Slouching towards Bethlehem

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Located in the heart of the enchanting Swiss countryside, the international show Art Basel brings together the best of contemporary art from galleries around the world all under one roof. This year, the mood of Art Basel was unusually sombre, as artists confronted darker political themes in their work.  This was refreshing in the context of the typically inward-looking art world, as a large number of works addressed the turbulent nature of current affairs, conflict and intrigue unfolding outside the walls of Messe Basel. Indeed, Sadie Coles (of Sadie Coles gallery) remarked that the tone of the Fair was  “calm, focused, and serious”.

Moreover, galleries  reported exceptionally strong sales with a particular interest coming from international buyers. In among the convoluted labyrinth of works by more than 4,000 artists, I stumbled across some exceptional discoveries.

Grimonprez’s multi-media project was, for me, the most important work in the exhibition. I was told, “Go see the Shadow World. Everything else is superfluous”.
This advice was proved right. In a fair that usually celebrates beauty, creativity and luxury, this was one of the only art works that courageously referenced the corruption and intrigue permeating our contemporary world. It was, without a doubt, the most intellectually challenging, incisive and chilling piece of the entire show.
The documentary is based on a book by Andrew Feinstein, an investigative journalist and former South African politician, who is interviewed throughout the film. In graphic detail, Feinstein reveals the shocking stories of bribery, murder and greed which underpin the trade. We learn that things like “legal bribery” are normal in the illicit world of arms deals. Feinstein goes on to explain that “a pair of tits can go a long way in an arms deal”, and how escorts would often be hired in securing contracts.

The Shadow World reveals the process, lies and intrigue driving the arms trade, primarily involving Britain, America and Saudi Arabia. It discloses the intimate ties between governments, intelligence agencies, weapons manufacturers, dealers and agents and how these relations grow to foster a system founded on corruption. This system ultimately undermines global democracy and leaves behind an endless trail of victims. With its relentlessly probing reportage, the documentary explores how such corruption penetrates the media and in turn all sectors of our society, going as far as infiltrating our subconscious mind.
Another politically subversive artist, presented his work as a video projection booth, framed in abrasive fluorescent lights that confront you upon entrance to the small box theatre. The Sound of Silence retells the story of photo-journalist Kevin Carter and his famous photograph of a small girl, a victim of the Sudanese famine, as she crawls on the ground searching for food. A looming vulture sits watching her.
 Alfredo Jaar, The Sound of Silence, (2006). Photo: Sergio Belinchon, Berlin Courtesy: the artist + Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin
Alfredo Jaar, The Sound of Silence, (2006). Photo: Sergio Belinchon, Berlin Courtesy: the artist + Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin
When the photograph was published in the New York Times in 1993, it caused a wave of public outcry. Swathes of readers wrote into the New York Times asking what had happened to the girl, and why Carter had photographed her instead of helping her. The photograph went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, but the incessant public criticism of Carter led to his mental breakdown and subsequent suicide. Jaar uses the photograph of the girl to tell Carter’s story in a sequence of austere, dramatically posed images that are more like a slideshow than a film.
The still, slowly paced slides are interspersed with the foreboding words: Kevin. Kevin Carter repeated between stark images of his tragic story. It is a work which unashamedly tugs at the heartstrings. My only criticism is that at times, I was left feeling like I was coerced into a strong, albeit necessary, emotional response.
 Alfredo Jaar, The Sound of Silence, (2006). Photo: Sergio Belinchon, Berlin Courtesy: the artist + Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin
Alfredo Jaar, The Sound of Silence, (2006). Photo: Sergio Belinchon, Berlin Courtesy: the artist + Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin

HITOSHI NOMURA/ McCaffrey Fine Art:

A Japanese experimental artist who is more subversive with his approach to art practice than the subject matter he explores. Nomura’s work plays with creative rules and processes of the sculptural medium, being one of the first artists to consciously experiment with the meaning of sculpture. He pioneered the use of photography in the 1960s and 70s to document his ephemeral and process orientated artworks.
 Hitoshi Normura, Dry Ice
Hitoshi Normura, Dry Ice
Nomura turned away from working with solid objects and began experimenting with immaterial substances, investigating the properties of matter and the cycles of time and the universe. 

