The Art Fair, Reimagined

Last week, the art world celebrated a world cup of its own: Art Basel Week. Per the yearly arrangement, Basel-ites surrendered their city to the annual crop of art world alum, in town to Airbnb their apartments, visit their kunsthalles, and fill the city’s Messeplatz with art from top galleries, flown in from all over the world. Each year, the festivities revolve around the Art Basel fair, circa 1970. So what’s the secret to a 40-year reign? Evolution, I suspect.

This year, an Andy Warhol self-portrait priced at $30 million was sold within the first 15 minutes of the fair. Collectors, pre-buying from jpegs, flew out after the fair had opened—and many dealers were in the black long before they ever hung the works. Art fairs, multiplying at rampant pace, have reached a new high, but to lead they must adapt: As Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-curator of the perennial “14 Rooms” exhibition mentioned, it is important for his show to constantly reinvent itself. His sentiment is clearly shared among the circuit of fairs, recently felt within Frieze New York’s immersive curatorial projects and Independent’s unconventional layout. So although Art Basel may have mastered the art fair model—take your proof in sales, foot traffic, or happy collectors—what it needed this year was to be reimagined; to continue to raise its own bar. 

And as if it were his personal calling, Gianni Jetzer, curator of Art Basel’s Unlimited sector, did just that. Likened to a biennial, his program filled a hangar-sized Herzog & de Meuron exhibition hall with 78 monumental works, delivering the sensory overload not of an art fair—but of a museum exhibition, filled with magnum opuses and one-off works. The latest film from Guido van der Werve (also screened in a nearby church as part of the Parcours sector, accompanied by a 20-string orchestra and 20-person choir); Alice Channer’s printed swathes of floor-to-ceiling silk, recalling the work she showed at the 55th Venice Biennale; the Doug Wheeler light installation, evolved from his neon paintings of ’64. These supersized works trumped the parameters of the traditional art fair booth—and they were in good company.

Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach’s “14 Rooms” exhibition, too, reimagined the fair setting. The show, which began in 2011, has been reinstalled each year—each time featuring living sculptures in stark white rooms, and each year, offering seminal works from the ’70s to present. This year, the show’s first stint at Art Basel, was not just for spectating. Among works by the likes of Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas, Marina Abramović , and Damien Hirst, viewers could barter items from a performer in Roman Ondák’s room, crouch beneath Laura Lima’s 45-cm high ceiling, or touch one another within Yoko Ono’s dark room. Across the street at Design Miami/ Basel, Sheila Hicks’ pillar of fabric cords was a sister to the column she just showed at the Whitney Biennial, accompanied at the fair by bundles of colored fabric, fit for sitting, and colored blocks for arranging; and downstairs, the entrance hall was lit by Jamie Zigelbaum’s 2014 design commission, a suspended, tetrahedral installation that illuminated on beat with visitor’s steps. 

And speaking of new, collectors wanted to see new artists—not just those dominating sales—but to find artists and programs not yet on their radar. That’s what happened in the hours and days following the initial, Hunger Games-style flurry for most-coveted works at the V-VIP Preview. The wise looked to Art Basel’s Statements sector, highlighting emerging artists, or better yet, the young artist’s fair, Liste. And thanks to the increasingly global fair, these up-and-comers received the biggest possible audience. Berlin-based Israeli artist Ariel Schlesinger showed at Galerija Gregor Podnar (Slovenia) and Dvir (Israel), as well as the local Kunsthaus Baselland (the latter exhibition featuring a car filled with two leaking gas tanks, fueling a small flame drilled in the passenger window—a must see). American artist Anna Betbeze’s multicolored relief made from a Flokati wool carpet was a highlight of Statements. And these newcomers shared the Basel rink with some of the world’s most established international artists. Back at Unlimited, America’s beloved Sterling Ruby, on the heels of his Frieze Week New York, museum quality opening at Hauser & Wirth, brought his mammoth soft sculptures to a European audience; Chinese provocateur Xu Zhen showed his East meets West, Parthenon meets Buddha play on Western sculpture; and Italian Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone’s giant, hollowed, and halved fir tree trunk bisected the exhibition hall.

So what is the future of the art fair? One can’t be sure, but none of the above fits into its storied past. There’s a reason 70,000+ visitors flocked to Basel this year, and it isn’t just for buying art. As top works are snapped up well before the vernissage, the fair must offer experiences beyond the traditional white cube booth.Visitors are looking for surprises—for art that physically grabs them, like Yoko Ono’s Touch. And for something different than what they saw last year, at the last fair, or on the eve of Basel, via jpeg.

Additional images: Xu Zhen by MadeIn Company, Eternity-Parthenon East pediment, Northern Qi golden and painted Buddha, Tang Dynasty torso of standing Buddha from Quyang city, Northern Qi painted Bodhisattva, Tang Dynasty seated Buddha from Tianlongshan, Northern Qi painted Buddha, Tang Dynasty torso, 2013-2014; Guiseppe Penon, Matrice di linfa, 2008.

Thumbnail image: Sterling Ruby at Art Basel courtesy of Xavier Hufkens, Sprueth Magers, and Art Basel. 

Revisit Art Basel and Design Miami/ Basel on Artsy.