What are young artists up to these days? Acting in the theater of art and life. At least you could say as much after visiting the two presentations of young art currently on view in the Swiss city of Basel -- the "Statements" section at the 30th Basel Art Fair and Liste 99, the four-year-old fair of young art mounted in the former Wartek Brewery just down the road from the Basel Messe.
Take, for instance, the first Bâloise Art Prizes, each totaling 25,000 Swiss Francs (around $16,230), sponsored by the Swiss insurance company of the same name. The awards were presented at the "Statements" section of the fair to two New York painters -- Matthew Ritchie and Laura Owens. In Ritchie's installation at the booth of c/o Gerhardsen, Oslo, his brightly colored cosmological semi-abstractions spread up the wall and spill out onto the floor as if uncontainable by the bounds of the canvas edges.
As for Owens, she has a single large painting -- a view of skyscrapers and clouds, perhaps -- at the booth of New York dealer Gavin Brown. Her winsome pictures combine pastel colors and a lightness of touch with a sensibility that seems inspired by the late Philip Guston. There's nothing particularly theatrical about her work, however. But what art writer ever let facts get in the way of a good theory?
By the way, the Bâloise prize-winners were selected by a jury consisting of London collector Heinz Ackermans, Kunsthalle Zurich director Bernhard Bürgi, Carnegie Museum curator Madeleine Grynsztejn and Bâloise art consultant Martin Schwander.
But when it comes to art and life, Rirkrit Tiravanija seems to be everywhere, cooking curry, building "sets" for social interaction and just plain traveling. At the booth of the Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider at Art Basel, Rirkrit installed an L-shaped wooden bar, and coffee was being served. Also on view is a row of architectural models for Tiravanija's structures -- a puppet theater, a children's educational center, a house, a bar. The models, which are for sale, sit on boxes that contain actual plans for the works. The project recalls the wry art market economics instituted by the original Conceptual and Minimal artists who sold certificates or plans for works rather than the works themselves. They're all available -- for prices ranging from $45,000 to $120,000.
One Tiravanija work that sold is the bright yellow 1972 Opal automobile that he and the German painter Franz Ackermann drove all over Europe. Called Untitled (Bon Voyage, Monsieur Ackermann) (1996), the car is customized with cameras that recorded their travels and includes a portable kitchen in the trunk. Bon Voyage was parked outside Liste 99. Rirkrit's Opal will find its final resting place at the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art in Zurich.
One of the more theatrical installations in the "Statements" section is a small darkened room containing a new Toyota four-wheeler with flashing hazard signals, techno music and a videotape of a mock-horror-movie performance playing in the car's cargo space. It is the work of Swiss artist Olaf Breuning, who shows at arsFutura Galerie in Zurich and is soon on his way to SoHo on a Zurich city-residency-abroad scholarship. Breuning mounts elaborate costume performances -- I saw a Valkyrie on a motorbike, a motley group of campers with a canoe, and an architectural ruin with a body -- and then makes color photographs of the scenes, which he laminates on aluminum. Large ones are 4,500 CHF, smaller ones are 600 CHF.
In the realm of art and architecture, one interesting artist is Gregor Schneider, who shows with Konrad Fischer Galerie in Düsseldorf. At the Basel Art Fair he had a small telephone-booth-sized room constructed out of heavy timbers and plaster, with a round hole in the floor as if for a toilet. The room, which sold for 40,000 DM, is apparently a section of the artist's home in Monchengladbach, Germany, which he expands and alters constantly, creating a kind of house of horrors with false exits and blocked spaces. Sort of like Gordon Matta-Clark in reverse, said one wag. Schneider recently had a show at Portikus in Frankfurt and is on the list for the forthcoming Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Small black and white photos of rooms and other details of the house are 900 DM.
At Galerie Analix Forever, which has branches in Geneva, Berlin and Paris, was work by United Aliens, a group of four London artists who make photo lightboxes for nonexistent things. Whatever these virtual products are -- and it's not easy to tell -- the sexy works are nicely priced at £2,000 for the smaller boxes and £3,000 for the larger ones. What's more, the group is curating a section in the next zingmagazine (available for $10 at Printed Matter), so you know they have to be good.
An artist named Noh Sang-Kyoon caught my eye at the booth of Gallery Hyundai from Seoul. The 41-year-old artist actually attended the Pratt Art Institute in New York, but now lives in Seoul. His sequin-covered canvases and objects -- a Buddha, a mannequin -- were included in the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. A small picture measuring 72 by 91 cm is $4,000. Gallery Hyundai has nothing to do with the automobile; in Korean "hyundai" means contemporary.
But the really, really new stuff is at Liste 99, June 15-20. The event is now in its fourth year, with 36 galleries from 13 countries specializing in "young art."
The Cologne dealer Sabine Schmidt is featuring black-and-white photos by Jochen Lempert, a Hamburg-based photographer who only had his first art show last November. A naturalist and a biologist before he began working in earnest as an artist, Lempert photographs animals in a way that recalls Karl Blossfeldt (his current show at the Zurich Kunsthaus is called "Planet of the Apes"). Small and charming pictures showing the artist holding native birds of the Rhine, like Bird in the Hand (1990), are 1,200 CHF. A slightly larger photograph shows a simple swath of fabric with three different animal prints. "It's called The Five Continents," Sabine said, "but actually only three are shown." This photo is 3,500 CHF.
Everyone liked a series of photos of color drawings by Lars Arrhenius on view at Galeri Magnus Karlsson from Stockholm. Called The Man without One Way, this series of 171 panels shows a sad-sack character -- could it be the artist? -- walking down the street, getting hit by a car, buying drugs, meeting friends, being mugged, falling down a hole, and accidentally having his brains blown out. Not very cheerful! But funny. It's 20,000 CHF, and individual panels can be had for 300 CHF. A bargain.
Over at the Chicago Project Room, you can still buy a copy of Margaret Welsh's Self-Portrait as a Higher Life Form (1997) -- the much-reproduced photograph of the artist wearing Spock ears -- for $1,000. Who could resist this emblem of "the pinnacle of logic," as Karl Erickson called it in Flash Art? There are two left of the edition of three. This photo is a more self-contained manifestation of the artist's typically theatrical tableaux, which can include extensive props, video, bubble machines and aromatherapy.
Finally, when on the subject of the theatrical, who could turn down a sign made of flashing lights? There's one at Modern Art !nc from London by the artist team of Tim Noble and Sue Webster, who may be better known for their double self-portraits as a pair of naked Neanderthals. The work here spells out "Vicious" in flashing orange script, and can be yours for £4,500. But hurry, there are only two left from an edition of five.