A guy in a red octopus suit, with big yellow eyes, drawing graffiti scenes of the great wave on the wall. An oversized, all-but-immobile teeter-totter, with eight seats on one end balanced against a single one on the other. A booth carpeted with millions of glittery crystals, one real diamond hidden among the chaff.
It must be Art 39 Basel, June 2-8, 2008, the biggest and most prestigious art fair in the world. The first hall to open at the fair is "Art Unlimited," the 20,000 square feet devoted to almost 70 overscaled art installations, along with "Art Statements," another dozen or so booth-sized special commissions by younger artists. The fair proper opens the next day; in the meantime, a quick report.
Last year, Art Basel was the apex of an art-world "grand tour" that included portentous curatorial efforts at the 52nd Venice Biennale and Documenta 12. Much to everyone’s surprise, winner of the implicit esthetic showdown was the short-term, bazaar-like "Art Unlimited" installation, featuring a motley collection of artworks ranging from Christoph Büchel’s junkyard to Katharina Grosse’s 3D abstract painting made with a heap of weather balloons [see "Art Capital," June 18, 2007].
So, a certain keen anticipation drew many of us to this year’s installment of "Art Unlimited." How does it compare?
Well, remember that the keynote to the 2007 installment was Paul McCarthy’s ludicrously huge bronze statue of a garden gnome holding a butt plug, installed right by the door to the hall, as if to say that art collectors and other VIPs were welcome for a little ass play?
This year, no such black comedy is on hand, though the entrance was ringed by a barrier made of bales of trash, designed to keep out the hoi polloi during the opening-day vernissage. This is not an altogether encouraging sign.
Inside, the vast "Art Unlimited" hall stretches off into the distance, its open space divided into a series of concrete piazzas punctuating a warren of booth-like galleries and impromptu theaters for the many film and video installations.
At the entryway to the hall is a large open space holding Carl Andre’s Lament for the Children (1976-96), a doleful grid of 100 cast-concrete blocks, each about 30 centimeters tall. A Minimalist masterpiece to be sure, the work admittedly resembles a field of gravestones and as such strikes a rather funereal note. But never mind.
Probably the highest-priced work in the show is Takashi Murakami’s soaring silver self-portrait-as-buddha, sitting suavely on a lotus pedestal that itself rests on the back of a tortoise-like squashed Ganesh. The price, as everyone seems to know, is $8 million. And it’s sold, naturally.
Another highlight is Richard Avedon’s 31-foot-long black-and-white photograph from 1969 of Andy Warhol, Viva, Joe Dallesandro, Taylor Mead and other members of the Warhol Factory (courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery), proving that cool is eternal.
The New York artist Banks Violette brought a certain neo-Goth attitude to the proceedings, supervising the installation of his multi-paneled Mirror Wall, a process that involves the application of 12 tons of pneumatic pressure to steel frames holding 28 mirrors, resulting in plenty of shattered glass -- a frozen gesture of proven allegorical potency. The work is priced at $330,000, probably a new high for the artist according to Salzburg dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who said he thought he had a buyer for it.
Towards "Art Unlimited"’s rear wall, the Yangjiang Group from Guangzhou has set up a replica of a classical Chinese garden, complete with tiled paths, twisted pines and a pond with an arching bridge. The typically mellow scene is brought up to the anxious minute, however, by replacing what would be a soothing musical soundtrack with a news broadcast (in Chinese). And hanging banners display not Confucian adages but headlines, like "Microsoft Gives Up on Yahoo Takeover Due to High Costs" (also in Chinese). The price, according to Fang Hu, the creative director of Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou, is a very contemporary €180,000.
Another notable project is Peter Liversidge’s proposal to plant fruit trees in all of Basel’s empty planters, an impulse that echoes an earlier scheme by Joseph Beuys, who planted oaks in Kassel and New York City, among other places. Liversidge’s effort is perhaps the only socially useful work in the entire show. Is success spoiling the avant-garde? It would seem so.
"Art Unlimited" includes several interesting developments from international favorites. Anselm Reyle, a European artist whose exercises in painterly abstraction are known in the U.S. largely through spotty appearances in the auction rooms and the occasional group show, presents a single vertical sculpture, an untitled, irregular agglomeration of square tubes with naturalistic-looking holes cut into them. The openings seem to glow molten red, thanks to some interior lighting. The thing looks like nothing so much as a 1950s synagogue decoration, which, being the epitome of square, is all the more avant-garde for it.
In this vein too is the sleeper of the show, Rosemarie Trockel’s Imitation of Life (2003), a tall sculpture of black metal that stands like a somber David Smith sentinel. The work is in fact a mobile, its seven symmetrical arms designed to move in response to air currents. Trockel’s pseudo-crucifix is a pointed and dark 21st-century counterpoint to the light and airy mobiles that Alexander Calder made emblematic of 20th-century optimism.
Still one more surprise comes from photographer Thomas Ruff, who presents a gallery full of new paintings -- they look like paintings, anyway -- called "Zycles." Inkjet prints on canvas depicting assorted geometric figures, slim and graceful, made with a computer program that translates mathematical formulae into curvy lines, the works suggest the late Al Held fallen under the sway of some kind of Conceptualist religion. As with artists like Sol LeWitt and Richard Prince, it’s perversely rewarding to see "anti-painters" gradually come around in the end to making what are, more or less, paintings.
The film and video installations at "Art Unlimited" are also rewarding, and not just because they provide a chance to sit down and rest your feet. One nice vid, from the 1970s rock ‘n’ roll promoter Malcolm McLaren, presents uneventful shots from ‘60s-era soft-core porn (no nudity, just girls in negligees) along with a deejayed soundtrack, proving that sometimes all you need is a nice tune.
Such is the case, too, with Bruce Conner’s Easter Morning (1966 / 2008), a super-8 home movie with trippy light effects (and including shots of a mandala-like carpet and a nude young woman). The accompanying soundtrack, an eerie composition by Terry Riley performed by the Shanghai Film Orchestra on ancient Chinese instruments, gives the film its otherworldly quality. Presented by Michael Kohn Gallery from Los Angeles, the work is produced in an edition of six, beginning at $20,000.
The Irish artist Duncan Campbell’s Make It Fall, Bernadette (2008) is a 16mm film about the 1970s Irish socialist Bernadette Devlin, an inspirational and dogged campaigner for Irish rights who is perhaps now too little remembered. Part documentary and part poetry, the work suggests that a more closely argued examination of Devlin, her politics and her times might be useful today. Campbell’s artwork, made in an edition of six, is €6,000, and an accompanying print is €1,500.
Last but not least is Karen Kilimnik’s three-hour-long version of Heathers, the Hollywood movie that brought Christian Slater and Winona Ryder together in the innocent bloom of their glorious youth. Kilimnik has refilmed the original in video, cutting and re-running scenes in a sloppy edit that leaves all the seams showing. Though the idea of yet another film appropriation is off-putting, this one is winning, if only because the soft and pixilated video so effectively recreates the amorous dream of beautiful youth. And that’s what it’s all about.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.