His first significant work, Tardiology, was the result of a mistake. In 1968, while a student in art school, he made eight transparent capsules, and due to the difficulty of constructing them, did not want to destroy the works following the exhibition. For this reason, he decided to store the capsules in cardboard boxes beneath the eaves of his apartment.
Left over time, exposed to wind and rain, the cardboard boxes began to collapse with the capsules inside. 

At first, Nomura was troubled by this unfortunate occurrence, but then decided to transform the collapsing work into something positive. The sagging cardboard form prompted him to question accepted methods of constructing sculpture, and hence Tardiology was conceived. 

The response of his teachers to work was “Whoa, isn’t it dangerous?”, and indeed the unorthodox, collapsing form wasn’t really suitable for an art exhibition.
 Hitoshi Normura, Turning the Arm
Hitoshi Normura, Turning the Arm
According to his tutors, sculptures were supposed to stand firm. “But there’s another way,” said Nomura. He wanted his work to be ephemeral and to change overtime, working with natural entropy rather than dominating the environment it was placed in. 

In this display, McCaffrey Fine Art Gallery, who also represent Andy Warhol, William Scott and Noriyuki Haraguchi, curated a meticulous show which brought together a range of Nomura’s prolific output.
The Edward Nahem Tyler gallery’s booth was filled with a large collection of works by Roy Lichtenstein, coinciding with the Tate’s exhibition of his paintings this spring. Along with Warhol, Lichtenstein is one the most significant pop artists to have emerged from America, his practice expanding on the pop art vocabulary established by Rauchsenberg and Jasper Johns. His rise to prominence began with works like Look Mickey (1961), which was his first large-scale use of hard-edged figures and Ben-day dots. The piece allegedly came out of a challenge posed by his son, who showed Lichtenstein a Mickey Mouse comic book and challenged him,“I bet you can’t paint as good as that, eh, Dad?”
 Lichtenstein, Imperfect Painting (1986)
Lichtenstein, Imperfect Painting (1986)

Lichtenstein’s work is a parody of social and popular culture through using its own mechanisms, such as comic books and print culture.  He paints as if his images were printed from the commercial press. 

The highlight of the exhibition was his Imperfect Painting. This monumental work, which took up the space of an entire booth wall, was a playful variation on his Perfect Paintings.
In Perfect Painting, Lichtenstein constructed an abstract design by drawing a line and following it along the canvas, and eventually returning to the starting point. The demarcated spaces were filled in with flat colour and dots. The Imperfect Paintings expanded on this same method, but the line went out beyond the rectangle with an attached triangular protuberance at the top of the frame. Through this intended artistic “mistake”, the artwork extends into the space of the viewer. It is a striking piece, which leaves a powerful impression that skilfully balances the abrasive geometry of the piece to create an entertaining visual spectacle of racing lines and textured surfaces.
ROBERT LONGO/ Galerie Hans Mayer, Dusseldorf:

An artist who doesn’t cease to astonish. He creates works of sublime photo-realism, full of meticulous detail and silky finesse. At first, they appear like photographs, capturing monumental church interiors, immense ocean waves, exploding Russian nuclear bombs, gaping shark mouths. But look closer and you realise his work is executed entirely in charcoal. This year, Dusseldorf’s Galerie Hans Meyer and Metro Pictures, NY brought along his work to the fair.
 Robert Longo, Low
Robert Longo, Low
The Hans Mayer had a colossal work of his, a huge burnt American flag which started its life as a carved piece of wood, which Longo then burnt and the black ashen remains encased in wax. 

His work is displayed in the permanent collections of the Albertina in Austria, the Tate, the Saatchi Gallery, New York’s MOMA and Guggenheim, as well as the centre Pompidou in Paris.
Robert Longo, Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Robert Longo, Say Goodbye to Hollywood

The best of Basel – Glass Top 10 Highlights (in no particular order):
1. Johan Grimonprez – The Shadow World (Sean Kelly Gallery)

2. Alfredo Jaar – The Sound of Silence  (Goodman Gallery)
3. Hitoshi Nomura (McCaffrey Fine Art)
4. Lichtenstein (Edward Tyler Nahem)
5. Robert Longo (Galerie Hans Mayer)

6. Robert Motherwell (Bernard Jacobson Gallery)

7. Terry Fox (Galerie Lohrl)

8. Egon Schiele (Richard Nagy Gallery)

9. Kicken Gallery, Berlin

10. Walter Niedermayr, Nordenhanke Gallery (Berlin)
by Diana Kurakina