In an Instagram-infused art world, sometimes it’s hard to remember that physical objects are best experienced live and in person. Indeed, it’s due to this tenet of connoisseurship that fairs such as Art Basel, which offers its 46th edition from 18-21 June, were begun.
‘As dealers, we so often discuss work over the phone or by email and talk about it without actually sharing space with it,’ says Hannah Hoffman of her eponymous Los Angeles gallery, who will show the work of New York artist Rey Akdogen. ‘For this particular project, seeing the actual piece is incredibly important because there are inherent details that simply cannot be seen in reproduction. The visceral effect peaks in person, allowing the viewer to gain a greater degree of understanding.’
Not only do expos offer a chance for collectors from across the globe to see the work of emerging artists who have generated buzz over the last years, they offer examination of the evolving practice of familiar names that can either spur the deep collecting of favourite artists or the chance to see a practitioner who was previously unfavored in a flattering new light.
Yang Fudong, The Coloured Sky: New Women II, 2014. Photograph, Colour Inkjet, Hahnemuhle Ultra smooth paper 305g. Courtesy of Shanghart Gallery
‘I love being reminded of artists who may have gone out of my mind, to see work by familiar artists that I might not be aware of, and of course to see the work of new and unfamiliar artists,’ says Clare Lilley, program director of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. ‘I get more from being at Basel for a few days than I could possibly get from the equivalent amount of time spent reading or visiting galleries and museums.’
With 284 exhibitors from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, presenting the work of more than 4,000 artists, such opportunities are ripe at Art Basel. The soaring quality of objects, however, can make the pageant difficult to negotiate. ‘The fair presents a huge number of artists,’ says Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden director Melissa Chiu. ‘For me, its less about a moment with a singular work as the experience, but of seeing works you might not ordinarily see — a process of discovery.’
Here, our guide to getting the most out of the fair.
Key debuts to catch on the fair floor
Some 220 galleries compose the fair’s main section with three new to the ranks: Rodeo of Istanbul and London, Tokyo’s Take Ninagawa, and London’s Vilma Gold. Highlights on the fair floor include works from Yang Fudong’s New Women series at Shanghai’s ShanghArt Gallery and a 30-year survey of Carrie Mae Weems’s work at New York's Jack Shainman Gallery . ‘Coming off on an extraordinary couple of years with her MacArthur genius grant and her traveling retrospective in the US, I think it’s the perfect moment to debut her work in Switzerland,’ says the dealer.
Such debuts are key on the fair floor. Mnuchin Gallery partner Sukanya Rajaratnam kept a work by David Hammons from 2014 ‘off the market as a surprise to be unveiled in Basel.’ She further reveals, ‘It is not often that we show young artists, but we find conceptual artist Tavares Strachan quite exceptional and have dedicated our booth’s long wall, facing one of the main aisles, to his work. He represented the Bahamas at the 2013 Venice Biennale has an upcoming exhibition at LACMA. We are also planning an exhibition and this is intended as an introduction to our collaboration.’
Piero Golia, Untitled (Evil exists where good men do nothing), 2005. Wood, rope, stainless steel, brass. Courtesy Bortolami Gallery
The importance of sector management
Six attendant programs bolster the core booths; among the Feature section's 30 curated presentations, Berlin's Barbara Thumm presents the work of Arte Nuevo work of Teresa Burga.
The 16 galleries of Statements offer solo presentations by emerging practitioners, including a multi-media installation by Amalia Ulman at New York's James Fuentes .
For Edition, 15 publishers exhibit editioned works, such as On Kawara’s rarely seen I Got Up, I Went, I Met series shown by Michèle Didier of Brussels and Paris.
Cairo-based Maxa Zoller curates the Film section, which includes Takashi Murakami’s first feature film Jellyfish Eyes and the European premier of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.
