Art Basel: Visuals With A Bit Of Drunk Texting

Art Basel 2014

Ben Austin follows the pack to the Art epicentre with a satellite or two thrown in for good measure

Isn’t there a rule about drunk texting and doesn’t that apply to writing about an art fair, anyway I really don’t care, as it is nearly 11pm, I’m due to go to the Kunsthalle for arty party fun time (as they say in Euroland), England have just lost in the World Cup and the show must go on, so says Piers Jackson in Art Unlimited, but more on that later…

Today, I had a proper sleep in, missed the hotel breakfast and had a sausage and rosti for brunch, killing some time before going to Volta, yes, I’m going to talk about art for once, the fair which has moved back to the Markethalle, not so far from the hotel and the train station.  It must be said that I am and always have been a fan of Volta, be it here or in New York. The quality of the galleries is consistently good and the work is shown in a sympathetic manner. I like their little booklet, whereby you can go round picking up information on the artist and place it in this handy little folder (although in reality, the paper sheets just gets stuffed into my briefcase). I was a little surprised when I arrived at how quiet it was, the spacious and thankfully airy Markethalle had a few art tourists wandering past the booths, but was lacking in serious collectors. I gravitated towards the English galleries for a chat and to see what was happening on the ground.

Zavier, of Charlie Smith was in an upbeat mood, yes it had been pretty quiet, but he had sold work, including a large and impressive John Stark piece (The Atonement). Patrick Heide was also pleased with the fact he had sold 18 pieces by the fine geometric artist, Károly Kesserü. Elsewhere, there was Anthony Spinello out of Miami, who was presenting the grotesque Farley Aguilar (as he did in New York) and had apparently sold out his booth. I had an informative chat with Honor Fraser based out in LA, she was showing Brenna Youngblood, Sarah Cain and Alexis Smith, part of her booth involved an installation of a revolving door into another space, which I thought was rather clever and fun. An Irish gallery Green on Red had a couple of small Bridget Rileys’ to my surprised and priced at €47K were not unreasonable.

Other galleries I enjoyed were Galerie Mario Mazzoli, whose mechanical kinetic sculptures by Kristoffer Myskja were wonderful contraptions. Ethan Cohen was showing intriguing work by Michael Zelehonski. Morgan Lehman Gallery had a solo presentation of the Frohawk Two Feathers, who fuses Native American Indian folk art within a more complex narrative. The Hole out of New York had an edgy look and feel, presenting six emerging artists, including Kasper Sonne and Evan Roberts.

David Risley based in Copenhagen likewise had a very cool booth, showing work by James Aldridge, Anna Bjerger, Alex Da Corte (current gallery exhibition) and Keith Tyson. Alarcón Criado from Saville had a clever installation involving books and infinite space by Nicolas Grospierre.

Galerie Jochen Hempel from Leipzig and Berlin had mixed up their booth to feature contemporary work alongside classical pieces (NFS) to create a fascinating dialogue. This well curated and standout booth and also featured a wooden sculpture by Stephan Balkenhol.

There were galleries of note, but time marched on and I moved outside into the blazing sunshine. A quick walk to the station and jumped onto a tram to Liste.

Liste is always something a bit special, now in it’s 19th year (which is quiet remarkable) and shows 78 leading galleries from 30 countries.  As ever, there was the weird and the wonderful on display, work that confounds and confuses, but has an authenticity that makes this fair not to be missed. I liked the work of Jason Loebs and Cameron Rowland at Essex Stree, New York and Real Fine Arts had engaging pieces by Jana Euler, Lena Henke and Sam Pulitzer. I was very taken by the geometric paintings of Alice Brown showing with Limoncello.

Shapes and patterns were also in evidence over at Peres Project with a solo presentation of Brent Wadden, all sold for around $20-30K. I enjoyed the urban photographs pasted onto found metal sheets by Dena Yago showing with Sandy Brown out of Berlin.  Down some winding staircase near to the entrance, which allows for one person to go up or down at a time, was to be found the oversized woollen sweaters by the French pair, Daniel Dewar and Gregory Gicquel.

I must give a special mention to House of Electronic Arts who were showing lunar/space related pieces and in particular, ‘We Colonised The Moon’ by Hagen Bertzwieser and Sue Cork.

