Is that the art?

24 Jun 2010

Art|Basel Building

Wooden Art Structure

I was in Basel last week for the art fair where the issue of viewing conditions nipped at my heels like a poodle with a grudge. At certain points it was all one could think about, at others, contextual contradictions (between the works, the site and the situation) got lost amongst the warren-like infrastructure of the event.

For there is a certain amount of acceptance these days when it comes to the aims and constraints of art fair display: “It’s an art fair, what did you expect?” Yet, with so many long-established fairs (and Basel is the oldest of the bunch, edging into human middle-age at 41), the pressure is on for core directors and (even more so) invited parties, to provide a spectacle that is both entertaining and critically engaged; physically impressive yet not big for big’s sake (unless in the name of critique, see Art Basel favourite Paul McCarthy), despite the fact that many of the industrial or purpose-built spaces fairs occupy are massive enough to require ‘filling’. It’s a tough job.

Given the dominance of outdoor site-specific works at Tatton (and my current engagement with the Biennial project), I was particularly interested to see the public projects at Basel this year. The fair’s permanent location, however, is no beauty spot, urban or otherwise: several big industrial blocks and a hotel edging a plaza. The Messeplatz and tram-lined street just beyond is pretty much all the Art Public commissioners and curators have to play with in terms of site, which has essentially become a playground for people who are used to encountering art (in booths and on street corners).

The audience is generally art-aware and primed for an ambush, but the sense of play here was grounded by the everyday nature of the objects and contexts these scultptures and interventions brought to mind. Not to mention, the soul-dredging dealership greyness of the surroundings. Curator Martin Schwander’s theme,‘Permanence and Transience’, was wide enough to cover the gamut and certainly a sense of indecision or, in some cases, crisis appeared to connect very different concerns and practices. However, the inevitable spot-the-art configuration of things in a relatively small space, made one more aware of the limits of the project, perhaps, than the merits of individual works.

Thomas Houseago’s clumsy figure drawing in white patina-covered bronze was like a monument to the triumph of ideas over form, while Oscar Tuazon’s shed-like wooden skeleton (aptly titled ‘Dad’) appeared upright against the odds and possibly vulnerable to the elements and the passing traffic. For all its workaday fragility, Ai Weiwei’s grid of Ming-Dynasty floral-painted porcelain scaffolding units, seemed, by contrast, spatially and ideologically solid, a beautiful and reassuringly obvious bit of visual punctuation impervious to the house style.

Without the catalogue to hand, the jury (my travelling companions) remained out on whether Bettina Pousttchi’s giant grey tarpaulin printed with an image of the clock face opposite was part of an art or an advertising campaign. But, in actual fact, it was both: an allusion to the anomalies of event time and the end of something, in this case the Messe hall opposite, which is to be replaced with a Herzog and de Meuron creation next year.

It was, despite appearances, a rather risky strategy, in some sense like Ryan Gander’s broken monument: a generic and easily absorbed bit of (in this case corporate as opposed to garden) event architecture.

Metal fram art work

Posted by Rebecca Geldard at 4:20 PM