I arrived in Basel five days before the opening of the June 2017 edition of Art Basel, the world’s most prestigious art fair, and witnessed the smooth unfolding of the ultimate art fair; a sleek, sophisticated operation with nary a hint of visible hysteria.
Even the trucks that lined up under the metal façade of the fair building to disgorge the pick of the world’s art for the collectors who would soon be flocking to the VIP preview were immaculately painted. So super shiny and industrially stylish that they looked as if they should drive right into the vast spaces of Basel Unlimited and park next to Peter Stampfli’s Royal.
I was there to install a new work, Messages from the Atlantic Passage. On that first day, the thought of all the work that had to be done was daunting. Five vast shipping nets had to be filled with glass bottles (more than 2000) and scissor-lifted to the right height without any breakages. Pumps had to be installed and made to work so water would fall through the work even though the South African suppliers had sent the wrong size plastic tubing.
But I did not need to worry. Installation team Vince, Pascale, and Leo, working with brio and Swiss efficiency, had the whole work up and operational in two days.
On the day of the VIP preview, there was an artist’s breakfast in the morning – over 4000 artists are represented at Art Basel and Unlimited, and those who have made the trip throng the long trestle tables, renewing old acquaintances and networking busily with new ones.
The perspicacious curator of Basel Unlimited is New York based Gianni Jetzer, the Hirschhorn Museum’s curator at large. Projects for Unlimited are selected from proposals submitted by galleries from all over the world.
Cildo Mereiles is presenting Amerikkka – the triple kkk referencing the Ku Klux Klan. Viewers are invited to walk on a bed of white wooden eggs under the threatening overhang of a huge slab studded with sharp brass bullets.
Suspension was also a feature of Subodh Gupta’s Cooking the World.
Many hundreds of battered cooking utensils collected from the Indian sub-continent were suspended on individual strands to form the shape of a building which functioned as a restaurant. The importance of communality, and shared eating were underlined. Twice a day, guests seated at a long table inside were served a lentil dish. The meal was free – but reservations had to be made in advance, and like any hot new Manhattan restaurant, by the middle of the first morning, eager would-be patrons were told it was fully booked for the week.
Looking like a studio set for a high-end perfume, Ear Sofa, Nose Sconces with Flowers (in Stage Setting) was a wittily beautiful work by John Baldessari. An icy blonde in a Harlow-esque white satin lounged on a sinuous ear-shaped couch, playing with her hair, or occasionally petting a small white dog. The fragrant white lilies which protruded elegantly from the nostrils of the neo-classical looking sconces were changed every day.
Swiss artist Peter Regli, with his Reality Hacking no 33, raises his native country’s traditional skill of wood carving to monumental heights, with his lineup of five chain-sawed works embodying masculine values: three columns, a bear and a phallus.
My work, Messages from the Atlantic Passage, is sourced from shipping records of Africans who were forcibly removed from the countries of their birth and onto ships which crossed the Atlantic to the Americas as part of the colonial slave trade. The work consists of five ‘tanks’ representing five specific voyages. Each bottle is hand engraved with the name and details of one person on that voyage, an attempt at referring to what cultural theorist Achille Mbembe has described as ‘the archive of a crime which is not recognized as such’. A video of the work can be seen here.