WELCOME TO THE THUNDER DOME.
As spring turns to summer, Art Basel geared up for another showcase of the best of the best that the art world had to offer. Business moguls, dignitaries, the crème de la crème of collectors and art world aficionados drifted through the passages of booths with iPhones and IBANS at the ready. With neon Nike’s laced up, Chanel bags slung across shoulders, quintessential artsy eyeglasses polished for art inspection, and the obligatory poker face stare-down only Medusa could rival, prospective buyers and gladiator- collectors were on an acquisition mission.
In one of the most expensive cities in Europe, Basel hosts one of the most prestigious art fairs in the world with top galleries pulling out the big guns by exhibiting their top artists—Richter, Koons, Hirst, Kiefer, Warhol, Ufan, Kapoor, Wei Wei and Rothko— to close deals and forge connections in the quest to rake in the sales. Unlike other global art fairs (Frieze: London, FIAC, Artissima, and TEFAF) it was all business at Basel; there was barely a student or a casual art appreciator in sight on Friday 19 June 2015. With other fairs, whilst there were certainly major business deals to be made, collectors to schmooze with, and diamonds to be blinded by, there was a decidedly more serious tone at Art Basel and certainly an interesting environment to experience and observe. The massive convention center was a buzz with the ring of telephones, murmurs of deals being made, strategic maneuvers planned by collectors to blitz the galleries and close a sale before the enemy (re: a fellow collector) swooped in to make a better offer. The atmosphere was electric and alive…quite off-putting in a sense as there was a constant fear of either being trampled on by gallery owners in bespoke suits or side swiped in the face by a Louis Vuitton…true story : it happened.
Question, though. Has the shine of the art fair worn off? Is the art fair bubble about to burst and if so, where do we go from here? This is not as apocalyptic and melodramatic as it may seem, but there really was a certain atmosphere at the fair that one could not deny. The majority of the art on display was dipped in a thick coating of high gloss commercialism and was recycled from recent auctions and other fairs. As is the case, it really makes one wonder where progress is going to take place. On the ground floor of the expansive fair, we had our usual suspects: Gagosian, Hauser and Wirth, Pace, Paula Cooper, Marian Goodman, and David Zwirner, to name a few, with key artists featured in nearly every other fair they have participated in with so many repeat pieces. The second floor was where it was at…for the most part. Here we found newer, less- established galleries, displaying much more critical and art historically important works with both lesser-known artists and more famous ones like Schiele, Chagall, and Calder. Granted, there were also some great examples on the main floor of Otto Dix and Marcel Duchamp, but the tone of the fair was quite safe. There were some great pieces, but it was missing an edge. Clearly the art chosen was designed to sell and was right on the mark for what is hot currently, but it was still safe. This safety is rather exasperating, honestly. With so much cutting edge art out there, it is a shame that this sort of massive platform still caters to the darlings of the art market rather than championing new and interesting talent as a rule. Being exasperated though speaks to the larger issue of art fairs becoming dull and repetitive the larger and more prominent they become. There were definitely some major moments of boredom with Basel; I swear if I see another godforsaken Hirst Butterfly painting, someone’s Prada is being sacrificed in the name of good art.
One thing to credit Art Basel with was the incorporation of Unlimited lower level installation space for huge works, performance, video, and participatory art that was truly amazing. Ai Wei Wei was featured with a massive bicycle installation piece, the Chapman Brothers with a cheeky mural-like work, and a fun participatory piece comprised of a round structure with hammocks and even a do-it-yourself tea making center where you could create custom tea to have in your hammock. Outside of the exhibition center in the evening of Saturday 20 June, Parcours was in full swing sending visitors and locals on a public art scavenger hunt around the city of Basel incorporating performance pieces, site-specific sculpture and installation, and a dazzling laser light, smoke, and sound show by Edwin Van Der Heide that played with the viewers perception of dimensions, the limitations of the image plane, and the possibilities of new and mixed media that you simply had to experience to appreciate.
Photo : Art Basel Entrance, 19 June 2015. © Katlin Rogers 2015