In the 44 years since it first opened its doors “Art Basel” has always been Europe’s most important art fair. And this year it again presents itself in its old new glory. Everything has to be the way it always was, if only to slake the thirst for ritual. And everything always has to be a bit new, if only to quench the thirst for variety.
The ritual: three days before the “preview for everyone”, those fortunate enough to be in possession of VIP tickets were allowed to take the fair halls by storm at 11 a.m., fired up and greedily anxious not to miss the inevitable art buys because someone else had beaten them to it. Otherwise you might just suffer a nasty disappointment such as: Six captivating small pieces by Frank Stella (30.5 x 30.5 centimeters each) were supposed to change hands for a mere EUR 6.2 million, if only someone else hadn’t bagged them half an hour before the doors opened (from Lévy, New York). A late piece by Brice Marden (at Mnuchin, New York) would have been up for grabs at only EUR 9 million, had it not already found new owners. And all those marvelous drawings by Robert Longo (from Hans Mayer, Düsseldorf) went for EUR 30,000 each only minutes after the opening, before the one or other visitor just meandering round had even got round. Nine galleries were offering art by Anish Kapoor and all of them sold out within the first few hours of the first day!
What’s new: despite the ritual always being the same, this year the visit starts with a surprise. Last year a gap between buildings, this year a structure. Basle’s Herzog & de Meuron architects have completed Hall 1 with impressive sensitivity and level-headed persuasiveness. Meaning not only is there more spacious premises for the design section, but the avant-garde also enjoys greater space and the “Unlimited” sector has been appreciably expanded, spelling even more space for breathtaking installations – now tempting or forcing artists to (over)fill the halls with huge projects.
The fact is, big is not always better, as visitors of “Unlimited” swiftly find out, and they need to be very patient if they want to follow things in the many video rooms. Many of the artists represented in these halls are as good as unknown even to the cognoscente, some may you want to see more, but many leave most feeling indifferent.
That said, visitors will tend to first wander around the “classical” Art Basel: This year, it’s as stunning as ever just how close to museum standards the presentations of the goods up for sale – not to mention the price expected, and paid. All the big names crop up at various places: Miró (14 galleries), Picasso (25 galleries), not to mention Daniel Buren, Jean Dubuffet, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Cy Twombly works by all of whom are on offer at between 10 and 30 galleries respectively. I personally think Munich’s Galerie Blau has a touch of the oasis in an overly colorful expanses about it: on offer a convolute of Andy Warhol drawings never before on show, condensed to form a solo exhibition and yet going at reasonable prices. The corridors on the lower floors are once again a matter of a laughing joy in art and permanent irritation at not being able to afford it. In terms of prices, one thing is clear: there’s evidently no ceiling!
The inquisitive visitors, particularly those itching to take something home with them, will soon move into the upper hall at Art Basel: to view the younger artists and galleries that seek to take new paths, find them, and have not yet gone into exorbitant price orbit.
Of course I could fill this article with hints on presentations that are of course surprising and of course at times convincing. Yet I can’t disguise the fact that on leaving the fair in the evening, I had a bitter taste in my mouth. Maybe I’d already been out of sorts before stepping into the halls, having a made a frustrating visit to the Venice Biennial only a few days earlier. Never before had I seen so much petty art in the pavilions that so desperately wanted to be original, attested to swift wit, and amounted only to that than this year in Venice.
The impression that swift wit is trying to squeeze serious art out was reinforced by my time in Basle, especially on the upper floor. My discontent becomes all the more pronounced when I see how many young artist try by all manner of means to make something that hasn’t existed before and then end up merely fielding swift wit: There are small wooden mannequin dolls climbing up a cliff, there’s a skeleton about 20cm high with boxing gloves, there’s an old man, hyperrealist à la Duane Hanson, 50cm high, on a wooden box looking at himself in a mirror. Great, really witty! The craving to be original peters out in wit. What goes to make good wit it that you can’t tell the same thing to the same person twice, and no one wants to hear it twice. Desperately, these artists hunt for the decidedly new by trying to be original at all costs. The canvas, the sculpture, the drawing, the collage – they all seem to be yesterday’s fashions. However, wit for wit’s sake soon becomes twit for twit’s sake. Now this generalizing judgment is unfair, as it fails to highlight the many wonderful pieces on show in Basle, but precisely when looking for the new I all too often encounter the attempt to grab attention by being original rather than creating quality.
On the flight home I think what has stuck in my mind, what I could report if someone asks me: “What did you like in Basle?” And strangely enough it was two pieces from the “Unlimited” section.
Roni Horn has built one of her most beautiful installations there: transparent glass vessels of human height, filled with water in different colors – incredibly poetic, a far cry from those strident sculptures, not only but also in the “Unlimited” section.
And then it emerges before my mind’s eye again: the moving video by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar (who presents a grand photo piece at Thomas Schulte, Berlin, based on a photo made in 1946: Lucio Fontana in his bombed-out studio in Milan). Jaar’s eight-minute video entitled “The Sound of Silence”, 2006, (I don’t think it alludes to the eponymous 1966 Simon & Garfunkel album) simply lodges in the mind. It consists solely of short sentences banged out on a typewriter. Each sentence exists in its own right, a blackout after each of these sentences that tell the confused and confusing true story of the life of Kevin Carter (yes, that was his name), a white man born in South Africa, who failed as an army medic, faced unemployment, and then became a successful war photographer, something that did not make him any happier. “He tried to kill himself swallowing rat poison”, says the one sentence, fade to black, and then: “He survived”. Blackout again.
Already a renowned photographer, he took an image in Sudan of a small, black child crawling on the ground, evidently hungry and searching for food. Behind the child there’s a huge, rare vulture, seemingly waiting. A breathtakingly awful image (it pops up for a few seconds and is the only image in the video, the rest consists of text) became a world success and won Kevin Carter the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1975.
And then the fierce international criticism started about the purported (or real?) heartlessness on the part of the photographer who focused more on taking the photograph (and thus an artwork!) than on helping a starving child. What a topic! Two months after Kevin Carter accepted the Pulitzer for the photo he committed suicide. The last words, left in a farewell letter: “I am very, very sorry”. After viewing the video and on leaving the Unlimited hall all the loud, strident, witty art around seemed all the more superfluous. But one unforgettable encounter a day, that’s almost too much!
Prof. Peter Raue is an attorney, notary and patron of the arts. From 1977 to 2008 he was Chairman of the Associations of Friends of Nationalgalerie in Berlin. He is a partner in the international law office of Raue LLP in Berlin and since 2005 honorary professor of copyright law at the Free University of Berlin.