Can climate change, sexism or racism become art? Art Basel faces the challenges of the 21st century | Culture

In the best cases, art acts as a time machine: through the eyes of the painters and sculptors who came before us, we can transport ourselves to the past, learn about history. And, in its radically contemporary version, the shapes and images show the ability to predict which will be the themes that will define the course of upcoming events. With 289 galleries from 40 countries spread over a two-story building, the world’s largest contemporary art fair, the Swiss Art Basel (which opened this Tuesday, June 14 in Basel for collectors and the press) opens this Wednesday and It will remain open to the general public between Thursday the 16th and Sunday the 19th. An appointment that seems to condense both facets, each one of them separated by the limbo of some escalators.

On the first floor, where the most consolidated and influential galleries on the planet are grouped (among which this year are the Spanish Juana de Aizpuru, Elvira González and Elba Benítez), the wooden divisions of the exhibitors have little to envy the walls of any modern art museum, full of works signed by the most famous artists in the history of 20th century art: Basquiat, Miró, Warhol, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Picasso, Balthus, Matisse, De Kooning, Dubuffet, Bacon, Giacometti… On the second floor, dedicated to younger, fresher and, above all, innovative projects, the space is more open in every way and the air of today runs through the corridors, that state of affairs loaded with challenges such as the climate crisis, racism, sexism, war or, even more seriously, the very survival of our species.

Artwork by artist Joachim Koester titled ‘Cocaine #2’, from 2019.elba benitez gallery

Overflowing is a word that seems appropriate to define the atmosphere that reigns in the main sector of the fair, in the lower part, not only because of the overwhelming number of visitors (much greater than on the top floor), but perhaps, above all , due to the size of the exhibited works, which in many cases occupy all the space available to each gallery. It seems clear that in this spiral of chaos called the world, people are looking for certainties to cling to and that, in the field of art collecting, means large-format works by established creators. The bet is so fixed that on occasions the same name is repeated, with similar pieces, in different booths: the smiling portraits of Alex Katz (whose retrospective has just opened at the Thyssen), the copper floors of Carl André (who has the Elvira González gallery and also the American Mnuchin), the dizzying mirrors by Anish Kapoor (which are exhibited in at least three stalls)…

Along with paintings, paintings and more paintings —abstract and figurative in equal parts, each one wider and taller, some only suitable for their size to be placed in museums or palaces—, from time to time among exhibitors in this sector a photo, a collage lost, very few facilities. There is more room for sculptures in what is clearly a display that is as conservative as it is overwhelming due to its quality and flashiness. Some are pieces as iconic as the chandelier by Louise Bourgeois, motherwhose pointed legs had scratched the ground and covered the groups chatting animatedly like an umbrella in the booth of Hauser and Wirth, a multi-venue gallery that celebrates its 30th anniversary by putting it up for sale for 40 million dollars (38.2 million euros). ) this classic piece, which haunts the streets of various cities around the world, including Bilbao.

Mark Spiegler, the show’s global director—which has franchises in Hong Kong, Miami Beach and a new Paris location opening in October; hence the redundancy of calling this event Art Basel in Basel—recognizes that painting is a genre that always “sells faster”. “Although I trust that all formats will have good results”, he pointed out in the presentation of the fair, consolidating the strikingly optimistic vision of the report that Art Basel produces annually together with its sponsor UBS, The Art Marketa document usually cited by the media that, in its latest installment, provides data such as a 29% increase in sales figures for 2021, up to 62,000 million euros, after a decade of recession that ended in 2020.

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After the canceled edition of 2020 and the postponed one (from June to September) of 2021, Spiegler celebrated that “it is now that the art world returns with all its force”. Little trace remains of the effects of the pandemic beyond the online sales rooms, which remain as a support for face-to-face sales. “We have returned to normal,” certified the director, “but not optimally for other reasons, especially the brutal Russian invasion, which has returned the war to Europe.” Among several displays of “solidarity” with Ukraine, Art Basel has sponsored a concert by the Russian group Pussy Riot, “one of the most critical voices of the Putin regime”, scheduled for this Wednesday, and no one from Russia has been vetoed because, in the director’s words, “we shouldn’t judge people by their passport”. In any case, there are no pro-Putin artists on the program and Russian galleries and collectors have long since fallen out of the fair’s orbit, so they haven’t faced any dilemmas either. “We never invite collectors who may receive sanctions,” Spiegler explained.

View of the Carlier Gebauer gallery stand.
View of the Carlier Gebauer gallery stand.artbasel

After a time focused on the greater representation of women, this year it is the turn of the countries of the global south to enter the field of play. “The art world has become more permeable to perspectives that have been marginalized for a long time, both in cultural and market terms,” said Spiegler, noting that galleries from Senegal, Angola and Saudi Arabia are participating for the first time. Although there is some African space on the first floor, it is on the second floor where the diversity of origins to which the fair claims to aspire can be seen more clearly, with some interesting spaces, such as the Guatemalan Ultraviolet Projects, the Indian Chemould Prescott Road and Kosovar LambdaLambdaLambda. As the last representative of the increasingly scarce Spanish presence in Basel (from nine galleries in 2019 it went to six in 2021 and four this year) is the Travesía Cuatro gallery, with works by Mateo López, Sara Ramo and Ana Prata.

What happened to the NFTs? Art Basel collaborates with Tezos, a platform that provides the infrastructure to mint them. The company, which presents several talks around this technology, has a booth where visitors can create them. According to the report the art market, NFT sales grew from 4.4 million euros in 2020 to 10.6 million in 2021, and although only 6% of dealers sold them, 74% of large collectors acquired them. In other words, the omens are good. Spiegler himself predicted in a recent interview with this newspaper that the future will be digital, a prophecy that has been hovering over the cultural sector for years and that, although it has partially come true in music, cinema, books and also in art , has never finished dealing a final blow to tangible reality. Based on what was seen in Basel, collectors are still looking to acquire physical works to hang. Not only that: they also want them enormously large.

The piece 'Take Me To Another World' (2021), by the Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson, on the stand of the London gallery Hollybush Gardens.
The piece ‘Take Me To Another World’ (2021), by the Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson, on the stand of the London gallery Hollybush Gardens.

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