful time to be in Switzerland, with near perfect weather, and during the fair Basel transforms from a small town to an international metropolis, streets arun with art dealers and artists, experimental film series, events and lectures every night, not to mention the influx of your Brad Pitts, for example…

Last year I only attended the official fair for two hours one evening, and it wasn’t anywhere near enough time, so I decided this time around I’d buy a two-day pass, and go to as many of the associated fairs as possible. Overall I’d say between the official Art Basel and Design Miami exhibits and the LISTE, SCOPE, and VOLTA fairs, I was able to get a sense of what the best contemporary artists are producing today. Especially after visiting the Venice Biennale this year, I think I can safely say that Art Basel represents the vanguard, despite its near-complete lack of curation and its definite focus on sales…

The official Art Basel exhibit consisted of two huge exhibition halls: one filled with independent gallery stalls (Art Basel proper), and one featuring larger-scale, more experimental work (Art Unlimited). In general, Art Basel featured better work from more established artists, everything from the historical avant-gardes to bleeding-edge contemporary, but usually limited to relatively established names. Above, for example, is a piece from a new series by Thomas Ruff, a German photographer worth following. In his earlier work, photography was treated as a specifically two-dimensional art form: his ‘portraits’ of buildings in elevation, for example, attempt to deny any reading of depth; similarly his JPG series amplifies the artifacts of the eponymous image compression algorithm, emphasizing the image-as-surface. Here, however, he has mobilized a computational graphing technique to produce lines on canvas: abstract, but clearly attempting to define some kind of three-dimensional space. Several more of these were exhibited at a Thomas Ruff retrospective I later at Kunsthalle Vienna.

Other artists on display (and for sale) were Gerhardt Richter, another of my favorites, and everything from Manet to Miro to Picasso to Giacometti to…. Compared to Art|39|Basel (2008) it seems to lean more towards historical work with proven (monetary) value, and veer away from more recent work that has yet to prove its long term investment value (was anyone buying Damien Hirst?). I feel this has to be seen as a conservative reaction to the recent economic downturn: even the wealthiest of art dealers are feeling the pinch, and would rather pick up another rare Van Gogh, than, say, an inflatable lobster rendered in aluminum.

One welcome surpise was a gallery with several works by Giuseppe Penone, and artist I recalled from a large installation at the Venice Biennale in 2007. The organic materials used (leather, wood, thorns…) were a welcome contrast to some of the other recent work on display. Perhaps due to the economic climate, a lot of the contemporary work used cheap or waste materials, and in most cases this seemed to cheapen the art. Even in Penone’s work, gone was the Carrera Marble…

Marble did make its appearance… here in a work from the SCOPE fair, carved to look like Styrofoam. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the artist, but I think the work is interesting in the play between the expensive, authentic material of its construction, and the apparent cheapness the detailing represents. Nice.

Another interesting feature of the SCOPE show was the sheer number of works making explicit historical references… but resampled or recombined and multiplied in some (often humourous) way….

Another last highlight:

Maarten Baas’ Real Time at Design Miami Basel. The artist creates clocks in real time, whether through manually moving pencils into the correct position, as above, or by organizing large groups of people into lines: the hands of a clock, and moving them incrementally as time goes on.

And finally, at the Swiss Architecture Museum, I caught the last days of their extensive exhibit on Madelon Vriesendorp (of OMA) featuring many of her paintings, but focusing mainly on her incredible personal collection of postcards, toys, and miscellaneous junk, all of which provide her with inspiration, and on many occassions images sampled wholesale for use in her work (see “lighthouse” postcards).
All in all, an extremely worthwhile trip to Basel. More of my photos are available on Flickr, covering SCOPE, LISTE, VOLTA, Art Unlimited, Art Basel, and the SAM Exhibit.

Next – a few notes about the KSA Study Abroad trip – Berlin, Vienna, Venice, Munich, and all points between….

Leave a Reply