Why Art Basel trumped the Biennials this year

By reinstating the art object as art, Basel saves the disappointing super art summer of 2017

Art Basel was as ever executed with Swiss precision and grandeur: 291 galleries, 76 large scale works in the Unlimited sector and 22 locations downtown as part of the Parcours.

Coming at the end of an exhausting art summer, with the triple whammy of the Venice Biennial, documenta and the sculpture projects in Münster, Basel was the last stop of the tour. Perhaps inevitably, the halls were permeated with an end-of-term elation: the sun shone, the Ruinart flowed, and this was art that was recognisably art. At the press conference, director Marc Spiegler proclaimed this edition to be “political” – perhaps in a nod to the biennial madness. But the “political” extended to a few presentations in Unlimited: Mickalene Thomas’ video installation ruminating on the presentation of black women celebrities in the media, and Gabriel Kuri’s installation “Shelter” – an assemblage of found objects linked to housing and economics of home.

Mickalene Thomas
Mickalene Thomas “Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers)”, 2016
Gabriel Kuri "Shelter", 2011
Gabriel Kuri “Shelter”, 2011

As documenta is guilty of instrumentalising art as footnote to a lengthy argument about identitarian politics and 1980s postcolonial discourse, it fell, paradoxically, to Basel to reinstate the art object as art. Art fairs are usually charged with reducing art to economics, but it certainly felt like here the art was celebrated for its own ends. In a discussion hosted by Davidoff and BMW, Chinese artist Yan Xing lambasted the “exoticisation” of Chinese art, why, he asked rhetorically, do curators and writers feel the need to categorise art by nationality in the 21st Century? A question that perhaps documenta curator Adam Szcymczyk should have asked himself.

One trends most clearly in evidence was the video installation: it is no longer sufficient to project a high-res three-channel piece, but an environment needs to be specially created. See here again, Mickalene Thomas, John Akomfrah, but also, over in the Statements section, Cecile B. Evans’ installation at Emmanuel Layr gallery. Evans’ work required the viewer to clamber up a reproduction of a Brutalist tower block and to sit in a room to view a video on a screen behind. The piece had an unsettling, claustrophobic effect, particularly given the fire in London that had occurred that night. Stan VanDerBeek’s 1968 piece was a particular highlight, uniting slide projectors with film that still feels remarkably contemporary.

Interactive art was also very much in evidence. Subodh Gupta was serving collectors lunch in his house of second hand Indian metal cookware; Song Dong installed a house of lights and mirrors for visitors to enter; and generally there were many large scale pieces, including a fun fair with coconut shoes outside by Swiss artist Claudia Comte, curated by d(OCUMENTA13) co-curator Chus Martínez.

Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg

Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg
Passing Comfort, 2016
Courtesy: the artists; Giò Marconi, Milan Photography: Dawn Blackman
John Akomfrah
John Akomfrah “The Airport”, 2016

In town, the Parcours section had taken over the minster, a school, the natural history and a swimming pool among many sites. Ai Wei Wei’s tree on the Münsterplatz was exemplarily aligned to its environment – a first for the piece. Sleek had fun exploring up and down old staircases, peeking into gardens, finding forgotten rooms. A particular highlight was Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s installation in an old gymnasium of stop-motion videos and their associated characters: it was a bizarre assemblage of My Little Ponies, giraffes, elephants and, well, turds, performing sex acts on one-another. Essentially, a Skulpturprojekte in small, slightly lacking the gravitas of Kaspar König’s larger version.

In the main fair, there were many newer positions, particularly from Chinese galleries: Antenna Space had brought Guan Xiao to the Statements section, and Magician Space a Wang Shang installation. Elsewhere, a large-scale Laure Prouvost at Carlier Gebauer demonstrated the artists deft touch and unique visual language. Esther Schipper had brought a Tino Sehgal piece: two children enacted Ann Lee, the character from Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s piece “No Ghost Just A Shell” and her friend.

After a disappointing art summer with the notable exception of Sculpture Projects in Münster, and heavy-handed curation, it was a delight to see the actual art pieces and the artists’ intentions and voices on display on such a large scale.

Five of the Best Photography Films Ever Made