IF you have a hammer in your head everything will look like a nail to you. This year’s Art Basel in Basel opened with the US’s deadliest mass shooting in Orlando barely over, a young progressive politician assassinated in the streets of the UK, shiploads of refugees drowning every day during their desperate flight from the horrors of war and seeking shelter in Europe, and the latter watching one of its main players breaking away on a wave of xenophobia.
There is probably no better place to experience sadness, anger, gloom and angst filtering down in international contemporary art than Unlimited, the fair’s section of what matters, as opposed to what needs to be sold. Here the knives are out, quite literally. Jannis Kounellis surrounds you with enormous butcher’s swords, torn coats over them, the handles wrapped in newspapers. It’s dark and it’s very fitting.
Artists like Kounellis have a seismic antenna for the bleak horrors of tomorrow and it is down to the great curation of Unlimited that his room sits pretty much at the epicentre of the whole section. Kader Attia’s installation The Culture of Fear: An Invention of Evil throws light at centuries of the media’s dangerous approach of pitting the West against the rest. With its dusty look of a 1970s public German library it wouldn’t be all that exciting, if it wasn’t for the fact that it depicts the nasty game that is being played today more than ever in global media politics of fear.
Next door, Wolfgang Tillmans has assembled those who try to resist, revealing haunting images by merging the political with the personal. In the far corner of his room there is a small photo of a hand held up against the camera that you won’t forget easily. It is fragile and it is pleading for things to stop. En route to the rear section there are signs again of great composition.
Sol LeWitt’s Irregular Tower has been placed against the vast canvas of Adam Pendleton’s A Victim of American Democracy. The entirely white large modular steel structure works incredibly well in front of the mural-sized wall installation and its five large scale silkscreen paintings. Effortlessly questions of the independence of formal conceptualism from history and politics are being thrown into the room here.
Equally as strong is the stunning array of film and video works brought to the fair this year. Victoria Miro and David Zwirner have mounted Stan Douglas’s Luanda-Kinshasa, a hypnotic journey of six hours deep into the African origins of the 1970 New York music scene. Barely out of the room I bump into Ralph Rugoff who tells me he is planning to get the film for an off-site project in an abandoned building in London, to be shown while the Hayward Gallery is closed this autumn.
The work has been sold to a private collector; I hope it’ll be available on loan though, as it’s too good to be stored away from the public. The same goes for Kahlil Joseph’s m.A.A.d., a hefty visual road trip through quotidian street life in California, shown on a large split screen to a soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar. There are moments of The Wire here, and of Grand Theft Auto too, interspersed with lush panoramic shots that speak the language of Wim Wenders’s American loneliness.
Also presented by Gallery Bernier/Eliades, Colin Siyuan Chinnery’s Warmth is a different affair. Much more introvert and far from the showy pace seen before, it tells the touching story of an elderly man in Beijing performing his very personal secret ceremony of seeing butterflies spreading their wings in winter, using a contraption that releases hot steam for the creatures to move around in.
Again, if you have the hammer ready, you’ll know which nail to hit here. Bound to a small patch of hot steam the butterflies are forced back into captivity as and when their small artificial streak of protection ends. I hope Rugoff went home with Stan Douglas, Kahlil Joseph and Colin Chinnery in his bag. He’ll have the most amazing triple bill to show.
To the commercial break now, the main bit of the fair. The rows of gallery booths stretch out in a maze so sad and uninspiring, I want to turn around straight away. But one mustn’t be ungrateful, this is the heart of the whole organism, pumping the monetary blood through the veins of its much more attractive limps. And despite the doom and gloom, significant sales are happening, we are being told. It’s not a pretty sight though, great art sterilised in a battery farm.
Luxembourg & Dayan made the best of it by re-staging Kounellis’s performance piece To Invent on the Spot, where the trio of a painting, a violinist and a ballerina work together to portray the fruitless effort of great art to cut through the noise surrounding it. Back at Unlimited three rooms at the end are staggered for the most amazing build up. Tracey Emin’s The more of you the more I love you is a bittersweet large scale neon installation that borrows, perhaps without wanting to, the piano tunes from its next door neighbour, Frances Stark’s Nothing is Enough.
After all the hype these two together manage quite simply to look back at the individual, who we are, and how pathetically little there is about us that matters. And with that, we are ready for the last, the best room of the show. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Zoom Pavillion utilises 12 computer operated surveillance cameras and facial recognition algorithms to pick out visitors entering the room, project their pictures on the wall, and categorise and analyse their spatial relationships.
The result is shattering. Beautiful grey scales reminiscent of Antonioni’s Blow Up, where a story resolves in the end in nothing but individual dots on a vast canvas of life.
by Oliver Krug