Art Basel On A Budget Ben Austin Navigates The Possibilities

Art Basel On A Budget

Basel on a budget.  Seemingly impossible, where even the most reasonable hotel is priced out at £250 per night, the town has seen the art crowd coming and has fixed the prices accordingly.  I decided to come late and even though the Easy jet flights were fine, hotel spaces were at a premium, so aged 45, I decided for the first time ever to stay at a youth hostel, I can’t complain considering the price per night is about the cost of a cocktail at the Kunsthalle, but being in bunk beds with a room of strangers, reminded me of summer camps, bike rides and hiking…Good and hearty Swiss mountain pursuits.


For some bizarre reason four other bed fellows decided to leave at 4am and woke me so now I’m sitting by the Mezzeplatz in a daze waiting for the fair to open at 11am.  So what to look forward to over the next few days? Well apart from the usual of the big names, commanding big prices at the big top (I actually like the fact that there is an actual circus opposite the main fair). I’m excited at the prospect of seeing Art Unlimited, where you get the spectacularly big. When did art become so massive? So shouty, look at me, buy me…Blockbusting and crowd-pleasing. 

Then of course there are the satellite fairs, Liste, Volta and Scope. Liste consistently edgy and progressive, Volta considered with quality solo presentations and Scope, pop style and accessible.  Also looking forward to seeing the Paul Gauguin and Marlene Dumas (the show at the Tate Modern was wonderful) at the Fondation Beyeler. Over at the Museum Tinguely is a show of Haroon Mirza. The Museum of Gegenwartskunst has a show of Joseph Beuys, which I should like to get to, time permitting.

By 10.30 the smartly dressed crowds have gathered outside the main entrance, some taking shelter from the smattering summer rain, I go and get my press pass and into Mammon’s playground I go.

The ground floor has as ever the real gems, the most sought after treasures, pieces that the most serious collectors salivate over and will test even the deepest of pockets. I kick off with Koons at Gagosian (why wouldn’t you?) his cute and as ever kitschy kitty fetches $6M for an edition of 3. Gagosian chooses not to put up labels for the work, so if you don’t know who the artists is, you either can’t afford it and or an art ignorant, either way a non-person as far the gallery is concerned. But I asked the prices to an actually very personable staff member, a fine Glenn Brown for $3M, a non-naughty John Currin for $2.2M and a large Gursky for $500K. The Koons’ kitty cat had become quickly an icon for the fair with visitors lining up to take ‘selfies’ in front of it, often putting on faces, some feigning being sick others copying the cat in gesture with little paws. The art here becoming a backdrop, an icon whereby virtually every visitor becomes indirectly involved in the piece, marketing genius. Hashtag Koons and you will see the results.

Over at White Cube, who were initially reluctant to give me prices on work, trying to fob me off to their PR company, but luckily I knew Danielle there, who after finishing up a deal with a couple ‘who were getting on a private jet’, she kindly informs me that the Emin tapestry was on for £700K. Gilbert and George piece from 1975 was on for £1.5M and a Lucian Freud nude handsomely priced at £3.5M.

The real eye watering prices awaited at Helly Namad’s stand, where a half decent Rothko (1955) was on the wall for a mere $50M, hanging next to an 2nd rate Claude Monet’s Waterlillies priced at $36M, also a couple of off days Picasso on offer, and a fine Fontana on at $15M, sitting amongst some decent Calders.

For better value for money, I would opt for the Eddie Martinez at Mitchell-Innes and Nash (€75K) or even an average Sarah Lucas at Gladstone for (€125K) Sadie Coles HQ had a better one offer (€400K).

Firth Street Gallery were on the money showing a provocative Marlene Dumas piece, which was sold for undisclosed sum. I rather liked the Danny Silver sculpture piece there for £35K and a Callum Innes for £40K, all relatively good deals.

Edwynn Houk Gallery were also cleverly showing a Vik Muniz Gauguin piece on for €110K. Thaddaeus Ropac had the crowds gathered around admiring a fine example of a Tony Cragg sculpture on at €600K.

Over at Lehmann Maupin was a legs spread Emin piece on at €140K, amusingly entitled ‘No, Not Right Now’.

Other pieces to catch my eye were the Douglas Gordons at Dvir Gallery, Blondie on at $150K and an Elvis piece at $180K.

Over at Fraenkel Gallery they had a fine selection of Diane Arbus’ work and I adore the boy with a hand grenade on at $125K.

By the time I reached the second floor my phone had run out of juice and I was feeling much the same, I made a pit stop at Victoria Miro, who as ever had a very strong stand. I realised that suddenly without my phone to take pictures, I had to engage with the art in a different way, no longer could one snap and mentally file it away as the piece has been documented. We do this automatically where we take pictures and view the world through a screen rather than actually take time to stay with a piece of work, but this is an art fair not a museum and time is precious, so we must snap and move on.  We can then post and Instagram our tastes online so that others can ‘like’ our selections, instant approval seeking curation.

