Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Art 40 Basel

Two weeks ago, Valerie and I flew back from Basel, Switzerland where we spent twelve days at the Art Basel fair, where Crown Point had a booth. Crown Point Press has participated in fair for the past seven consecutive years; we had a booth there previously, during the late ‘70s, when the fair was a more modest event. Now Art Basel is one of the preeminent art fairs and the oldest one. This year there were 300 galleries showing 2,000 artists, and 65,000 visitors came over a five-day period.

This year most gallerists were not sure what to expect because of the downturn in the world’s economies, and so the positive headlines after the first day of the fair (in The Art Newspaper) were a relief to many-the general take from gallerists was that though there was not the same sort of buying as in previous years, the market was not completely depressed. We noticed after walking through the fair that many galleries had brought work by their tried and true artists, there was not much experimentation with installations, and most booths were very elegant and low key. Per usual there were many European collectors and visitors to the fair though noticeably not very many Americans, at least this was our estimation based on those who visited our booth.

Valerie Wade, Crown Point’s gallery director, designed a beautiful booth this year-the configuration of walls and entry ways made the booth feel open and airy. We debuted new prints by Chris Ofili, Mamma Andersson and Susan Middleton, and we hung some early prints by Sol LeWitt, Barry LeVa, Jannis Kounellis, and Robert Ryman all together on one wall. Vito Acconci’s 20 Foot Ladder for Any Size Wall, 1979-81 climbed a central pillar in the booth, inviting passers by to stop in, curious to see perhaps where the ladder led. (The print is a photoetching of an aluminum ladder, and is comprised of eight sheets, each sheet individually framed and the whole piece hung vertically.) Included also in the booth, among others, were prints by Mary Heilmann, Edgar Bryan, Julie Mehretu, and Jockum Nordström.

During the five-day long fair, the Art Basel organizers host special evenings for collectors and exhibitors. A highlight this year was the theatre production Il Tempo del Postino, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno. The curators's intention was to present a group show of work by artists that would occupy time rather than space and they wanted to bring the exhibit to the viewer, rather than the usual, where the viewer goes to the exhibit. Artists were invited to each create a work that was time-based, and each work was displayed sequentially onstage. The piece debuted in 2007 in Manchester, England. The artists who contributed to the production were Anri Sala, Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, Tacita Dean, Trisha Donnelly, Olafur Eliasson, Liam Gilick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordan, Carsten Holler, Pierre Huyghe, Koo Jeong-A, Philippe Parreno, Tino Sehgal, and Rirkrit Tiravanija with Arto Lindsay. The production in Basel was directed by Obrist, Parreno, Anri Sala and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

In Basel the production was presented for two nights, and Valerie and I went the second night. We were admittedly tired from a long day at the booth, and we had rushed over earlier in the evening to the Kunstmuseum to see the Van Gogh show, which we unfortunately had to rush through. At the front entrance to the theatre, I wondered whether I could manage a 2-1/2 hour production. When we got our seats, a greater measure of insecurity and panic set in, because though we had wonderful seats, they were dead center in a row of chairs that stretched without an opening to either side of us for what seemed a quarter of a mile in each direction. There was no escape! We were committed to the entire evening. I scanned the playbill and noticed there would be an intermission. I breathed a sigh of relief and settled. I cannot possibly explain each piece in this blog though though I will share with you a few of my favorites. Tacita Dean’s film was titled Merce Cunningham, First Performance of Stillness (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’ 33"- with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007. In the movie, we see Merce Cunningham sitting in a chair in a dance studio that is empty. His back is to the long wall mirror and in the reflection we see the camera man, Trevor Carlson. The only sound we hear are the ambient ones in the dance studio: the city street noises coming through the windows, the faint piano from another dance studio. Cunningham sits quietly, not moving except for three different moments, when he shifts his weight in his chair. The film was very moving and intimate, and I felt that really in essence it was a love story.