Finally on my way out I was attracted the Columbian gallery Instituo de Vision Bogata, who were showing work by Ana Roldán, which I very much liked.

I made time for a quick sausage and a beer before heading over to the main fair.

I decided to start off at Art Unlimited. Every year I adore this part of the fair, home to large monumental installations and darken rooms showing video work. It would be boring to list everything here, but suffice to say you could spend a whole day in Unlimited and not get to see everything.  Chinese artists were here, like Zhan Wang, ‘Artificial Rock No. 126’ Xu Zhen’s incredible Eternity, which riffs on classical sculpture and Eastern icons. Zhang Huan’s ‘Grand Canal’ was an epic piece too. Yang Fudong, ‘New Women’ multi screen video work was hauntingly beautiful.

Jim Shaw’s ‘Capitol Viscera Applicances mural’ was awesome, as was Thomas Houseago massive dark sculpture. Anthony Caro was showing a piece entitled, ‘River Run’.

Mathias Faldbakken’s ‘20,000 gun shells’ was a little disturbing as visitors trod on them. There was an installation by Richard Long, a wall piece by Kara Walker and Piers Jackson. I didn’t get to see a lot of the video work but Alex Prager’s ‘Face in the Crowd’ was very striking indeed.

There was so much here, that I may revisit it today. I left and went to see what I considered to be the best thing in Basel. 14 Rooms is curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist and comprises of exactly 14 rooms housed in a mirrored hall, in each one a performance is taking place.  The artists include Marina Abramovic, Allora and Calzadilla, Ed Atkins, Dominique Gonzalex-Foerster, Damien Hirst, Joan Jonas, Laura Lima, Bruce Nauman, Otobong Nkanga, Roman Ondak, Yoko Ono, Tino Shegal, Santiago Sierra, Xu Zhen, Jordan Wolfson and John Baldessari.

A lot of this was of course completely bonkers and in many ways what art should be, engaging and challenging. This was live art to be experienced in the here and now, not work with a huge price tag for the super rich.

I will not go into too much detail about each room, although in one room there was the artist (Roman Ondak) getting visitors to swap things with him and then in turn each other (I swapped a £5 note for 100 Ruble note, not a great deal). In Yoko Ono’s room called ‘Touch’ it was totally pitch black, whereby visitors accidentally touched each other as they fumbled about in the dark, which was a bit worrying.

Santiago Sierra’s room was dark for another reason, entitled ‘Veterans of the Wars of Eritrea, Kosvo and Togo Facing The Corner’, was actually just that, a guy in tribal costume facing the corner, comical yet powerful. Allora & Calzadilla’s ‘Revolving Door’ was fun, featuring a chorus line dancers going around in a circle so that they became the revolving door as visitors moved from one side to the other. Marina Abramovic (not in person) presented an older piece from 1997 called ‘Luminosity’, whereby a nude performer was one sitting on a sort of bicycle saddle with blocks for the hands and feet. The performer was made a star gesture then slowly lowered her arms. Damian Hirst had a two twins sketching underneath two non-identical wall dot paintings.

14 Rooms was certainly a memorable experience, where visitors are given an insight into an interactive practice, some of which were immersive and intimate encounters. After that, I went back into the main fair again, ended up on the balcony of the VIP Collectors Lounge drinking white wine with my old artist friend Antony Micallef.

By the way I did manage to go onto the Kunsthalle after the football and am suffering for it today.  I met up with Antony there and we got chatting to a couple of cute girls, who actually worked for the fair inspecting tickets as people entered. They told us that they were making much more money than the gallery girls and boys who worked on the booths, somehow this didn’t surprise me. If a gallery can get cheap labour, from some pretty young things and sell works in the hundreds of thousand then why not. Who said that the art world was fair?

Finally at about 2.30 in the morning I bump into Jay Joplin, who was a bit worse for wear. I love Jay, not for that fact that between him and Charles Saatchi, they made the YBa’s into household names, but for the fact he doesn’t give a fuck.  He gave me a drunken hug, told me how much Basel bored him and went off to speak to some random girl. Man you just got to hand it to him, as I’m sure he will be one point today with some museum collectors or something.

I’m heading out now, so much more to see and do… To Be Continued….

Words: Ben Austin © Artlyst 2014 Photo: Santiago Sierra – 14 Rooms by Ben Austin