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Art Basel 43


by Emily Nathan
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Art Basel 43, June 14-17, 2012, in the museum-laden Swiss town beloved by those with money to spare, has a long history of luxury. Drawing well-suited dealers and collectors from all corners of the globe since 1970, it’s “just as much a meeting place as a market place,” as Art Basel co-co-director Marc Spiegler likes to put it. And while center stage is occupied by the big, expensive gestures made by big, rich artists, plenty of politically engaged, socially grounded artwork is still to be found in the city.

At the main fair, the “Art Statements” section is billed as a kind of launchpad for up-and-coming art and artists, a marketing position that is reinforced by the CHF 30,000 Baloise Art Prize awarded to not one but two booths. The section also allows Art Basel to admit smaller, more budget-conscious galleries, which might otherwise devote their energy to any of the satellite fairs. Hype is the name of the game at art fairs, of course, but surely  the fair press material overreaches a bit when it suggests that artists like William Kentridge, Elizabeth Peyton and Kara Walker were “discovered” here.

Still, the line-up of 27 dealers from 19 countries is like a cosmopolitan U.N.: Arratia Beer (Berlin), Balice Hertling (Paris), Cherry Martin (Los Angeles), Harris Lieberman (New York), Proyectos Monclova (México City), Gallery Side 2 (Tokyo), Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde (Dubai), gandy gallery (Bratislava) and Michael Lett (New Zealand). Not so much action from Africa, though.

The result is a section that’s edgy, ambitious and smacking of the zeitgeist, incorporating an impressive mixture of theory, technology and craft. One familiar esthetic note is an effort to “reactivate” the ruined or the unremarkable, and though art that is shot through with political commentary may be relatively rare in New York City, it stands out here.

Entering the great Hall 1 in the Messeplatz, which Art Statements shares with Art Unlimited -- a stellar exhibition of 62 large-scale crowd pleasers -- viewers are greeted with a shimmering installation by French artist Oliver Laric (b. 1981), courtesy of Tanya Leighton gallery in Berlin. The walls of the booth are plastered in a continuous frieze of silver holograph replicas of the security stickers affixed to visas for the Schengen zone (good for travel in most of Europe, and named after a city in Luxembourg where a treaty was signed), which Laric has had produced in the Shenzhen zone of China -- a region known for its mass-production of electronic goods, both authentic and counterfeit.

Around the corner at Vilma Gold from London, Los Angeles-born artist Karthnik Pandian (b. 1981) presents Atlas, an installation of black boxes on rollers, part sculpture and part plinth, all gridded in white lines like graph paper -- a 3D “blank slate,” perhaps (price: €30,000). The installation includes three videos, with the monitors sitting on top of the plinths, which were filmed in Ouarzazate in Morocco, a kind of North African Hollywood where Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator were shot, among other epics. Echoing the photographs made by Gregory Crewdson in the overgrown backlots at Cinecitta a few years ago, Pandian’s vids contemplate the deteriorating structures and expanses of desert, suggesting that U.S. “culture” has indeed taken over the world.

Contemporary spectacle is also the subject of a video by the Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh, who lives in Dubai, where he works with Isabelle van den Eynde. Collectively titled A Place beyond Good and Evil, the videos and accompanying watercolors demonstrate a fascination with destruction from a peculiarly Arab perspective. Adding graffito-like embellishments in ink and paint, Haerizadeh (b. 1979) modifies media images of street protests and political violence with gruesome additions like pointy ears, toothy muzzles and beady eyes, framing people as animals with a taste for blood.

His video Fictionville, which dds stop-motion animations of layered paint and pencil scribbles to found footage, is more primal than political. A CNN news clip headlined “Iranian Election Fallout” is vandalized to read “Iranian ERECTION Fallout,” and the anchor is gradually transformed into a phallus, a cat and finally a genie who takes out a sword, hacks off his own limbs and then unzips his body to reveal his true self, a deformed monster. It looks like Humanism isn’t playing too well in Tehran. The framed works on paper are sold in sets priced €8,000-€24,000.

A brilliant two-channel video by the French artist Aurelien Froment, presented by Amsterdam’s Motive Gallery, is titled 9 Intervals and is arguably a new sort of “body art,” focusing both on timeless flesh (via yoga) and what might be the body’s most important place in the real world, the office chair. Clips of a lithe, spandex-suited woman doing asanas are juxtaposed with a documentary on chair production which is paired with footage of an actor on stage who struggles to adjust his ergonomic seat in front of an impatient audience.

The soundtrack ranges from a voiceover of a serene female guide of a Bikram class to the male actor reading aloud from a poetic treatise on the benefits of yoga practice, and a narrated instruction manual for use of the chair, with which the actor continues to grapple -- “turn knob until the resistance is just right for the way your work.”

The dynamic between the clips is hilarious at times, brilliantly disjointed and absurd at others. Close-up shots of the woman’s swanlike, folded limbs are paralleled in romantic takes of the chair’s anthropomorphic forms, and these are interrupted suddenly with chair-factory footage, in which the metal fist of some terrifying machine violently pounds a cushion into the gently sloping cradle of a seat.

For the space of Galeria Vidal Cuglietta from Brussels, Canadian-born artist Zin Taylor (b. 1978) has produced a mini-museum of 200 small, handcrafted objects made from wood, plaster, clay, plastic and paint, all displayed on freestanding glass shelves. Like artists before him from the Surrealists to Gabriel Orozco and Matt Hoyt, Taylor categorizes and arranges his items of whimsy, here according to one of five charmingly simple sculptural “subjects”: cane, ring, bracelet, cup and finger.

In its arbitrariness, Taylor’s method produces a truly curious cabinet of curiosities, and emphasizes the subjectivity involved in what is typically taken as the authority and logic in institutional display. Individual vitrines are priced in the €11,000-€15,500 range.

A similarly restrained approach to the artistic object is demonstrated by Argentine artist Amalia Pica (b. 1978), who has made a series of sculptures from broken combs, chair fragments and other oddments in the booth of Galeria Diana Stigter from Amsterdam. The simple assemblages echo the crafty, DIY esthetic of the just-closed 2012 Whitney Biennial, and they also recall Marcel Duchamp’s early readymades -- if they had used broken objects rather than store-bought ones. Pica shapes her sculpture with Surrealist logic, literally embodying Andre Breton’s image of the “chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”

Titled Catachresis, a literary term referring to the misapplication of a word or phrase -- frequently a “strained metaphor” -- Pica’s sculptures are scattered around the room like mischievous children, nestled in corners or climbing up the wall, and upon a second look they exhibit yet further anthropomorphic qualities. Each grouping of quotidian materials is roughly arranged according to the objects’ “body parts,” from the “tongue” of a shoe to the “leg” of a table to the “neck” of a bottle -- a literal application of expressions that are meant to exist only figuratively. Each sculpture sells for €5,000.

Ultimately, Art Statements offers a refreshing alternative to the glitz and glamour that dominates the rest of the fair. Among all the diamonds, a little rough seems like just the thing.

Art Statements in Art Basel 43, June 14-17, 2012, Hall 2 at Messeplatz, Basel, Switzerland.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email