Carsten Holler made a very funny movie called Upside Down People. He had found an old film from the ‘30s of an experiment where a man wore a device over his eyes that made him see the world upside down; he lived for two weeks with the upside down world, and the documentary followed his progress at adaptability. Holler edited in his own film, of contemporary young (Swiss?) people wearing new devices, and their management of their upside down world contrasted with the older film. (There was not much difference between the two, so I didn’t see much of a point of the newer film.) There were very funny moments of physical comedy, though it stopped there for me. Pierre Huyghe’s piece, Hola Zombies, was presented in three acts, interspersed throughout the entire evening’s production. Two characters were on stage, one a tall Snufalufagus-type creature, with long, yellow hair, and the other was a rat-like creature. The stage was dark, and the rat-like creature and the yellow fellow sat around a small cake with one candle in it. The rat-like creature sang happy birthday and blew out the candle, though the candle kept relighting and the creature would sing the song again. After about three times, he gave up, and both creatures fell over and that was it. The other two parts of the piece were similar, a dark stage, and the two creatures, though the large yellow creature died in the final act, and the rat-like creature cried by its side with a bouquet of white flowers. Initially I wasn’t sure if I liked looking at the creatures, and it all seemed creepy but then they became familiar and the end was comical though also tragic since it too was a love story.

I also liked Rirkrit Tiravanija’s piece with Arto Lindsay; the former prepared a dinner onstage while the dinner guests sat at a long table, talking quietly, and Arto Lindsay played loud and cacophonic though strangely melodic electric guitar. I did like the guitar though it was a little abrasive, and it seemed to all make sense--to have music drown out the dinner guests conversations; the music acted like a mask, distorting the evening while simultaneously making the dinner party and its conceit mundane in contrast. (Tiravanija’s preparation and presentation of the food was secondary to the guitar piece.)

Doug Aitken’s piece, The Handle Comes Up the Hammer Comes Down was a big hit, with me and with the audience. There were about eight Mid-Western animal auctioneers in the audience, and they alternately and then simultaneously called out numbers, and eventually the calling out became a song, and the rhythm of their voices crescendoed and reverberated throughout the theatre space. That piece of course was very tongue in cheek. I could mention a few other pieces that I enjoyed very much though this blog very well might never end. I will not take the opportunity to say which ones I didn’t like suffice it to say two were by very Big Name Artists, and neither of their pieces were particularly interesting. At intermission we drank Moet Chandon champagne out of small bottles with funny plastic things attached to the mouth of the bottle so no one needed a glass. It was a funny sight, to see very well-heeled art people drinking out of bottles. After the performance, I walked back to my hotel, following the tram line, passing blooming roses and ancient homes. It was an evening well worth spent.

The next few days in Basel we busily spent at the booth. There were many new people we met at the fair, and great interest in the prints that we showed. On our last day, after packing up the booth, Val and I walked along the Rhine to find a restaurant a fellow exhibitor had told us about. As we walked, we finally saw how swimming in the Rhine was accomplished. Since the river flows so quickly, it is not possible to swim upstream but only to float downstream. Along the bank was a low sloping brick bank, and on it chains. It seemed that this was a spot for getting out of the river, where you would drift to the bank, and grab the chain and pull yourself out of the current. There were a couple of small beaches were one could easily walk into the water; some swimmers had their clothing in water-tight bags that floated alongside them. It looked wonderful to be in the water. The day was nearing its end, the air was still balmy and a few thunderclouds loomed dark east of us. Val and I pledged that the next time we were in Basel, we would make sure to swim in the Rhine. In order to get to our restaurant (Veronica it is called) we took a ferry across the Rhine, and the ferry was in fact a small boat with a wire attached to another wire that stretched across the river. The ferryman charged us 1 franc each, and we sat down and drifted across. It was lovely, quiet and perfect. (There was one other passenger.) Our restaurant had dining outside only, with a roof over our heads and no walls. The place jutted out over the Rhine, the whole edifice was a giant deck, with steps leading down to the water. At Veronica you could eat, drink beer, and rent out lockers to stow your stuff while swimming! There were even showers. As we ate the thunder clouds burst above us and the rained poured down, sheets of it falling into the Rhine all around us. The rain stopped just as we were leaving, and we waited for the tram across from a magnificently green park. Basel the city is an idyll, and the fair is an exciting, invigorating experience, one that is hard to forget.
-Sasha Baguskas