Art Basel may now have branches in Miami and Hong Kong, but the original Swiss fair remains the world’s pre-eminent commercial showcase for modern and contemporary art. This year the mothership celebrates her 45th edition in this picturesque Rhine-side town with nearly 300 participants offering some of the very best work available, ranging from early 20th century Modernism to the latest offerings from artists’ studios worldwide. Global is increasingly the name of the game with more works by Asian artists than ever before distributed among Art Basel’s two floors of top-notch gallery stands, and a noticeable increase in the number of Chinese collectors attending the fair.
But what also makes Art Basel so special is the range of one-off curated projects which take place away from the shop floor. Innovative and constantly evolving, these additional elements provide a depth and richness of artistic experience that remains unparalleled in any other art fair. Most prominent and long-standing isUnlimited, the section devoted to projects too large to be contained within a fair booth – but which are still for sale. For the first time, in addition to their usual home in a capacious hall adjacent to the fair, Unlimited’s array of sculptures, films and installations also occupy a new open-plan wing designed by Herzog & de Meuron(who also recently re-modelled the entire Messeplatz fair complex). This additional chamber offers these big artistic beasts more than twice their former space.
Unlimited curator Gianni Jetzer declares that Unlimited is “all about presenting a museum-like art show for just one week in a way that blows the frontiers of presentation”. This year he is certainly pulling out all the stops. A spectacular mixture of eighty artworks underlines Art Basel’s chronological range by combining classic historical figures with emerging names. An extensive mirrored piece by the venerable Italian Michelangelo Pistoletto is offset by a looming steeple-like “witch’s hat” structure from young Romanian artist Andra Ursuta, as well as a massive tree trunk by another Italian Arte Povera veteran, Giuseppe Penone.
Other works articulating the cavernous spaces include a draped swathe of digitally-printed cloth by young British artist Alice Channer, a hanging sculpture made from window blinds by Haegue Yang from South Korea and more dramatic use of textile by Californian Sam Falls, rising diagonally from floor to ceiling. Shanghai-based Zhang Huan has used incense ash to made a giant painting of labourers toiling on the Beijing to Hangzhou Canal, while Xu Zhen, another big name in Chinese art, emphatically combines the best of east and west in a series of dramatic and disquieting works which fuse replica sculptures of Greek Gods from the Parthenon with reproductions of Buddha statues.
Running like a central spine through what its curator considers to be “a city built of artworks” is a giant floorpiece by Carl Andre, 100 metres long and consisting of 3,000 steel plates which Jetzer describes as “a huge catwalk …which functions as a kind of a performance piece, with every visitor who steps on it activating the work anew.”
Unlimited may conjure up connotations of an urban landscape but in theParcours section of Art Basel the artworks are literally embedded within the city itself. For the last few years this series of site-specific sculptures, interventions and performances has engaged with a different area of Basel, but for 2014 Parcours returns to the lively, ethnically mixed Kleinbasel quarter that also has the advantage of being a five minute walk from the main fair.
“Traditionally Kleinbasel has always been inhabited by outsiders and foreigners – those on the margins who are a bit different – it is a very rich area,” states Parcours curator Florence Derieux, who is also Director of FRAC Champagne-Ardenne. “It is a real opportunity to engage with the city and the people beyond the art fair.” This year’s Parcours art trail involves such unexpected sites as an upstairs room in the Rebhaus restaurant which is showing Joao Penalva’s film of sleeping men set to a soothing soundtrack of wind and rain; a 16th century refectory which contains Iman Issa’s maquette for a colossal crystal sculpture that she is proposing for her native Cairo; and a working orphanage which is hosting young American artist Darren Bader’s playful installation ‘Gardeners in Paradise,’ involving a lawnmower submerged in a giant ceramic tea-filled cup, a leaf blower gusting out of an open window and a strimmer chopping pasta in a car trunk. (All of the above are especially popular with the orphanage’s young inhabitants.)
The interactive, performance elements that have become an increasingly conspicuous feature of both Unlimited and Parcours – and indeed the art world at large – are given full expression in 14 Rooms. A new initiative at this year’s fair, 14 major international artists have been invited by curators Klaus Biesenbach, Director of New York’s MoMA PS1, and the Serpentine Gallery’s Hans-Ulrich Obrist to “activate a room” in one of the exhibition halls near the fair. Among the artists “whose material is a human being” are Marina Abramovic, Roman Ondak, Santiago Sierra and Damien Hirst, the latter showing a pair of identical twins each sitting beneath their own Dot wall painting.
One of the most talked-about works is rising art star Jordan Wolfson’s scary masked animatronic dancer who bumps, grinds and shimmies in front of a large mirror, and who locks eyes with her audience whilst also scrutinising herself. Only two people at a time are permitted an audience with this malevolent being, and there is much jostling to get a slot. So apart from buying art, all of this unprecedented additional activity means that the flood of collectors, curators and art lovers who are currently converging on Art Basel must make sure that their visit is planned with military precision.