Curated for the fourth year by Gianni Jetzer, the Hirshhorn’s curator at large, the ever popular Unlimited features 74 large-scale works. Among them are Ai Weiwei’s Stacked, created from 760 symbolic Forever Bicycles, the most widely used bicycles in China and OPAVIVRA!’s Formosa Decelerator, an interactive installation where creative viewers can try blending a personal tea or those who are tired can rest in provided hammocks.
Outside the fair walls, Florence Derieux, director of FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, presents the 23 site-specific works of Parcours, installed throughout the city and within such institutions as the Museum of Culture, the Natural History Museum, and the Town Hall.
The extra-curriculars, fuelled by the fair’s ‘extra energy’
‘Art Basel certainly unleashes extra energy, even in a museum like the Fondation Beyeler,’ says one of the renowned institution’s curators, Ulf Küster, who will talk about the work of Louise Bourgeois at the fair on June 20. In addition to ongoing shows featuring the work of Paul Gauguin and Marlene Dumas , the Beyeler ‘shall be showing a new installation by Tobias Rehberger,’ Küster says. In collaboration with the fair and Theater Basel, the Beyler mounts With Victory Over the Sun, the legendary Futurist opera by Kasimir Malevich, as a walk-in performance.
Similarly, the fair worked with Thai-born Rirkrit Tiravanija to present an herbal garden, kitchen, and communal dining area on the Messeplatz as Do We Dream Under the Same Sky, a conceptual project that riffs on the artist’s ongoing investigations of sustainability and utopian ideals as the impetus for art practice.
Amalia Ulman, Perdition, 2015. Airport seating bench, industrial carpet, vinyl wall text, plexiglass and curtains. Photo: Rendering by Gregory Kalliche. Courtesy James Fuentes
Spot the ongoing trend
Just as Christie’s has enjoyed success with sales that present the works of different time periods, Art Basel promises a special highlight this year with the ongoing strength of the Modern and historical works on view in the context of the contemporary offerings. Examples include René Magritte's Renée Cordier, a stellar example of his 1930s works presented by Richard Nagy and thought to date circa 1936, as well as one of Alberto Giacometti’s earliest in a series of male heads and busts created during the 1950s on offer at Dominique Lévy Gallery .
‘We have a niche in the front of our booth, which we reserve for something that warrants a sort of jewel-box treatment,’ says Mnuchin’s Rajaratnam. ‘This year it is a painting by Kazuo Shiraga from 1964 that happened to be an artist exchange between him and Paul Jenkins from around the time it was created. The artist — and now his widow — have had it ever since.’
Maximise every minute
It’s now lore that serious lookers dress for comfort while perusing fair aisles. (High heels are the sign of an amateur.) But such rigour requires dedication. ‘I'm mainly there to see the art and I try to maximize every minute,’ says Robert Manley, deputy chairman of Postwar & Contemporary Art at Christie’s New York. ‘I'm one of those nerds who walk around with a map and check off each booth as I see it. I get there a day early, to try to see the museum shows at the Kunstmuseum, the Beyeler, and Schlauger.’
Lilley echoes the sentiment: ‘I approach the sectors in a sort of geometrical-linear fashion, starting with the centre and working front to back then side to side. Beforehand, probably on the plane, I will have looked at the floor plans and other information to figure out what I especially want to see and spend time viewing. I’ll also know which talks or other events I want to attend.’
Studiousness pays off
‘The exceptional quality of work at Art Basel gives me a sense that I’m looking at art that has been filtered with intelligence, and so it’s an important way for me to see a huge amount in a very short time,’ says Lilley.
‘I've never forgotten the great installation by Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe I saw at Unlimited in 2013,’ says Manley. ‘It was an immersive, surreal environment — basically a trashy home that had seemingly been deserted, with a strong component of social commentary and humour. I'm still thinking about it.’
Main image at top: Rirkrit Tiravanija, Do we Dream Under the Same Sky (installation view rendering), 2015. Courtesy Rirkrit Tiravanija, Nikolaus Hirsch, Michael Müller and Antto Melasniemi
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