Jun 14 2013

Field Trip: Basel Basel

by HG Masters

Though Switzerland has been a republic since the 14th century, in the world of art fairs Art Basel is the ruling monarch. After expanding its global empire to Miami Beach in 2001 and then Hong Kong in 2013, Art Basel’s parent company MCH Group has built itself a new castle at this turn in the Rhine river. An imperious structure of undulating steel bands designed by hometown architects Herzog & de Meuron now dominates one side of this quaint city. The new Messeplatz structure makes evident the outsized hubris that fuels an art fair that now tops more than 300 international galleries, and remains the ultimate one-stop shop to buy and sell contemporary art. Here’s a look around the Unlimited section, curated by Gianni Jetzer of the Swiss Institute in New York, which opened on Monday and features installations and projects too large for an ordinary gallery booth.

The new and old Halles on Messeplatz, with Herzog & de Meuron’s Hall 1 on the left, which now dwarfs the older exhibitors’ hall on the right.

The new structure spans the previously open-aired Messeplatz, and has significantly darkened the plaza—despite an enormous oculus in its center. The new building has the feeling and the charm of the Death Star, as on the opening days dealers and collectors and others in the art world are invisibly drawn toward it from all parts of the town.

Inside the Unlimited section this year were many familiar, large-scale sculptures, previously seen in biennials or at other art fairs, as well as a handful of new works. Here, Noriyuki Haraguchi’s A-7E Corsair II (2011), a full-scale replica of the tail of a US Navy jet that the artist created out of raw canvas and graphite around a metal and wood frame. The sculpture was prominently displayed at Art HK in 2012.

Fairytale 2007, Ladies Dormitory (2007) was a project that Ai Weiwei created for Documenta 12, back in 2007. Here, it appears as one small section of the temporary accommodations that Ai made for the 1,001 Chinese visitors he brought to Kassel for the summer. The modest furnishings contrast with the 1,001 Qing dynasty chairs that were also a part of the original Documenta work.

A detail of Liu Wei’s Library II–I (2012), which are sculptures of modernist cityscapes carved from books and a testament to the many forms you can make with a laser-cutter.

Seen in Documenta 13, a year ago, Walid Raad’s Views from Outer to Inner Compartments (2010/11) is an installation of carved doorways—rendered in ersatz perspective and lit dramatically—that imagines the neo-classical interiors of a yet-to-built museum in the Arab world.

Kutlu─č Ataman’s widely exhibited five-channel video 99 Names (2002) is shown on screens that are staggered in space. Over the course of the five screens, the man’s incantations and rocking becomes increasingly frenetic and loud. The piece was featured in Ataman’s midcareer retrospective in 2010–11 at Istanbul Modern.

A rare new name in the Unlimited section, Shakuntala Kulkarni’s wearable sculptures Of Bodies, Armor and Cages (2010–12) are made from cane and rattan. The artist dons these warrior-like outfits and steps out in the streets of Mumbai, where the protective exoskeleton also becomes like a cage. 

Chiharu Shiota recreated one of her signature installations, In Silence (2002/2013), in which a dense web of black thread encases old chairs and a burnt piano. The work is meant to evoke the artist’s own personal childhood traumas.

Though created in the late 1970s, Nobuo Sekine’s Phase of Nothingness—Black (1977–78) has not been seen since then. Created from fiberglass by one of the central members of the Mono-ha movement, the sculptures contrast the highly polished geometric forms with rough, textured surfaces, as if the pristine shapes are caught in a moment of emergence. 

Michael Joo’s Indivisible (2012), created and first shown at the 2012 Gwangju Biennale last September, has a roof-like structure of riot shields from which are suspended Plasticine reproductions of household objects. The arrangement suggests the instruments of control that help maintain (or enforce) the routines of daily life.

Huang Yong Ping’s overgrown sculpture was based on the form of the house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was discovered and killed by the American military. As the plants take over, the iconic structure crumbles back into the earth. 

Back on the Messeplatz, Tadashi Kawamata’s collaboration with the architect Christophe Scheidegger, Favela Café (2013) was—depending on your disposition—either a rather heinous appropriation of the provisional architectural structures found in Brazilian slums (“shantytown chic,” you might say), or an ironic rejoinder to the technocratic sheen and growing swagger of this global art fair.

HG Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific and is based in Istanbul.