Apart from being completely immersed in rain, Basle is also being immersed in art this week. Perhaps the greatest benefit of Art Basel, which transforms the city on the borders of Switzerland, France and Germany into a huge art festival, is the Art Trail. In recent years, the show has spilled into the streets of the city on the Rhine, bringing art into the public domain, to institutions and private buildings, and making it accessible to the average mortal at no cost. Between two bridges, the Wettsteinbrücke and Mittlerer Brücke,19 projects wind their way through Basle’s Old Town, which in fair weather makes for a pleasant stroll. This year, one can only hope that the weather will switch from April showers to June sunshine at least over the weekend. After all, the Night Trail on Saturday evening is being complemented by six additional performances – and if it rains, only the hardy will dig out their sou’westers and defy the downpours.
On the opening day of Art Basel, the audience is happy not to leave the exhibition hall unless absolutely necessary. Even the Professional Preview on the Tuesday morning was an unusual sight: hundreds of umbrellas lined up politely and stoically in a long queue that stretched the entire length of the square. Huddled beneath them were many owners of nine and ten-digit fortunes who, no doubt, are unaccustomed to being left out in the rain. In this respect, at least, Art Basle could be described as a great leveller.
The length of the queue was due only in part to the customary rush on the largest art fair in the world. The flow of admissions was interrupted this year by the introduction of strict security checks. Until now, the Swiss have taken a very relaxed approach to the annual gathering of the rich and superrich. All this has changed. Now, every bag is screened and anything measuring more than 30cm x 30cm has to be checked in. The heightened fear of terrorist attacks is making itself known in other ways as many Americans stay away from Europe. This is certainly not the first art fair to experience this trend.
In Basle this actually had a positive side to it as well. Even during the busiest first two hours after the gates opened, the staff at almost all the stands had time to talk to visitors about the exhibits at length. However, what may be pleasant for the visitors, is proving something of a challenge for the exhibitors. Compared to just a few years ago, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find buyers for their expensive art. To counter this dip in demand, the majority of galleries are pulling out all the stops, with more large-format works on show than usual. It does not necessarily have to be an “Abstract” by Gerhard Richter fetching US$ 18m for the Gagosian Galleries (New York, London, Hong Kong etc.). The lower price bracket should also do the trick. And yet, even the large-scale carpet painting by Mark Flood, who has recently made waves in the art world, still has to find a buyer who is prepared to pay London art gallery Stuart Shave/Modern Art US$ 80,000. Based in Berlin and Leipzig, Eigen + Art’s recipe for success is to focus on the tried-and-trusted and package it in a sophisticated presentation. Subwoofers lowered into the floor of the booth not only send vibrations through the water-filled glass vessels by Cartsen Nicolai but also the beholder. Created in 1999, this work has not been displayed for many years and is just one of many examples of how galleries are having to show their best wares in what can only be described as a slowing market.
On the other hand, the absence is being felt of artists’ names who in recent years have been fetching the highest prices, be it Takeshi Muarakami with his Manga sculptures, Richard Prince with his garish paintings of nurses or classics such as Andy Warhol.
This year’s Art Unlimited has certainly raised the quality bar. This platform gives galleries the opportunity to present large-scale projects that any other fair and the majority of galleries would struggle to accommodate. Ai WeiWei, whose recent work has come under criticism, has had the frame of a house dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and covering a floor area of 80 square metres, erected in the hall; the stays appear to be precariously balanced on large glass spheres. A whole host of more or less obviously political works can be both seen and heard. Samson Young from Hong Kong has his visitors shot by uniformed soldiers and noise canons, usually used in Riot Control, but loaded here with birdsong.
Art Basel is as successful and stimulating as “die Liste”, now in its 20th year, is disappointing. Starting out as the “Young Art Fair”, it appears to have ossified in its eternal youth. The rough charm of the convoluted industrial building has dissipated, appearing out of joint, also in terms of the prices being asked there. The Cutting Edge segment with its allegedly young art appears to be driven by fear in a current market climate plagued by uncertainty. The presentations often exude caution and tedium.
The Volta has done a better job of living up to its own expectations. Since moving to the old Market Hall by the main railway station, the fair, which had been consigned to the cemetery, has actually gone from strength to strength. The sister event to the New York Armory Show masterfully treats its target audience of middle class collectors to a range of art from the 1960s to the present day. Given that there is no pressure to reiterate past instalments of the art discourse, the atmosphere filling the beautifully domed hall is pleasantly relaxed. What’s more: this fair sells the best coffee of all the Art Fairs in Basle.
The best location of all the Basle satellites has, without doubt, been clinched by “I never read”. In the former Basel am Rhein barracks, just a ten-minute walk from the main fair, the artist book fair invites visitors not only to browse but also to relax in the park-like forecourt – should it ever stop raining, of course!