Making Sense of Art Basel

Posted by Andy Wicks on 23rd June 2011

In keeping with Lorena’s article ‘Trading Places’, the question ‘Are art fairs the new blockbuster exhibitions?’ kept running through my head as I wrote my review of last week’s edition of Art Basel. As part of The Florence Trust studio residency, each year’s residents go on a summer’s art trip. Previous years have seen Glasgow and Liverpool biennale, so when it was announced we would be going to Basel the excitement was clear to be seen. We flew on an early flight on Tuesday morning ready to catch the VIP preview. Walking through the airport to our departure gate should have been a clue of the world I was about to step into, with a YBA, a couple of famous gallerists, critics and numerous faces all etched into my consciousness who I was unable to place at such an ungodly hour.

Entrance to Art Basel

Art Basel itself is the main fair, while there are a handful of satellite fairs spread across the city as well as special events and late night openings at many of the museums. I must confess that I probably spent the least time at the main fair. But I did make sure I caught the UK galleries – Modern Art, White Cube, Sadie Coles etc and some of their European and American counterparts. But to be honest I didn’t have the stamina to compete with the excited moneymen and hangers on at the VIP preview.

Art Unlimited joins the main fair building at Messeplatz. It’s a large hanger style building and offers large curated site specific projects of individual works by big name artists. Each showing with their respective galleries but unlike the fair these aren’t manned sales booths. On the side of Unlimited was Art Statements which I would compare with the Frieze’s Frame, an area for solo presentation from younger galleries held within the main fair. I enjoyed Rodeo (Istanbul) who presented work by Emre Hüner who took Fordlandia (a city Henry Ford built in the Amazon to extract rubber to produce tires) as inspiration for a varied set of sculpture and drawing of this failed utopian.

Emre Hüner at Rodeo Istanbul gallery. Photo courtesy of Art Basel

Outside of the main fairs there was plenty to see, with free shuttle buses linking you from one to another. Volta is set further out from the centre of town and had a far more relaxed feel to it, which made for a more enjoyable experience. Although it wasn’t particularly busy so I’m not sure how the galleries felt? There were a number of British galleries on display here including Nettie Horn, Room Gallery, Vegas Gallery and Madder 139 who had some interesting G.L Brierley paintings. While former Vyner Street stalwart David Risley showed a good group of painters with his now Copenhagen based gallery.

My favourite of the fairs was definitely Liste, which shows galleries no more than 5 years old and artists under 40 (much like London’s former Zoo art fair). It was set in a stunning former brewery Wartech just off the North bank of The Rhine and had a much cooler feel to it with challenging spaces to hang works. There was a conceptual feel throughout with a leaning towards sculptures and installations; good examples of these were Limoncello, Hotel (both UK) and Liudvikas Buklys solo presentation with Tulips & Roses (Belgium).

Liste Art Fair

So are art fairs the new blockbuster exhibitions? Through my artist tinted specs I would compare art fairs to theme park. They offer entertainment for the masses with short lived thrills, and after so many paintings, I know I saw some good pieces but I would struggle to name more than a handful of them. With high price entry and long queues it’s certainly not how I would choose to view art, no matter how good. But what the art fair does do, especially in a place like Basel, is to ignite a city for a week and open up all the museums and institutions for people to explore.

If a blockbuster exhibition is a high profile, glitzy affair then maybe the art fair is just that. The blockbuster is something our museums should be producing. However, with cuts in funding in the UK, I believe it’s the private patrons and blue chip galleries of this world that truly have the ability to produce a blockbuster exhibition without the claustrophobic fair setting. Just look at Gagosian’s Picasso and Crash (A Homage to JG Ballard) exhibitions last year - epic in resources and scale without compromising the viewer.