Migrations and Surveillance Inform Art Basel 2016

Nélida Nassar   06.21.2016

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Every year and for four days in Basel, Switzerland the global art market looks to this city on the Rhine. Its main sponsor being UBS, a creative pulse is combined with a shopping spree. Art Basel, is above all a trade show and it is about business and money. I will leave the business aspect and dive straight into the universe of artists, noting what has touched me most strolling through the city and its halls.

Curated by New Yorker Gianni Jetzer, the Art Unlimited section presents, in the aircraft hangar-sized Hall 1, 88 works of art. It comprises installations, paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos showcasing monumental works aimed at museums and super-rich collectors. Dan Graham’s Pavilion sinuous structures of steel, mirrors, and glass, which are neither cleanly architecture nor art reflects a startling scene from Davide Balula’s Mimed Sculptures. Hot-pink gloved performers gesticulate and appear to create shapes in space, miming the outlines of sculptures such as Giacometti’s Le nez (1947), Eva Hesse’s Hang up (1966), Louise Bourgeois’s Unconscious Landscape (1967 – 68), and others. It’s like a game of art history charades, but beyond the appeal of trying to recognize the mimed sculpture, the performance also conjures a new, sensual relation to these works as the performers air-caress their details. In close vicinity are other classics by Henry Moore.

Featuring images of newspaper clippings and books from the late 19th and early 20th century depicting African, Arab and Native American men murdering and raping white women, French artist Kader Attia’s installation The Culture of Fear questions and explores the toxic legacy of colonialism with its racist stereotypes that still resonate in contemporary fears about terrorism. Chiharu Shiota’s Accumulation: Searching for Destination, an aggregation of more than a hundred abandoned, vintage suitcases which hang and wobble from red ropes suspended on a slope, evokes the uncertain status of invisible refuges or migrants heading towards unknown destinations.

Wolfgang Tillmans’s photographic constellations are remarkable portraits where social tensions are in dialogue with intimate same sex scenes. The presentation is similar to his recent show “PCR 525” at the David Zwirner gallery, which mixes editorial writing and photography featuring activists around the world. His series of gay couples in Russia, shot for ID magazine, feels particularly poignant in light of the recent Orlando’s massacre.

Spectacular and memorable is Hans Op de Beeck’s monochromatic charcoal room. It’s the universe of a collector’s house, a space with its lily pond, library, grand piano, and torsos of naked odalisques in denim — a decor reminiscent of Pompeii, frozen in ashes hinting that whoever lived among the many tasteful artifacts has perished gruesomely.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Pavilion Zoom is an immersive installation, a kind of spider’s web fed by twelve surveillance cameras that use facial recognition algorithms to detect the presence of participants and record their spatial relationship within the exhibition space. Quite a disorienting experimental exercise: a disturbing intersection of the surveillance state with selfie culture.

When going into Hall 2 and the main part of the fair with booths of the 286 on site most famous galleries, another type of dizziness seizes you. Here the work of safe value artists such as Ai Weiwei’s White House, Frank Stella’s Damascus Gate as well as Tom Oursler Installation or work of others suit your wandering. My special favorites here are  William Kendridge’s video and Kurt Schwitters’s Ohne Title (Das doppelte Bild), 1942.

Nineteen installations have also been sprinkled through the centre of Basel, in public squares, museums, but also in usually closed-off public buildings, where visitors can see them for free as part of the Parcours section, creating a unique ambiance. Finally one comes to the stand of the Fondation Beyeler, which limited its display to just two masterpieces: a Franz Marc Blaue Reiter and a beautiful Kandinsky. What else does one needs to be exhilarated?

Images courtesy of Art Basel.