Perhaps the time has come for a competition at Art Basel. Critics, collectors, art dealers and the public are invited to come up with a new title for the fair’s prestigious "Art Unlimited" section. As is well known to anyone who has visited the fair, "Art Unlimited" features massive installations that can reach the ceiling, or dedicated video chambers that resemble small movie theaters, work often made by our most famous artists, or better, by young artists of promise.
Even Basel veterans still marvel at the vast hall, its seemingly endless architecture, divided by noble white cubes. Yet in 2010, "unlimited" seems to mean "not limited to the grandiose." Though still an "Olympic freestyle," much of material seems cheap -- PVC, cardboard -- and so much of it is on video, and familiar, having already been seen eslewhere, in other museums or at other biennials. For 2010, "Art Unlimited" offers an invitation to a concentrated enjoyment, where grand works invoke modesty and humility.
For instance, Sergio Prego's Ikurriña Qaurter is an immense tube of milky plastic, big enough to walk through, that winds through the space, doubling back around a fairground column. At its end it is formed into what looks like a vacuum package. This tube contains nothing -- except maybe invisible politics. People familiar with the Iberian Peninsula see in the sculpture part of the Basque flag. Prego himself speaks of an undefined free space with political subtext. Yet one gets the impression that the sculpture, despite its size, is a somewhat useful utensil and therefore fits right in at Art Unlimited.
Michael Beutler's Pipeline Field uses a pile of tubes the artist caught sight of at the harbor in Rotterdam, and is a mixture of junkyard, sculpture study and atelier. The material with which the Field was made still stands around, like abandoned looms or work benches between shining surfaces of the turned tube elements. No pipeline is being built. No materials of Russian oil projects are left to rot.
Here the pathos of the minimalistic large sculpture is translated back into the succinct language of urban room and industrial wasteland. The public likes it. The segments don't even have sharp edges. The artwork does not intrude. The pants legs are safe
And so Art Unlimited becomes a theoretical game about form and counter-form, about gestures and the avoidance of same, about the adequacy of utilized materials. It's about the economy of language, and sometimes about the hidden, controversial meaning.
While all the world is entranced with Dan Flavin's 1969 three sets of tangented arcs in daylight and cool white (to Jenny and Ira Licht), nearby glows quietly a kind of corrugated black wall by Andrew Dadson. His Black Painted Light consists of painted UV-tubes, where the light only peeks through here and there in unpainted spots. The painting is about 12 feet wide and tries to swallow all ambient energy. Flavin, the most boring of the Light and Space Minimalists, tries to spread it out wide and geometrically in the room.
In the entry hall, Yayoi Kusama invites us into a small, cute wonder-chamber titled Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity -- the latest version of her dark, mirrored rooms lit by small colored lanterns, where the viewer stands on a kind of runway in the middle of a shallow square pool seemingly suspended in a cosmos of luminous spots, a universe of simple light sources. Now over 80, Kusama shows no unnecessary pathos in her installations. The intimacy of the design removes all thoughts of kitsch. Things are as they are and don't pretend to be anything else.
This goes for all works that really want to make a statement. This year only a dozen or so are really impressive. However, these show what real potential there is in art when the guidelines are strictly adhered to.
With works by David Maljkovic, Yuko Shirashi, Jan Tichy, Harun Farocki and the astounding Belgian duo Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys, one is forced to open one’s eyes to really look, and to feel astonishment and respect for the real and unreal.
David Maljkovic helps one understand how among these visions of utopia a human being becomes a traveler in his own mind and memory. Out of Projection should be an antidote to TV. Accompanied by soundtrack that stays in the background, elderly couples stand, sit, wait, look, wander through a strange world of forest paths, test roads, asphalt, concrete and nature. But with Majkovic they are not in no-man’s-land, but on the worksite of their former employer, Peugeot.
Visions of future car models are the only prerequisites in a film where faces, biographical traces and the physical closeness of the couples become the opposite of technology.
On a smaller screen the employees are questioned, yet their voices cannot be heard. Maljkovic has made a small revolutionary theater, where archetypical movements prevail over the industrialized work environment and their fantasies. Visitors should be offered something to drink or a piece of cake so that they will sit down and really enjoy the 18 minutes of this artwork.
Secret projects such as these offer enough after just a few minutes. Jan Tichy created an astronomic observatory, or rather a planetarium. Within a nine-minute period paper balls seem to turn into stars, though it is just a matter of form and light. Prague, the birthplace of Tichy, who now lives in Chicago, was once the center for this kind of study of art and science. Here in Basel, amid all the hustle and bustle, this work tries to teach people to really open their eyes and pay attention.
Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys have pushed this particular project to the utmost. They show a film full of awful-looking dolls, like figures created for an amateur puppet show. Tasteless costumes and embarrassing close-ups of ugly decor are set up as if to torture the public. No relief can be found save for the language, which word for word creates a story, although without much point, solution or sense. Yet, it serves us as framework, guide and signal. Monotonous, grandfatherly anecdotes are enriched with stereotypical details. Still, one forgets the bad jokes that make no sense, because these automated voices become a hypnotic tool against our addition to the spectacle and its effects.
These figures have no biographies, still they are old, ancient. We think of them as relics. They speak of an era in which art could define its own time and contents. Art Basel does have an assortment of defiant works, even though they are hidden. Simple, it is possible. This section has something to offer, not only politically, but also in support of the entire branch. Awareness to set limits will also be beneficial for Basel.
The fair management will accept suggestions for a new title for Art Unlimited until the end of the month.
Translated from the German by Christa Blissett.
GERRIT GOHLKE is executive director of Artnet.de.