With collectors, gallerists, advisors and journalists converging in their masses on sunny Switzerland, the opening of Art Basel fair saw both the champagne flow and business boom. Many blue-chip galleries reported that the first hours of the preview were their most successful, and following the record-breaking $110.5 million sale at Sotheby’s in New York of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s untitled work, exhibitors at Art Basel hedged their bets on the back of the phenomenon. Richard Gray Gallery showed Untitled (Solanumum), 1984, and Acquavella Galleries quickly sold Three Delegates, (1982), with asking prices of $14 million and $18 million respectively. Van De Weghe Fine Art offered three Basquiat’s, two of them from 1982, the artist’s most sought after year, worth a cool $15 million combined.
With the numbers as impressive as these, it is a testimony to the quality of the fair that, in practice, it is the works themselves that are the real talking point. Some highlights for visitors wanting a piece of Basel to take home could be found at the Von Bartha booth: a curiously robotic floor sculpture and a small, geometric hung work in relief by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely that reference the landmark mechanical fountains installed near the Kunsthalle Basel. Marlborough Fine Art exhibited the peacefully grotesque Lying Figure, 1961, by Francis Bacon alongside textured, earthily abstracted pieces by Auerbach and Kossoff.
Whilst art traditionalists – those wanting to hang canvas and worship sculpture – can be satisfied in abundance within the labyrinthine booths in the two main halls of the fair, while the most intriguing and thought-provoking pieces take their form in videos and performances as part of Art Basel Unlimited.
Amongst the seventy-six unconventional, large-scale projects and performances on display, two of the most poignant pieces were huge, powerful video works. Doug Aitken’s Underwater Pavilions, 2017, documents the installation of three geometric, mirrored, cage-like sculptures on the ocean floor off Catalina Island, California. Set to intense pulsing, bubbling sounds, the three-screen video fully immerses the viewer, chronicling the artworks from installation to their aquatic encounters, tuning the audience in to the rhythm of the ocean.
In one sequence, a seal floats eerily still in the entrance to the sculpture, reflected within its many surfaces. In another, a shoal of fish dart in and around the pavilion in flux formation, the movements amplified across the width of the three screens. Merging architecture, art and sympathetic human intervention with nature, Aitken’s installation offers a searingly beautiful immersion into the ocean’s heart, connecting the viewer to the depth of our planet.
Unlimited by name, Arthur Jafa’s contribution to the Unlimited sector demanded and incited, namely, emotional depth – stimulated by association and limited only by imagination. Upon entering passing through the anonymous curtained doorway, the dark is pierced repetitively by a racing, electronic, apocalyptic soundtrack.
At the far end of the vast, impenetrable space, hundreds of images flash urgently in a dense sequence: weapons, soul singers, black panthers, Christ in thorns, the devil, film stills, Tupac, Rihanna, biological particles, solar flares, cut brains, byzantine sculptures. Titled Apex, the eight-minute film offers an abstract narrative that is part image surge and part coded emotional response. Without time to properly digest each image, Jafa’s interest in the ‘abject sublime’ and the contingent nature of being black is translated into a limitless concept, growing exponentially within the first few seconds and provoking an intense fascination mingled with humanistic regret and sadness that renders the viewer incapable of looking away.
By Holland Drury
Art Basel 2017, June 15-18, Messe Basel, Switzerland.