BASEL, Switzerland — The opening of Art Basel earlier this week wasn’t anything you wouldn’t expect at the Swiss fair: The world’s wealthiest were queuing at the entrance, half-forcing their way in by pushing and jumping, in the same way that people run into Walmart on Boxing Day. In that sense Art Basel is a unique place — where else would you see the art collector Jose Mugrabi sitting in an open-air courtyard sipping coffee from a paper cup after standing in line for half an hour to get it?
As far as the art is concerned, the surprises aren’t too many. The art is more aesthetically pleasing and less flashy, and, in a way, more beautiful than it was a year ago, and certainly better than what you see at most fairs, but still none of it is particularly provocative or exciting.
I would suggest starting with the Statements section on the second floor, where young galleries introduce new artists to the big, fat market. Though this section is small, and it feels a bit lost. Middle Eastern galleries are the true discovery this year: At the London gallery Carroll Fletcher’s booth, Palestinian artist duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou Rahme are showing a video, part of their new project And Yet My Mask is Powerful (2016), which takes the poetry of Adrienne Rich as the starting point of a script that addresses the apocalyptic imaginary of our times and transforms it into a social condition. Tunisian gallery Selma Feriani presented Algerian artist Massinissa Selmani with a number of simple but haunting works on paper, including the drawing series Potential Memories (2016) based on the format of an animated short film, creating a strange effect that combines the cinematic and painterly with the discreet and intimate qualities of drawing. At Dubai’s Grey Noise, Lantian Xie, a Dubai-born artist interested in the relationship of cosmopolitism and cultural belonging, showcased the project 2020–2046, a series of images, objects, and sounds titled after and reflecting on Dubai’s upcoming World Expo, and a science fiction film about near-future Hong Kong.
It’s interesting to think about the role ‘new’ artists play at a place like Art Basel: These artists might still be young, but they are definitely not new. Exhibiting in biennials, galleries, and institutions, they are well known in their home regions, now aspiring to expand into the mainstream of the art world and receive attention from American and European curators.
The whole second floor is where the younger galleries are, as well as some of the established ones that are neither rich nor famous enough to be on the first floor. Statement reveals one of the structural weaknesses of the fair: Very few galleries have succeeded in going from Statements to the main fair, and most drop after one year. Grey Noise, for example, is going to Statements for the second consecutive year, after exhibiting Caline Aoun last year, but can galleries always have artists who are both young and successful to showcase every year?
For the most part, the second floor is dominated by mid-size galleries from New York and major European cities, exhibiting a lot of contemporary art pregnant with irony and self-criticism: None of those assertive grand narratives about social media, post-Internet, digital, crass, tech. Everything seems safe and solid, even though the world is not. There’s a lot of painting, but nothing in particular stands out; the trend isn’t zombie abstraction but it’s not photorealism either. In fact, the kind of painting on this floor you see is hardly contemporary: The Korean painting style Dansaekhwa is still around, with Blum & Poe showing a Lee Ufan from 1980 and a Lee Ufan-ish Ha Chong-hyun from 2009, while the Koran gallery PKM is dedicated to Yun Hyong-keun, showing works from 1970s and 1980s that are now very pricey. Downstairs, on Art Basel’s main floor, the work falls within a similar category only with a much higher standard: The real stars are Schiele, Klimt, Basquiat, Turrell, while Kusama or Murakami; the gimmicky and extravagant art of earlier years appealing to the new tech and finance elites is almost completely absent.
There are, however, works that are well worth seeing in the second floor’s main section. Australian painter Helen Johnson, showing in Statements with the Scottish gallery Mary Mary, creates a different face for contemporary figurative painting with canvases that hang freely and without frames, telling critically a story of colonialism in Australia through subtle metaphors, while Angolan artist Yonamine has an unpretentious display at Christina Guerra that engages in a conversation with street art from the last decades. Tanya Bonakdar brought from New York a work by Lisa Oppenheim — whose first, and wonderful, solo opened just a few months back — of her signature silver gelatin photograms that appear so fluid and almost moving until you realize upon closer inspection the images are printed on wood. A glorious architectural painting by David Schnell, presented by the German gallery EIGEN + ART has a more intense palette than usual. And the one artist really not to miss is Cypriot Christodoulos Panayiotou, at London’s Rodeo (formerly based in Istanbul), whose work connects looting, Greek heritage ,and the founding of the Met.
Truly bad work is rare; though most of the work you see you don’t really see: You simply keep on walking. Exceptionally boring is, for example, the work of Walead Beshty, a sculpture made out of an iBook (also hanging in Manifesta), or Oscar Murillo whose work moved from the first to the second floor, to one of the most mediocre booths in an ocean of average stuff. But it wouldn’t be fair to say this or that booth is weak, though almost nothing is very interesting. Of course, there is incredible art on the first floor, but not too much to discover; it’s like bumping into old friends while walking into a major museum.
If you look at the numbers (around 90,000 visitors in 2015), Art Basel is a success. But numbers, of course, are only half the truth, and don’t really tell the whole story of an art fair like this, where people are coming for more than selling — they want to join the big club of the art world.
The author was invited to speak on a panel at Art Basel which helped cover his expenses to attend the event.
Art Basel (Messeplatz 10, 4058 Basel, Switzerland) continues through Sunday, June 19.