Trees, Teas, Bikes, and Humanoids at Art Basel Unlimited
Monday night’s preview of Unlimited, Art Basel’s platform for “artworks that transcend the traditional art-fair stand” proved, at least in Basel, that subtlety is no way to make an impact. Some 74 artists competed for attendees’ attention in this key section of the fair (which opens to the public later this week), enjoying varying degrees of artistic and curatorial success, with some quieter, more sophisticated works losing out in the melee.
Curator Gianni Jetzer, taking on Unlimited for the fourth year, certainly lined up grandstanding, big-name pieces: Ai Weiwei’s Stacked (2012), piles of hundreds of bicycles on their sides, one of the first artworks visitors encounter; signature Dan Flavin in European Couples (1966–71), a sequence of three rooms with permutations of garish neon lights fizzing in corners; Robert Irwin’s Black 3 (2008), a series of translucent voile panels that blot out the world, layer by layer, as the viewer peers through.
Sometimes, the more extravagant pieces complemented the work around them. Formosa Decelerator (2014), a large, playful work by Brazilian collective OPAVIVARÁ!, saw sore-footed art buyers invited to slump into a number of hammocks surrounding a station where they could pour themselves comforting cups of jasmine, clove, or lemongrass tea. Its vibrancy melded perfectly with the lively palette of Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Plastic Tree (2014), with its comically forlorn colored plastic bags suspended from branches; and equally well with the wash of yellow that formed Franz Erhard Walther’s Wallformation Gelbmodellierung (1980–81), a performance space of manipulable flaps and costumery—matching yellow rainwear camouflaged by the wall behind them—not displayed since 1989.
Other works simply seemed lost, victims of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event or the relative isolation of their apportioned space. Bruce Nauman’s subtle audio piece Für Kinder (2011), a meditation on the simplification of the artistic learning process for children, was completely washed out by the chatter of the opening. Martin Boyce’s We Are Resistant, We Dry Out in the Sun (2004), an installation of lights in the form of parasol frames leaning over sun loungers, felt overpowered and somewhat glib in one of the quieter parts of the showcase without an obvious crowd-pleaser to attract footfall.
The subdued moments were emphasised by performances of spiralling fervor that punctuated the evening. Of particular note, and one of the undoubted highlights of the entire night, was Kader Attia’s clattering rampage through his installation Arab Spring (2014), which drew crowds from across the exhibition space. Attia, sporting a hooded sweatshirt—that uniform for the disenfranchised worldwide—hurled rocks through plate glass exhibition cases, reenacting the plunder of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 2011. The dissonance of vandalism had increased impact in this church of artistic craftsmanship—effective because it was so literal—and Attia was seen off with a round of applause.
Such performances—the evening began with one in Wallformation Gelbmodellierung, in the furthest corner of the room—helped draw visitors away from the obvious points of congregation. Working backwards, away from the two significant pieces near to the entrance—Ai Weiwei’s work and Julius von Bismarck’s hilarious Egocentric System (2015), in which the artist sat at a desk, cross-armed, revolving at speed in a kind of scientific crucible—the curatorial punctuation marks were perhaps more obvious than on a normal day. Larger pieces were more or less evenly spaced, leaving enough room between them for smaller enclosures containing mini-exhibitions and video, installations, and work that couldn’t fit anywhere else.
The big hits included David Shrigley’s Life Model (2012), where visitors were invited to draw their own versions of a three-meter high humanoid sculpture; Pierre Huyghe’s Cambrian Explosion (2014), a living aquarium containing arrow and horseshoe crabs; Olafur Eliasson’s truly magnetic Your Space Embracer (2004), a spinning mirrored ring in the dark, which pans a light around the room like the dawn breaking around the planet; and Martin Creed’s tried and tested Work No. 1701 (2013), where various characters were filmed crossing a New York street.
Video as a whole was well represented—Ed Atkins’s CGI simulacra in Happy Birthday!! (2014) spoke slowly, rattling off ancient dates, highlighting the uncanniness of their own artificiality—as were less contemporary offerings. Along with the Nauman and the Flavin, there was a nice showing of Arte Povera courtesy of Jannis Kounellis, along with Sturtevant’s Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Blue Placebo) (2004), hundreds of candies individually wrapped in blue cellophane.
The evening ended as it began, with a performance, this time courtesy of British musician Ghostpoet, performing at the site of Gary Simmons’s Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark (2014), a sculptural installation intended for the players to manipulate as they choose, with the speakers and staging left in place at the end of each performance. Quite how many of the art collectors present appreciated this performance is unclear; acoustically, a box for displaying art is not the perfect place to make and listen to music. With a loop of feedback there is perhaps something lost in the search for more and more noise; arguably that’s a workable metaphor for Unlimited itself, and its ineffable, steamrolling search for attention.