Richard Prince has created his debate recently about authorship and imitation taken from social media accounts, with his appropriation of Instagram images, which calls into question image ownership, media and the nature and value of perceived art, where a big name artist has taken an online image, changed the context and scale and placed the images into a gallery. Echoes perhaps of Duchamp’s urinal perhaps with the controversy surrounding these ‘reclaimed ready-mades’.

At this point I bump into my friend and artist James Ostrer and together we embark on tackling Unlimited, not before being physically recharged by sausage and bread, covered in mustard and ketchup. These grilled Bratwursts are an essential part of the whole Basel experience and at times are more nourishing than the art, and certainly more reviving.

In fact, I have this notion that art fairs are like a huge performance piece, where art viewing and buying can be seem as a trail and test. Do you have the stamina to go the distance? Do you have the means? And are you quick enough to get to the goodies on the opening day before another rival snaps it up. Which dealer/consultant can you call on? Does Jay hug you upon arrival at his booth?  Did you trawl through the Pavilions at Venice? Did you do the rounds at the Armory and ready to take on Frieze in London? The art circuit is a demanding beast that needs constant feeding and you better be hosting and attending the right dinner parties. I rather like the notion of ‘art as punishment’, or ‘competitive viewing’, when people ask how you ‘done’ Volta or seen is or that show, there is a sense of missing out if you hadn’t, as if somehow you had failed in your quest to see it all and experience everything.

Art Unlimited, experience is all, there was art that revolved and blew up, spaces you could crawl through and machines that made music and machines that raked sand. There was of course video work in darkened rooms that only a few people have the patience for. There was collages and cut ups, hammocks, battered pots and pans and plastic trees.  There were destroyed and broken display vitrines and even an interactive life drawing classes.

So, what stood out here in this vast art extravaganza?  Shilpa Gupta’s massive amorphous thousand microphones emitting strange and echoing sounds. Pierre Hughe’s Cambrian Explosion, with its’ own ecosystem, containing a large ominous rock in glass tank complete with two arrow crabs and two horseshoe crabs and living fossils.

Collage comes with the remarkable work of Leigh Ledare’s ‘Double Bind’, showing the staged relationship of two couples, images taken by the artist and this former first wife Meghan contrasted with images taken in the same location by her new husband, the photographer Adam Fedderly, amongst these images are a vast array of tear sheets culled from cultural, editorial, pornographic, fashion and advertising print media.

Tal R also presents us with a room full of encyclopaedic collection of images, myths and items assembled over the last twenty years. ‘Garbage Man’ serves as a reminder of the collective power of cut outs and colleges.

Ryan McGinley’s ‘Yearbook’ consists of over 500 Studio portraits of some 200 nude models, all young and fresh faced, enjoying the whole ‘selfie’ nudie experience.

David Shrigley’s ‘Life Model’ featuring a three metre high sculpture of a naked male figure set in a traditional life class drawing room. His features are comically disproportionate with over-sized ears and a large pointy nose. Posing confidently he occasionally pees in a bucket placed under is small penis. Visitors are invited to take part in the life class and their ‘artwork’ is displayed on the walls, all good fun and a witty parody of the elitism of art schools.

Pascale Marthine Tayou’s ‘Plastic Trees’ is a beautiful installation, with branches flowering multicoloured plastic bags, a perfect comment on our environmental and social concerns.

Political issues are confronted by Kader Attia’s ‘Arab Spring’ featuring a site specific installation of 16 broken museum showcases, this piece is inspired by the plunder of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which was looted in Tahrir Square. Attia’s piece reflects and recreates this act of cultural violence, looting and protest.  Whereby the creation of something new often entails the destruction of the past.

Another very effective installation was Robert Irwin’s Black, which explores the power of colour through a subtle alternation in physical space. This work, a series of framed, white voile panels create a number of sequential chambers, at each end there is a monochrome black square which is highly reflective, creating a pool of pure colour that remains visible through each voile wall.  This is a clever and engaging installation and reminds one of the works by Josef Albers, Barnett Newman and in particular refers to Malevich’s Black Square.

I struggled with some of the video work on show here, I enjoy Sarah Morris, but for me the stand out video piece was by Martin Creed (Work No. 1701, 2013), which to the background music shows characters who have their own way of walking across a zebra crossing, perhaps through age, deformity or injury. We all take walking for granted, but here the characters require a concerted effort, their gaits and rhythms becoming conspicuous parts of their distinctive personalities.  The piece is moving and at the same time uplifting.

Yes…what was that budget again?

Words/Photss Ben Austin © Artlyst 2015